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Michael Oatman—Another Fine Mess

Collage at 100 III/III
April 1 - June 16, 2013
Another Fine Mess examines celebrated contemporary artist Michael Oatman's encyclopedic approach to art making. Spanning three decades, the show assembles a selection of the artist's densely accumulative works, ranging from early pivotal pieces to his monumental collages, site-specific installation and recent work made for the final exhibition in the Collage at 100 series.

Collage at 100 III/III

April 1 - June 16, 2013

Michael Oatman—Another Fine Mess

One should never underestimate the power of books.[i]
Paul Auster, 2006
Deep down, I don’t believe it takes any special talent for a person to lift himself off the ground and hover in the air. We all have it in us—every man, woman, and child—and with enough hard work and concentration, every human being is capable of…the feat….You must learn to stop being yourself. That’s where it begins, and everything else follows from that. You must let yourself evaporate. Let your muscles go limp, breathe until you feel your soul pouring out of you, and then shut your eyes. That’s how it’s done. The emptiness inside your body grows lighter than the air around you. Little by little, you begin to weigh less than nothing. You shut your eyes; you spread your arms; you let yourself evaporate. And then, little by little, you lift yourself off the ground. Like so.[ii]
Paul Auster, 1995
If one looks at a thing with the intention of trying to discover what it means, one ends up no longer seeing the thing itself, but thinking of the question that has been raised. The mind sees in two different senses: (1) sees, as with the eyes; and (2) sees a question (no eyes).[iii]
René Magritte, 1933
Self-plagiarism is style.[iv]
Alfred Hitchcock, 1976
Michael Oatman—Another Fine Mess is the third and final show in the Collage at 100 series—a triptych of exhibitions honoring the centennial of the invention of fine art collage by the Cubist pioneers Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Highlighted with a solo show, and chosen for his representatively expansive approach and his intellectual eclecticism, Burlington, Vermont-born Michael Oatman is the quintessential collage artist. Another Fine Mess is a modest retrospective of the artist's highly refined and encyclopedic collage work. Spanning from the early 1980s to the present, it surveys his major approaches to collage while highlighting key works from his 30-plus years as an image and object maker. With more than 60 works on display, Another Fine Mess is the largest exhibition of the artist's work to date. He is known especially for his monumental collages and installations, and the Thompson Gallery is pleased to include a handful of his oversized collages and smaller site-specific installations—some of which were either created for or reconfigured specifically for this exhibition.
The first two shows in the Collage at 100 series set the stage for Another Fine Mess in a few important ways. They pointed out the evolutionary and expansive reach of collage's influence as a new machine for seeing[v] during its first century of development, illustrating how collage as a practice and attitude pervades all forms of creative expression. Likewise, collage has influenced everything Michael Oatman has made since his undergraduate days at the Rhode Island School of Design. The initial two exhibitions unequivocally demonstrated the need for the definition of the word "collage" to be expanded beyond the confines of physical glue—now, over 100 years since the invention of the form, contemporary practice has proven that strict associations between paper and glue as an exclusive material set are no longer mandatory. Oatman's continued contributions to the definition have verified the elasticity of collage; he is known for his "puzzle piece" collage method and his technological couplings. Viewers will find examples of artwork in Another Fine Mess that challenge the outmoded definition, alongside an abundance of works which keenly adhere to the traditional sense of the term. Additionally, the second exhibition, Strange Glue (Collage & Installation), established that installation art is a natural extension of collage's reach. As Oatman's term maximum collage attests, collage is easily pushed passed its limitations with flat paper to involve sculpture, architecture, space and time-based media. Another Fine Mess presents works both inside and outside the gallery space as examples of such a claim, including Oatman's ten-year installation at Mass MoCA, All Utopias Fell—of which the gallery organized a guided tour of, during the spring of 2013. Also, as pointed out in the accompanying essay to the first exhibition, Strange Glue (Traditional & Avant-garde Collage), the history of collage is the story of the decline of naturalism and the rise of fractured representation—naturalism promoted a single story or fixed point of view, whereas postmodern collage promotes multiple points of view, the simultaneity of multiple stories. Oatman often uses conventional approaches to depict objects and subjects, but also pushes past that limiting and often narrow conception[vi] (to borrow Peter Galassi's phrase) to invent his own visual universes.
Michael Oatman's collage practice fuses many roles into one: dowser, collector, detective, librarian, archivist, taxonomist, thinker, poet, architect, filmmaker, collaborator, provocateur; the list goes on. However, as an eclectic, second-generation, collage-based artist, Oatman's work has a distinct, easily identifiable look due to the ways he limits his source material. For the creation of his paper collages, the artist uses only book illustrations from the 1940s through the 1980s to form his imagery. Despite this self-imposed limitation, the artist opportunistically adapts his materials with great variety. It should be abundantly clear to anyone looking at the exhibited work that Oatman is a master collector, possessing great sensitivity and varied strategies for organizing any material. A key aspect of the artist's approach to collage is his boundless opportunism. As noted above, Oatman will utilize any and all technologies; he combines and blends them to great effect, often juxtaposing incongruent modalities and histories. Oatman's juxtapositions are filled with insights into the ideas he exhaustively explores. He does not limit his subject matter the way many contemporary artists limit the overall practice. Oatman allows his collections to drive the content of the work or he collects particular images in order to drive a particular content. It seems that any found material or technological advance can prompt his imagination. Indeed, many pieces exhibited were created simply because the artist contemplated the potential for a material or a technology to do something it was not intended to do. In this way, Oatman's creations may be thought of as nets for what-ifs, wherein he catches the potential of ideas. Curious viewers are rewarded for venturing into the realm of possibility when viewing Oatman's expansive art.
Oatman is fascinated by wordplay, puns and double meanings, mimicry, impossibility, and the absurd, and these concepts often co-mingle with an appreciation for the surreal. Though much of his current work has political overtones, there is a deep optimism that runs through all his work. Oatman is generous in his appreciation of art and culture. He often acknowledges or references particular works or individuals in his various projects, including himself and his own work. Understanding the art of Michael Oatman is greatly enhanced by underscoring the artist's deep appreciation of, and respect for, the art of Marcel Duchamp. Many works in the show pay homage not only to Duchamp, but also to Magritte, Hitchcock, Auster, and so many others. Oatman's vision is as much a product of his appropriations as it is of his own unique sense of the world we live in. Visitors will be drawn in by Oatman's references, his wit, his humor, and his ingenuity as a visual thinker. His various fascinations begin with working out his ideas on paper. Another Fine Mess is also the title of a site-specific installation, created for exhibition within CSW's scholastic setting. It offers viewers a rare opportunity to see the artist's mind at work via his drawings and plans for projects. Among this collection of the artist’s sketches and sources for his ideas, the attentive viewer will find many preliminary ideas for works that hang on the walls of the gallery, among many others not included in the show.
Michael Oatman's art is made with deceptively simple illustrations of everyday, recognizable materials. But they are anything but everyday images. Many artists utilize collage as a strategy. Some artists develop bodies of work that expand collage's applications. Few artists dedicate their artistic practice to the potentials of collage. Fewer still have made contributions to the genre by forging new possibilities. Michael Oatman distinguishes himself in each of these areas. He takes complex topics and simplifies them with his amalgams of book illustrations that exude the promise of hope as they entice and encourage viewers to sort out yet Another Fine Mess.
Todd Bartel
Director, Curator
The Thompson Gallery

[i]Paul Auster, The Brooklyn Follies, Picador USA, 2006, p. 304
[ii]Paul Auster, Mr Vertigo, Penguin Books USA, 1995, p. 278
[iii]René Magritte, cited in Humanist, Volume 84, Issues 1-6, Rationalist Press Association Ltd., January 1, 1969, p.176.
[iv]The Observer [London], (8 Aug. 1976)
[v]Florian Rodari, Collage: Pasted, Cut and Torn Papers, Skira and Rizzoli, New York, NY, 1988, p. 31.
[vi]Note: Renaissance perspective adopted vision as the sole basis for representation: every perspective picture represents its subject as it would be seen from a particular point of view at a particular moment. Measured against the accumulated options of prior pictorial art, this is a narrow conception. Peter Galassi, Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 1981, pp. 12-13.

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