Javier Piñon’s collages embrace the cowboy and the spaceman, the argonaut and the sword-wielding pinup: material that is perhaps not forgotten but certainly set aside as frivolous and impertinent, too overblown to express the nuances of life that we love to hold up as the high moments of art. Piñon refuses to turn cultural detritus into another avenue to the mundane; he instead raises the everyday to the fantastical and myth-riddled heights of John Wayne and Conan the Barbarian. His collages are neither subtle nor subdued, not so much “about” pop culture as living within that world—and his is a world in which the pop icon cannot simply be Photoshopped into the fairy tale. This is immersion theater given over to pulp, juvenile fantasy barely contained, Heavy Metal Magazine infiltrating the gallery. It’s beautifully constructed, and it’s refreshing.
Daniel Carter spoke with Piñon about the progression of his work, its roots in genre fiction and nostalgia, and the process of collage.
ON THE WORK:
My work has had a tendency to be a bit autobiographical. Not literally, but under the surface. My reality or state of mind at the time that the collages are made is reflected in the psychology of the work and the stories it tells. For example, the Minotaur was at one time an important personal symbol. I won’t get into the details, but it was a very difficult period of my life and I felt a strong connection and sympathy for this very tragic, and in my mind misunderstood, creature. It was when I finally found the strength to confront myself that the cowboy first appeared in my work. My inner personal conflict played itself out in my studio through drawings and collages where cowboys and Minotaurs battled one another in boxing and wrestling matches. The symbolism runs deep for me depending on how far I wish to track the thread: cowboy vs. Minotaur, American vs. Latino, cocky confidence vs. a shy and reclusive nature. Eventually the cowboy, both in my work and I think in myself, emerged victorious, and the Minotaur retreated back into the labyrinth. So the cowboy in my work began as a psychological projection of strength, a rugged independence that I was personally striving for, rather than as a symbol for anything particularly “western.”
The next few bodies of work again featured the cowboy in conflict but this time with his environment. During the time that I was making the chair collages my life was again in a state of imbalance. I was in a very serious relationship that I knew was leading to marriage and all of the domestic trappings that come with it, including a house that I had recently purchased and was attempting to renovate on my own. In my studio I began churning out collages of cowboys perched precariously atop teetering stacks of chairs, swinging from chandeliers and eventually drowning in flooded interiors. The ultimate icon of macho independence trapped in a domestic rodeo from hell. At the end of this particular narrative he is at sea riding a raft made of antique chairs, adrift, lost. And that’s how I felt in the studio. I had reached the end of something, and I felt the need for a change in my work but to what I didn’t know.
In my studio I began churning out collages of cowboys perched precariously atop teetering stacks of chairs, swinging from chandeliers and eventually drowning in flooded interiors. The ultimate icon of macho independence trapped in a domestic rodeo from hell.
I started trying to imagine where the cowboy might wash up on this journey at sea and it brought to mind Odysseus. The associations extended and broadened to include the cast of characters found in the collages from “Don Quixote and Other Stories.” Most of the Cowboy imagery up to this point was pretty generic stuff cut from rodeo magazines. But now I was imaging him as the epic hero and so I began searching out images more in keeping with the romantic ideals of the “Hollywood” cowboy. I think I’ve heard someone refer to cowboys as the knights of the old west, and that association rings very true for me in how I see him.
Before I speak to what’s coming next, I’ll say a few words about my most recent work, “O Babalon,” which I think I have neglected thus far. I’m very proud of this work, and I feel like I’ve achieved a level of complexity and detail that I like to think sets it apart from the work of other collage artists. I approached these works as if they were paintings, considering the composition as a whole and trying to create a space that was at once realistic and magical. I haven’t bothered to count the number of individual snippets that make up each collage, but there were many and more, each selected for color and lighting and texture, so as to form the lush forest setting for this new narrative. Scale was also an important consideration; layering images to create a sense of depth helped to strengthen the illusion.
The story for “O Babalon” was conceived around the ideas of goddess worship and was in part inspired by my wife, who is herself a bit of a witch and very spiritual. She was also pregnant with our son during this time and I was thinking a lot about the mystery, strength and magic of women. The women are meant to be priestesses or acolytes of the Earth Mother, Babalon. The foxes are the women’s familiars. Their bond symbolizing the pact they share with Nature. I found it very liberating to make work that was a bit more esoteric and not dependent on any specific mythology.
These collages were also some of the largest that I have made and I am eager with my next body of work to see how large I can go and still maintain a sense of cohesion. I’ve been looking at the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch lately, in particular “The Garden of Earthly Delight.” I have it in mind to make a collage in his style, a really epic and weird landscape peopled with all manner of strange creatures. It will be a really challenging piece and a great opportunity to push myself technically. I’m also thinking of making a video of the process, a stop motion record of its creation. As I think I’ve said, my collages go through a multitude of changes during their construction. The compositions are in constant flux as the disparate parts are added and removed and added back again. I think documenting the process would not only make a beautiful animation on its own but would also provide a visual record of my thinking process in the studio.
ON GENRE AND NOSTALGIA:
I like to think of myself as a storyteller so, yes, genre is something that I think about in my work. I have always been interested in mythology, and I’ll admit that I read fantasy novels almost exclusively (my literary tastes having never developed beyond the age of 12). Growing up in Texas as I did, I was influenced to some extent by cowboy culture and for years have used the image of the cowboy in my work as a kind of universal archetype of masculinity. These influences first began to mix for me in a series of collages that I did based on vintage boxing posters where the combatants were a cowboy and a minotaur, a re-imagining of the the story of Theseus. That initial idea has developed into more detailed fleshed out narratives in which I recast the protagonist as a cowboy: Hercules, Perseus, St. George, Don Quixote, and of course (my favorite) Icarus. Collage is inherently about combining disparate images into something new, and so it is an ideal medium for mixing genres. In the Icarus series I even made a couple of pieces that added a sci-fi element to the mix, with Icarus as a space/time traveling cowboy. More recently I have wanted to get away from the cowboy imagery, though the landscape of the Western continues to set the scene for some work, like with the series called “The Song of the Siren.” The women that I used for this series were pulled from pin-up magazines from the 50′s and 60′s and I modeled them after the illustrations of Frank Frazzetta, whose book covers for Conan and other pulp-fantasy I had pinned to my wall as a kid. In my most recent work, “O Babalon,” the women are culled from magazines that date from the ’70s and have a look and feel that resonates more with the image of a mystical earth-goddess.
I think it’s appropriate to mention the nostalgic quality of my work. I mentioned my own penchant for fantasy, which includes the films of Ray Harryhausen: Jason and the Argonauts, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and at the top of my list, Clash of the Titans. And in more recent work, the Medusas and the Sirens, there is definitely nostalgia for the eroticism of the past: my dad’s dusty Playboys, the fantasy illustrations of Heavy Metal magazine, and the animated film of the same name. As a kid, the erotic was just as frightening as it was titillating, and I was striving for a bit of that tension in those works. But the nostalgia goes beyond the content and I think is at the very heart of what collage is about for me. My sources are vintage, memories of a time gone by. True, I dissect and reassemble them into something new and on some level contemporary but a vestige of their original selves lingers. It’s nostalgic in a very physical sense as well. I make all of my collages by hand, using only the original source material that I find. In this age of Photoshop and all things digital, I feel that there is a need for the intimacy of hand made things.
As a kid, the erotic was just as frightening as it was titillating, and I was striving for a bit of that tension in those works. But the nostalgia goes beyond the content and I think is at the very heart of what collage is about for me. My sources are vintage, memories of a time gone by.
I liken it to building a puzzle with an endless supply of pieces where you have only the vaguest idea what the completed picture will look like. But the wealth of pictures that exist in books and magazines give me an endless vocabulary of images to use in constructing these visual narratives. The dilemma of having too many choices.
My workspace is equal parts studio and library. Over the years I have amassed quite a large collection of books and magazines from which I pull the images I use in my collages. It’s not really as organized as it should be (one of these days I’ll get an assistant), but I do have file drawers and boxes where I separate images into categories. I spend a great deal of time browsing, searching for images that will spark an idea. From there it’s a lengthy process of trial and error. A collage may very well sit on my table for months as I try out different elements of the composition to see how they fit. And I think here this speaks to the question of constraints, especially with my most recent work. As my work becomes more layered and complicated, the sheer number of images available can be as much of a hindrance as it is benefit. I liken it to building a puzzle with an endless supply of pieces where you have only the vaguest idea what the completed picture will look like. But the wealth of pictures that exist in books and magazines give me a endless vocabulary of images to use in constructing these visual narratives. The dilemma of having too many choices.