Collage and the Landscape of Familiarity

by John McKissick

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Moon (mother), 2015 Broom snakeweed plants, twine, paint

from the bed to the mountain evokes Mira Burack’s home in the foothills of the Ortiz Mountains of New Mexico. Elaborated through photocollaged installations and collections of found objects, this landscape of familiarity includes both intimate domestic space and the natural world. Inside and outside meet in the mountainous wall mural leafed together from cutout photos of a rumpled comforter. In her work, the way to place passes through sleep. And like dreaming, Burack’s practice resuscitates the materiality of vacated things through delicate, non-hierarchical recombination.

Above the large mural of a moonlit mountain range, the gallery walls are painted black. Opposite are the sun and the moon, standing for the artist’s son and mother; the moon a wreath of pale yellow snakeweed bundles, the sun a ring of baby blankets. Material the artist gathered near her home—scavenged wood, a basket of pink bougainvillea, and hanging strands of dried plants—discloses her lifeworld in all its affective density and three-dimensionality. An ambient audio track emanates and the scents of piñon and juniper becalm the space. Burack’s deft recompositions model an intimate world of reverence and familiarity.

Before settling with her husband and young son near her mother’s home in northern New Mexico, Burack lived in Detroit for 10 years, where she received her MFA in fiber and textiles from Cranbrook Academy of Art. Since her 2008 “Plants” series, Burack has mounted cutout photos directly on the wall or floor to create intricate installations whose repetitive motifs seem to ripple outward while remaining stubbornly flat. The forms developed in the “Beds” series resemble cloaks or curtains that spill, puddle, and part.  At eye level, ovals of exposed wall painted black appear as voids or mirrors. In Erasure, a bird is a fanned plume bored into by the dark; the void grows feathers and takes flight. Relocating from the city to the piñon and juniper high desert, Burack was stirred to reflect on place and domestication. In this new setting, with its remoteness, aridity, and mountain backdrop, Burack shifted from the ambiguity and formality of her most powerful past work and began to use her collage to conjure a landscape.

Each element of combination has been desiccated, domesticated, or followed into night. Plants, fruit, and mushrooms are parched. In Erasure and Sleeping is like Flying the geese whose down fills the comforter regain flight as dream figures. At CUE, the same comforter lofts the dreamer to the mountain heights. Sleep itself is a horizontal modality of non-hierarchical elevation. The photographic reduction of an object to its planar image is also a process of domestication. Enclosed in the dark and then exposed, film captures the light that flees from an object. Walter Benjamin described the photograph as an image that, through reproducibility, has lost its aura. Burack repeats images to produce an effect like that of the iterative patterns in nature. Rather than mechanically compel disenchantment, Burack’s rippling motifs allude to natural forms such as waves, scales, and wings.

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from the bed to the mountain (detail), 2015 Photography collage (photographs of bed comforter)

It is night. From a blanket and comforter rise sun and moon and mountains. The artist has fashioned a table the height of a bed. Asleep on the table are clusters of feathers, mushrooms, and pinecones.  These arrangements include scale photographic counterparts that double, triple, or “shadow” the original. Like dreaming, collage exercises a freedom of combination across a horizontal field. The overlaid images recapitulate and multiply the original and reanimate it in beguiling forms. In one influential formulation, the organic artwork is composed of parts that are subordinated to the whole, while the “non-organic” collage principle operates by juxtaposition and formal incongruity. By twinning the flattened paper construction with its naturally occurring counterpart, the artist asks us to reconsider whether all processes of mechanical reproduction destroy the wholeness of the original, or whether non-hierarchical principles of construction cannot stage their own recovery of depth. Especially with the blanket-enwrapped sun on the wall, these shadows seem to confirm the botanicals’ substantiality rather than dissipate it.

For much of its history, collage has been identified, by its practitioners as well as by its interpreters, as a vehicle for decontextualization and defamiliarization. According to one account, montage breaks the unity of the symbolic (or “organic”) artwork into a constellation of fragments linked only by the allegorical intention of its creator. This description captures a significant aspect of the force exerted by Braque’s papiers collés, Schwitter’s Merz, Heartfield’s photomontaged agitprop, and Warhol’s silkscreened serialization of found imagery. Jarred from their organic context onto an unremitting lateral plane, these constructions signal a reductive uniformity below or beyond art’s representation of life and meaning.

However useful this schema is for the interpretation of a few episodes of twentieth-century art, its binaries fail to register the intent of Mira Burack’s work. What has changed in the meantime? The prevalence of installation-type art may be one reason for this illegibility. At least since the early gallery installations of the mid 1960s, immersion rather than modernist estrangement typifies work that is site-specific and medium-indeterminate. In Burack’s installation, photocollage figures as an element of refamiliarization rather than distancing.

This installation may be described as a non-site. In New York City, we encounter a collaged cipher of New Mexico. The corresponding site is the place the artist inhabits. The passage from the bed to the mountain is given by figural transformations: the comforter upfolds, geologically; the body’s warmth is like that of the sun; qualified by the bin of flower blossoms, the mountain is a heap of petals; laying in the shade of each object is an exercise of attentiveness and care.

The intimate, animated space Burack acknowledges with her installation is unsuited to abstract designation. Instead of heightening the alienation effect, this collection of found objects and hand-processed representations coaxes the high desert tantalizingly near.

Care for self, others, and the shared habitat are aspects of active place-based familiarity. The black-painted wooden bin once held gravel along the rutted road to the family’s house. The moon is composed of snakeweed plant that the artist’s mother collects in the desert and takes for arthritis. The blanket that circles the sun conveys safety, serenity, and attachment. The thoughtful activism of daily life that Burack practices breaks down hierarchies as she seeks authentic connection to herself, her family, and her place. In this sense, collage—premised on a horizontal process—expresses the same immanence.

Notes:
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility.”
Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-garde.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Anne Boyman. Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life.
Smithson, Robert. “A Provisional Theory of Non-Sites.”

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