Wikipedia defines “assemblage” as “an artistic form or medium usually created on a defined substrate that consists of three-dimensional elements projecting out of, or from the substrate. Assemblage is similar to collage, a two-dimensional medium. It is part of the visual arts, and it typically uses found objects, though not limited to these materials. The origins of the art form,” in Western art, “dates to the cubist constructions of Pablo Picasso.”
The origin of the word (in its artistic sense) can be traced to the 1950s. “In the 1920s, Alexander Calder, Picasso and others began making fully 3-dimensional works from metal scraps, found metal objects and wire.”
Assemblage origins can also readily originate in numerous cultures that exemplify the methods when making ancestral altars, houses and offerings.
Day of the Dead Altar (Ofrenda), at Indianapolis Art Center 2008, Jody Kuchar. (Photo: Jody Kuchar)
Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, constructions can be associated with Memento Mori, or respect toward the inevitability of death.
According to Wikipedia: “In Europe, Asia, Oceanic, African and cultures of the Afro-diaspora, the goal of ancestor veneration is to ensure the ancestors’ continued well-being and positive disposition towards the living, and sometimes to ask for special favors or assistance. The social or non-religious function of ancestor veneration is to cultivate kinship values, such as respect and family loyalty.”
Assemblage art is, therefore, three-dimensional stories in artistic form created for individual purposes.
Each assemblage tells multiple stories There is the obvious story revealed in title and place of construction. There is the artists’ own story about the work. Finally, the viewer engages with the art to create another story.
Fine art assemblage often plays with shape and shadow while experimenting with light and movement, both kinetic or suggested; and placement, suggesting a natural arrangement of object.
Assemblage defines a thing through repetition of shape and object. This can include shape-shifting, changing the purpose of an object, and directing the eye to perspective points.
Often, assemblage art can be thought of as the ultimate recycling, reusing and reducing of materials for aesthetic purposes. This is the strength of the assemblage artist; to visualize and initiate new uses for old things.
To create successful assemblage art, the artist must have enormous ingenuity and a good supply of “stuff” as raw material. Sometimes pieces of a story are on hand, which is often the case when a family works on a Day of the Dead altar. What is used are objects that were a big part of the life of the deceased. Added to what’s at hand are traditional items, such as marigolds, candles or candies. Artists create a piece that tells a story out of used objects; a difficult task. This is where copious supplies of “stuff” come in.
Local steampunk artist Joan Emmett works in multi-media to create three-dimensional vignettes and fantastical objects. She often finds what she needs to create an object is not available. Emmett then re-purposes material or invents what she needs. Her approach to assemblage art is what categorizes her work as steampunk: Industrial Revolution-era, discovery-made artistic.
Gary John Gresl is a Milwaukee-area artist from Manitowoc whose work is in the collection of the Rahr-West Art Museum, among many other museums in our state. Gresl is an assemblage artist who instills admiration because of his ability to collect minutiae he assembles into temporary and permanent installations that tell stories and define place. Gresl has been an antique collector, making the procurement of material for his work simpler. His work also gives new meaning to materials that are not necessarily considered material of fine artists, including recycled metals in shapes of hoops, wavy plates, circles and smaller platters, to render constructions that allow the viewer to see something from a new perspective. Perhaps the re-use and re-purposing of materials is what drew me to assemblage art.
In addition, I have dabbled in assemblage art for at least a decade. My own roots at assemblage are planted in interior design where arranging objects in a personal space is telling a story. In 2019, I was able to participate in Rahr-West Art Museum’s venerated “Table Settings” exhibition. As inspiration for my table setting, I was inspired by Ron Stokes’ piece titled “My Brushes and My Tiparillo.” Not having an extensive supply of “stuff,” I needed to make or purchase some of the items needed for the tribute piece to Ron Stokes and his long career as artist, teacher and facilitator in Manitowoc. This table setting told a story: it told a story of how artists sometimes forget to eat as they immerse themselves in their work. It depicted a working table — a place setting where art is made and food is eaten, both sustaining us.
Assemblage art is a lot of fun, as it requires the viewer to prepare an explanation for what is seen. It allows the viewer to be part of the discovery of objects that are found within a constructed assemblage. Ultimately, it tells a story of a place, a time or a person and humanity remaining inevitably drawn to stories of all types.
Gary John Gresl often opines that “all art is local.” Assemblage art is especially so when it tells the story of place; it becomes “joined together for a common cause.”
Jody Kuchar is a freelance writer and visual artist living in Manitowoc. Art Forward is a weekly column by the Manitowoc Public Arts Committee.
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