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Actor Dean Stockwell Shows His Photomontages for First Time

Friday, September 10, 2004

Actor Dean Stockwell Shows His Photomontages for First Time

By Tom Collins
For the Journal
    The spring of 1912 was a very good one for the astonishing young Spanish artist living in Paris, Pablo Picasso. For several years before, along with painter and friend Georges Braque, Picasso had re-defined perspective and the picture plane with a new "simultaneous" approach to painting known as Cubism. Sometime in early spring Picasso made two more radical breakthroughs, one upon the other, both of which revolutionized art-making for the rest of the 20th century and probably forever.
    First, he gathered some bits of sheet metal and wire and fashioned the relief construction "Guitar," a three-dimensional planar counterpart of his Cubist paintings. "Guitar" altered sculpture-making by departing from the traditional approaches— modeling and carving— and paved the way for constructed sculpture.
    Second, Picasso took a piece of oilcloth printed with a chair caning pattern and collaged it— literally, glued it— onto a still-life painting and put a piece of rope around it as an oval frame for good measure. "Still Life with Chair Caning," among many other things, marked the birth of collage in fine art. The idea wasn't new— nineteenth-century folk artists had made pictures by cutting and pasting— but the idea of pasting a slice of real life onto an easel painting was an innovation. Soon Braque picked up the new style of using these immediately recognizable modern world emblems— mass-produced product packaging, news-print, wallpaper, you name it— to reconnect the fractured Cubism to the "real" world while introducing mass production into the handmade object.
    Dadaism and Surrealism produced the two masters of collage. Kurt Schwitters picked up detritus from the streets of his native Hanover and puzzled them into elegant, lyrical symphonies of junk itself. And Max Ernst developed the related technique of "photomontage"— collage done with mass-produced photo images clipped from newspapers and magazines. In the hands of the master, Ernst, photomontage took the "truths" of photography from the newspapers and overlapped them, like quick cuts in film editing, to make dizzying nightmares and dreamscapes.
    The rest is art history. Collage became a technique and style that summed up the 20th century quite nicely. It re-created the unsorted, democratic blur and clutter of image and the compressed, at times almost violent juxtaposition of visual sensations that is very like the urban experience and even resembles TV. Collage and photomontage came to be the visual and psychic equivalence of the century all the way through Romare Bearden and Robert Rauschenberg, Pop art and Terry Gilliam of Monty Python's Flying Circus.
    Photomontage is so much fun that it seems easy. Who hasn't done it— piecing all those little fragmentary bursts of visual energy together to attempt to create some psychic-optic transformation?
    And while many are called, few are adept.
Palpable hits
    In the mid-1950s, Wallace Berman— a well-known West Coast artist and seminal figure in the assemblage movement— introduced actor and movie star Dean Stockwell to the work of the Dadaists and Surrealists. Stockwell has played in the fields of collage and photomontage ever since, but he showed his works only to friends and acquaintances. Over the years, however, and like his friend, fellow actor and artistic cohort Dennis Hopper, Stockwell quietly gained a reputation as a man with a keen eye for the telling detail and for the talent to metamorphose into a competent visual artist.
    For his first formal exhibition ever, Stockwell has chosen the discreet yet elite Ranchos de Taos location of RB Ravens Gallery to show over 40 photomontages he has made in the last couple of years. In some instances, these are straightforward cut-out-of-the-magazine works. Some pieces look to be digitized and computer-manipulated magazine images, incised and overlaid with more photomontage, and there are entirely computer-manipulated or computer-generated images digitally printed in psychedelic, Peter Max-like day-glo colors.
    These last are the least interesting of the works— perhaps because the computer, and technology in general, have a tendency to drain the life out of anything and homogenize everything. On the other hand, the straight, old-fashioned cut-up-and-paste works have some of that old-time, Dada-Surrealist energy.
    Photomontage is a hit-and-miss affair in both its process and results. The unconscious "ordering" of the images is key, and nothing looks clunkier than a "thought out," unspontaneous photomontage. Thankfully, Stockwell knows enough to avoid that, but somehow I kept thinking that the actor is probably a heck of a lot crazier and wackier than any of these works.
    That said, there are some palpable hits— among them, the viscerally charged "Flyover." In it we see that famous overhead shot of a Muhammad Ali victim sprawled on the canvas. The aerial view of the canvas also reveals an urban grid, from which a skyscraper juts upward toward us. A jet fighter flies overhead as the world's press looks on from around the ring. Jets over cities, near tall buildings, is a loaded image these days— too loaded, perhaps— but Stockwell gets away with it with his absurdist metaphor of the Muslim Ali standing over the poor slob out for the count.
    In "Shot of Life," a bevy of cute UCLA cheerleaders do their tribal USA thing above a shot of tribal dancers of another ethnicity. Meanwhile the All-American Rover leaps out of the frame, and a huge grouper cruises above, gobbling down something. (Perhaps one of those UCLA coeds?)
    As I said, as crazy as these socio-politically flavored photomontages get, they don't match Stockwell in his "Blue Velvet" role, say. Maybe he's mellowed. Twenty-five years ago I spotted Stockwell out on the town with Hopper et al., and it wasn't pretty. Just the other day I spotted him out at Taos Country Club and we nodded courtly greetings as he motored past in the golf cart. Things have changed.
If you go
    WHAT: "The Spagyric Eye"— collage and photomontage exhibition by Robert Dean Stockwell
    WHEN & WHERE: Through Oct. 31 at RB Ravens Gallery in Rancho de Taos
    INFORMATION: Call 505-758-7322


"Well, you know what they say: it's never too soon to start early."
~ Sam Beckett, 'Running for Honour', "Quantum Leap" ~
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