James Garrett Faulkner (1933-2010)
Collage on paper, 9 x 6 7/8 inches
Gift of Rolf and Maral Achilles
Brauer Museum of Art, 2017.14.002
The Brauer Museum of Art is grateful to donors Rolf and Maral Achilles for enhancing its collection with fine works of art by Chicago artists. The Achilles’ have been wonderfully generous, accompanying their donations with delightful visits to the museum where they have shared background information about and descriptions of personal experiences with the artists. During their latest visit, they gave the Brauer a beautiful small collage by the Chicago artist James Garrett Faulkner. I was fascinated the moment I saw this work and continue to find meaning and inspiration as my eyes ride the terrain of its surface.
Faulkner is an underknown figure in Chicago art, an enigmatic figure whose collages reflect a sensitivity to imagery and materials, as well as the ways that imagery and materials interplay and overlap. Through the collage medium, he wields the patina of time as a generator of gesture, with the history of surfaces satisfying the eye and touch. While so many artists demonstrate their perspectives through unique stylizations or patterns of working, Faulkner forms his style through abstract responses to the content he encounters or discovers in his subjects. He allows the original purposes or lives of the pictorial elements to influence composition, at the same time that the formal or aesthetic properties of the collage components guide his decisions. Yet the purposes and properties just mentioned do not remain as separate concerns or areas for long, as viewers embark on expeditions to unearth what lay hidden in the depths of pictorial layering.
The orange stamp in the center of the collage bearing a modern design serves as an accent of color within the buff field adorned with calligraphic traces of blue. The stamp is postmarked Graubunden, a canton in Switzerland, and closer inspection of the blue script reveals it to be written in the German language. Such details of the work ground viewers, establish a setting, build the foundation for interpretation. The penmanship scattered on the sheets visually connects to conventions of the late 19th century, with the precise Art Deco design of the stamp pointing to a new age. The soft yellows of the collage papers speak to the fading and mellowing of paper products over time, and the blue of the ink also shows a similar fading or mellowing.
As I describe Faulkner’s collage, I realize that the terms I use in attempting to describe the picture objectively are full of associations and meanings that steer my words toward analysis and consideration of metaphor. Letters and sheets of paper frequently made from pulp-based paper fade, yellow, become brittle, lose their colors. They mellow, they soften, they become delicate– in other words, they materially replicate the same processes that occur in memory. The poignancy of the aging letters, the yellowing sheets, is that such conditions, such states cannot be reversed. Time can be halted in art (even materially, with techniques in conservation), but the moment at which time was halted is a complex one where viewers can see the dignity of the past and the inevitable degradation that time brings with it.
While viewers could enjoy attempting to find and translate intact words in the collage, the writing in this context moves past decipherability. The words exist as products of an anonymous hand floating across the surface of a palimpsest. What matters is not so much specifically what was written, but that words were written in loose and expressive script appealing abstractly to the eye but also cast into the ages of such words written, shared, stacked, and layered. The collage appeals to touch in its levels of applied papers and also seems to appeal to a sense of sound. The script creates words that become spoken, and the soft and whispering chorus of years of words read and recited rises from the piece like invisible vapors. A word fragment says that someone was here, and before that person another penned the passages beneath, and deeper we go into the work and into personal and shared histories.
Perhaps examining the letters initially, Faulkner felt as if the author reached across time to communicate. Perhaps in this scenario, time as a vehicle or conveyance functioned like a bottle. The message in the bottle was that a person lived and needed at a time. Faulkner may not have been able to or compelled to attend to the specifics of the communications originally, but later on he identified these writings as modest gestures, the impacts of raindrops on an expanse of calm sea, lovely and poetic eternal reminders of the dignity and transient nature of human life. Faulkner’s message in a bottle, the bottle perhaps being a frame and glass, is that time has given us souvenirs, flotsam, fossils. These remnants tell us things through their specific natures, but also through their surfaces and skins. And what they tell us is something that we can only understand by looking at and thinking about what we have before us that not only delivers new content but also carries with it everything that went before. The artist here has translated the German into a greater language, a language that reminds you that it is one that everyone shares and that exists beyond choice.
Gregg Hertzlieb is Curator and Director of the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University. Hertzlieb is the editor of the books The Calumet Region: An American Place (Photographs by Gary Cialdella), published in 2009, and Domestic Vision: Twenty-Five Years of the Art of Joel Sheesley (2008), as well as a contributor to The Indiana Dunes Revealed: The Art of Frank V. Dudley (2006). He has been awarded the Edward L. Ryerson Traveling Fellowship by the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and a Conant Writing Award for Poetry from Millikin University. His artwork has been exhibited widely, including at the Aron Packer Gallery, August House Studio, the Central School of Art and Design in London, Columbia College, Elgin Community College, the Goodman Theater, Struve Gallery, and the Ellen Firme Gallery.