Contemplating the Contemporary: Mixed Media and Collage

19 January 2015

Contemporary art is all around us, but we often still ask: “Is it art?” In this blog series exploring how and why we make art, Guillaume Vandame looks at mixed media and collage in our Medicine Now gallery and beyond for Contemplating the Contemporary.

One of the defining movements of modern and contemporary art is the use of mixed media and collage. Modernist artists such as Romare Bearden, Richard Hamilton, Joe Tilson, Peter Blake, Hannah Hoch, Kurt Schwitters, George Grosz, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg created these fantastic works of art that combined drawing, painting and printmaking with popular culture and everyday life.

 Jasper Johns' Target with Four Faces, 1955. (© 2015 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)
[object Object]

Jasper Johns, Target with Four Faces, 1955. (© 2015 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

 Joe Tilson, Cut Out and Send, 1968. (© 2015 Joe Tilson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London)
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Joe Tilson, Cut Out and Send, 1968. (© 2015 Joe Tilson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London)

More recently, contemporary artists such as Wangechi Mutu, Marlene Dumas and Ellen Gallagher have shown how mixed media and collage have taken on new and exciting resonance, creating work which is provocative, imaginative and politically engaged.

Usually, mixed media and collage combine different elements to a sheet of paper, canvas or other found materials such as newspaper or cardboard. This technique makes the work of art more immediate. While mixed media and collage are inclusive of printed media, they are always one of a kind and rarely produced in an edition or multiple.

 Ellen Gallagher, Skinatural, 1997. (© 2015 Ellen Gallagher)
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Ellen Gallagher, Skinatural, 1997. (© 2015 Ellen Gallagher)

In addition, while these works are sometimes three-dimensional, unlike sculpture and installation, which usually place greater emphasis on creating a work which demands presence and space, even going beyond the gallery, mixed media and collage are generally more approachable and accessible because of their size, scale and format. For this reason, collage and mixed media can be displayed in the open or with a frame and glass.

 Wangechi Mutu, Yo Mama, 2003. (© 2015 Wangechi Mutu)
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Wangechi Mutu, Yo Mama, 2003. (© 2015 Wangechi Mutu)

These works of art show personal narratives and stories. The work is about creating something familiar and recognisable within our collective human experience. There are bold colours, patterns, textures and materials. Some of these principle ideas defining mixed media and collage are encapsulated with the works of art presented in Medicine Now.

The first work of art is Heidi Kerrison’s Heidi X: The True Horror of Cloning. From a distance, the work shows a series of Russian dolls about the same size, all looking towards the viewer. Their aloof seriousness and standard uniform gives each doll the quality of a soldier and together they appear as an army. Some of the dolls are incomplete and cut in half in order to suggest that they continue beyond the page and cannot be contained.

 Heidi Kerrison, Heidi X: The True Horror of Cloning, 1998. (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)
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Heidi Kerrison, Heidi X: The True Horror of Cloning, 1998. (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)

Up close it becomes clear that each of the dolls is slightly different and unique. For example, the larger dolls are handmade with decorative details such as embroidery and needlework. The eyes look attached and hand sewn to the face. The image then becomes flattened and reproduced over and over again. Nevertheless, even with the smaller dolls, Kerrison makes a conscious effort to hand colour the cheeks, emphasising the reluctant individuality of each doll.

 Detail of Heidi X: The True Horror of Cloning.
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Detail of Heidi X: The True Horror of Cloning.

Kerrison’s collage deliberately combines handmade elements with mechanical reproduction in order to evaluate difference in society. She suggests that this world could indeed be horrific – where the body is concealed, hidden and private, where there is limited freedom and expression – because everyone is physically, genetically and aesthetically the same.

With other works in Medicine Now, the process of using mixed media takes on new meaning by re-interpreting traditional materials, found objects, technology and elements from the natural world. For example, Jane Lackey takes found dictionaries and laser engraves text onto the covers while Osi Audu utilizes steel and rope with an animatronic eye, which opens and closes with a mechanical proximity sensor.

 Jane Lackey, SNPS/SLIPS 20, 2003. (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)
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Jane Lackey, SNPS/SLIPS 20, 2003. (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)

The Seeing Mind by Osi Audu, 2002. #wellcomecollection #instamuseum

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Even with the use of technology, there is still a strong, handmade quality to the work produced. This is seen with the delicate ink paintings Michael Hopkins creates with industrial slate tiles and Julian Walker’s larger than life assemblage of hand carved non-prescription tablets, vitamins and herbal supplements.

 Julian Walker, Collection: Acts of Faith, 2003. (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)
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Julian Walker, Collection: Acts of Faith, 2003. (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)

Julian Walker’s work, Collection: Acts of Faith, presents his own interpretation of the body by arranging individual tablets and supplements in their respective areas of the body. Each individual component, a tablet designated to improve well-being, like Kerrison’s dolls, has been strategically altered by the artist’s hand. For example, a tablet to help with a heart condition is placed centrally where the heart would be and has also been carved to look like the heart.

 Detail of Collection: Acts of Faith.
[object Object]

Detail of Collection: Acts of Faith.

By carving each tablet, Walker investigates our assumptions on physical appearances and the connections between subject and object. The handiwork used to create the entire body suggests both the vulnerability of the human condition and our questionable faith in mass produced medicine.

From embroidery to dictionaries and rope to hand-carved prescription tablets, these different works of art show how mixed media and collage can be used to meditate between the individual and the collective while contemplating some of the ways technology changes our perception of the self and body.

Guillaume is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.