Irreverence, Icons, and The Holy: The Collage Art of Marty Gordon

And Marty said, “Let there be glue…”

And there was glue, applied to icons of the holy, the kitschy, the comic, and the kooky; surreal landscapes featuring damsels and dinosaurs, nudies and nerds, monkeys and moon rockets.

Coffee shops are the perfect place to look at art, right?   Maybe, but Marty Gordon’s current show at Capitol Hill’s Victrola Coffee presents a dilemma for the interested collage-o-phile.  Inevitably, due to their diminutive size and detail (not to mention the color), these collages invite you closer; you want to stick your nose right up against the glass, so to speak.  I mean, who wants to miss the delicious little word bubbles, all these children and vixens and deities and sumo wrestlers chatting up devils, cherubs, and misogynists?  I mean, come on, you want your eye to have time to wander a bit, back and forth between these wildly disparate elements, these densely packed juxtapositions intriguing enough to lead you to wonder if there just might be a 3-D comedic horror movie surreptitiously playing on the other side of the frame.

But it’s hard to get close on a night like last night, when I headed up 15th Ave NE to Victrola for a sandwich, a green tea, and some art viewing.  Food and drink were fine, but looking at the art didn’t really work out, because the place was packed.  It was as if each painting had it’s own little guardian, protecting these precious truth-windows, as if an evil (or at least dastardly) wizard with a great big word bubble might come floating in the door any minute to steal them all!

But who could blame a wizard for wanting these collages hanging in his wizard house?  They’re pretty magical.

Full disclosure: I’m a friend of Mr. Gordon’s, and have been looking at this work for several years, but this is the first time I’ve actually decided to bring a critical eye to what he’s up to, and talk about it.  Not being an art critic per se, I’ll probably miss by a mile, but my purpose is to perhaps expose a few more people to the complexity and delight of this dynamic, definitely-to-be-taken-seriously, artist.  And let it be said that these are just my opening salvos; I may be returning to his work again.  The more I look at it, the more impressive and curious it becomes.

Find Marty’s collages at his website Martworks: The Art of Marty Gordon (What Would Jesus Glue?) .  He also has pieces for sale at his Etsy site.

So here you are, standing in front of a collage by Marty Gordon.  What are you seeing?

You’re always looking at a new world with these collages; it’s as if God were constantly reconsidering how he originally put things together and keeps trying.  It’s good to keep in mind that when you first engage the frame, all bets are off, all usual connections are suspect, and if you’re going to tread metaphorically in these lands do so with a light foot.  Put too much weight on what you think the whole thing means, and you’re liable to fall through the floor.  At the very least, you’ll find yourself stuck back at head scratching.

So, yes, these are 5 x 7, 8 x 10, 10 x10 worlds, and Marty is a god-like hand peopling them with all manner of creatures, technologies, time epochs, sciences, spiritualities, and witticisms.  Each world is built to jar the viewer.  Not as in hit-you-with-a-hammer: it’s more like Doc’s little knee whacker that just won’t quit.   Most of the time, Gordon’s work hits you in a funny bone kind of way, but sometimes it’s closer to the smack on the elbow, the one that leaves your whole arm ringing.

For all you fans of bullet point critique, so you can peruse swiftly, here are a few of the things Marty’s up to, and I’ll bet there’s lots more, but I’m running out of time:

•   He’s drawing lines of tension between what is serious and what’s not, allowing the not-so-serious to call the seriousness of the serious into question.  Pop Culture’s mashup with religion, science, and commercial nuttiness can become ludicrous when you think very hard about it, and Marty leads us into thinking about it. 

•   He’s exposing our false sense of security in the stories we tell ourselves.  

•   He’s using satire and absurdity to lift those questions that lurk beneath the surface of our consciousness into our awareness.  The comedy—and its ambiguity—allows us to confront what often just doesn’t make much sense.  (What does it mean that Jesus loves Hitler?  Was Adam’s inability to find a mate among the animal kingdom really the reason God made woman?)

•   He’s suggesting that we live in a time of confusion, where we have a hard time understanding what best serves and ennobles human culture and civilization.  (The Pope wants the wisdom of the Bhudda, a professional wrestler wants to pretend-fight, and a child wants candy while planes head toward skyscrapers.)

•   One of my favorite themes in Marty’s work is his ability to locate technology and its effects both inside and outside the human.  (Space Stations inside the brain of a man in distress, and two men observing that maybe video game playing is about as serious as they need to get.) 

•   He’s slamming images suggesting sacredness into spaces where they are forced to interact with pop culture kitsch bordering on the profane, raising not only eyebrows, but also the question, “Where the hell do we find the holy, anyway, and who gets to say?”

•   He’s playing with words, conversations, tweets, names, icons, almost as if they are independent of each other, allowing his new created contexts to jar us, alter meanings and perceptions of things we often take for granted. 

•   He’s doing beautiful compositions. His strong sense of balance, line, contrast, unity, color, and rhythm means we almost always like what we see long before we get to what it’s suggesting.

To briefly summarize—and like I said, I may be missing this by a mile—I’d say Mr. Gordon is nimbly, and often, brilliantly, mocking our tepid notions of the sacred, the holy, and the important.  Which, by the way, is very different than saying he is mocking the authentic Sacred, Holy, and Important.   If people get offended by the alleged irreverence of Marty’s work, they need to remember that it’s not Jesus he’s making fun of.   God is not as much on trial in Marty’s work as we are.  (Oh…we do get it, and that’s why we’re offended.)  And by “we” (and this is very cool of Marty), I mean both believer and non-believer.  We need to acknowledge that not only do Jesus-folk not have a corner on the market of knowledge, we’re not cornering the market on craziness, either.

And oddly enough, the alleged inhabitants of Heaven keep showing up in these topsy-turvy worlds, watching (and reminding us that they’re watching) making me wonder if the whole crew up there figures our world and our antics are just about as surreal and strange as the worlds Gordon creates.   To Jesus, maybe the Fall of Humanity in Genesis 3 turned everything into a Marty Gordon collage.   (So now we could label his work “realism”—hah!)

As J.B. Phillips once famously put it, our God is too small.  I think we need to thank Marty Gordon for giving us a pretty cool ongoing visual reminder of just how small we think holiness can be.  For in so doing, he intimates the legitimate power and beauty of the Real Thing.

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