Ana Finel Honigman on the artist whose targets range from pubescent sexuality to the trappings of consumerist society

In the final scene of Zabriskie Point, Antonioni’s 1970 homage to American hippies, a Frank Lloyd Wright-style, upper-middle-class home explodes to the soundtrack of Pink Floyd’s ‘Heart Beat, Pig Meat’. A sequence of jump-cuts, with the house erupting and objects within it flying forward, is repeated four times. First, the house becomes an inferno, then, in the next series of frames, a roast chicken is thrust from its plate, a television set is propelled forward, and other banal objects that dominate and define America’s cultural values are reduced to shrapnel. After the initial shock subsides, the intense beauty of the images overrides their violence.

Raven Schlossberg’s collages are similarly explosive. But while Antonioni was mainly concerned with congratulating the hippies on their quest for a combustible future, Schlossberg is trying to navigate her way constructively through the recent past’s cultural rubble.

Schlossberg’s collages are constructed from layers of vintage media images, kinetically charged drawings in ink, graffiti-like trails of enamel or acrylic paint, and sections of Chinese newspaper, built on top of oil cloth, vinyl or wallpaper. She culls her imagery from vintage children’s books, ladies’ home journals, comic books, greeting cards, girlie magazines, and global porn. Ranging in size from laptop to human-scale, the collages appear as details from cultural archives. Crafted with exquisite compulsion, they are clotted with social theory, cultural fiction and ubiquitous desire. As entire images, the collages are tactile and literary, embodying the semiotic distinction between sign and signifier but also seductive visual pleasure. Her imagery and musically pulsating colours maintain this pleasure even while she stimulates a cool critique of her references.

By now, nostalgia and reconsideration have altered the original charm and meaning of the images Schlossberg borrows. They no longer seem placid or friendly, but loaded with social subtext. As reflections of their eras and ethos, these pop creatures are complex, and Schlossberg reorders them to maximise confrontation. By selecting images that brutally contrast contemporary intention with current iconographic meaning, she mashes together scenes to heighten their latent symbolism. The beehived girlies with bodies like Ursula Andress are not really sweet and nubile; they appear stiff and plastic. The precious, well-dressed children who once sold breakfast cereal look as sinister today as the Turn of the Screw’s damned darlings. Cheerful housewives bring to mind The Stepford Wives and The Feminine Mystique rather than domestic bliss.

Girlie magazine nudes surface again and again among Schlossberg’s cutesy tots and pristine homemakers. Women’s bodies are ubiquitous in bits or wholes, and the vocabulary of pornography runs throughout her compositions. The girls Schlossberg selects range from the welcoming pin-up variety of warm, fleshy cuties with saccharine smiles, to seducers contorted in raw, raunchy poses. Oddly, these sexy ladies are now endearing fabrications of an anachronistic eroticism. Sexual artefacts from the fifties, sixties and seventies, with their hazy lighting, natural breasts and unaltered pubic hair, create the illusion of feminine beauty in bloom. Ironically, these old-fashioned dirty pictures reflect greater innocence than those Schlossberg selects from contemporary sanitised advertisements and popular culture.

Part of Schlossberg’s power lies in the cool voice she gives to these salty images. Pornography is about isolation and distance. It is part of the language of lonely people whose media-induced fantasies distil relationships into equations of selfish gratification and frustrated power. The titillation of Schlossberg’s work is an entrée into a powerful representation of sexuality’s inherent dichotomy – the approach/avoidance of wanting complete sexual abandon and wishing for independence from desire.

Like obsessively collected scrap-book clippings glued to a basement wall, Big Woody (2002) is a densely assembled collection of images piled on top of a faux-wood-panel foundation. A little boy’s baffled visage emerges as the dominant image, making him the potential protagonist or originator of the psychologically charged collage. Around this boy’s vulnerable face are girls and naked ladies merging with stern ad-men who push their grown-up products, while gleeful children enjoy themselves in an adult’s image of carefree youth. The boy seems miserably sunk into a frenzy of false role models. These conflicting influences are all vending some version of appropriate behaviour but it is impossible to navigate through their oppositely charged messages. The boy’s distress is understandable since the children at play, as well as the pin-up girls and figures of masculine maturity, are all nothing but shallow stereotypes with surface appeal.

Girls and Horses (2001-02) offers the same volatility. For most little girls, horses are their first pre-sexual crush. A horse can symbolise sexuality unmitigated by desire for another person. It is a desire Georges Bataille would have understood. Highly feminine, yet wild, horses symbolise freedom, physicality and power – while also being associated with pristine little rich girls and the country club set. In Girls and Horses, they run through a tightly packed collage populated by frilly little girls dressed by adoring Mommies, fluffy white kittens and tender young porn darlings. Two naked cuties caress each other under a kitsch portrait of Jesus, while two Kindergarten-age girls shriek happily and a devilish brunette juts her ass towards the viewer. Altogether, these confining and clichéd images of feminine behaviour offer a contrast to the nostalgic fantasy that horses provided for little girls dreaming of a liberated future filled with adventure. In one section of the collage, a banal blonde in a larva-like green dress poses near a cowboy, creating an explicit contrast between meticulously neat femininity and the craggy, rugged type of man who can ride horses like a hero.

Less clustered and more fluid are collages like Birdie (2001), The Butterfly Hunters (2000) and Cherry (2001), in which figures float over rich ink and acrylic landscapes of colour. Puffs and trails of paint with smoky patterns threaten to swallow the cut-paper clippings, creating a sense of indeterminate depth. Ungrounded and unrestrained, the clippings appear to represent an infinite number of similar images left unseen beneath the visible surface. In Cherry, dolls and stuffed animals recall Mike Kelley’s toy victims. The stuffed animals Schlossberg selects resemble the cloth toys on the album cover and insert for Sonic Youth’s Dirty. Their cuddly sloppiness therefore also evokes teen rebellion and the adolescent comfort of smart music. Set next to cut-outs from porn magazines, these playthings reflect underdeveloped desires, and the pink and black patterns surrounding them create the impression of an impeding sexual awakening. The horror present in all Schlossberg’s images comes from the dream-like mixture of private and social desire. The toys are an outlet but also a scapegoat for children before they can fully express their enormous need for power and intimacy. Here, Schlossberg equates that infantile relationship to an inanimate thing with porn’s paper girlfriends.

Underneath and around the simmering sex kittens, glamour girls and moon-eyed children, Schlossberg weaves her artistic familiar, a clown painted with black ink. Clowns are always convoluted symbols, offering a form of communal catharsis. Gleefully sadistic audiences laugh at the suffering, stupidity and violence which clowns endure. Ultimately they frighten us because they are our victims. Like the demonic clown in Stephen King’s It, the damned clown in Bruce Nauman’s video performance Clown Torture or the tragic professor who becomes the embittered, emasculated vaudeville clown in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, Schlossberg’s clowns are funny, tragic and terrifying. We identify with them in Schlossberg’s work even while they mock us and our self-destructive reveries.

In her collage Winter Circus (1998), the clowns represent abstract victims but also the entire social structure supporting our mass-media soap bubbles. At first, the piece’s dense black marks interspersed with patches of cut imagery register as calligraphy, Arabic writing or a Pollock-like spill of black paint on white vinyl. Only up close do the lines take the form of clowns drawn in sequence and linked together like cursive writing, chatting among themselves like Norman Rockwell’s gossiping neighbours as they march around the frame. With identical bowler hats, beards and swollen noses, they are the boxcar bum clowns used in 1930s vaudeville. Although uniformly costumed, the turn of their heads and expressions vary. One even looks mysteriously like a duck.

Like a cocktail of Sue Williams’s calligraphic copulating couples, a Marc Chagall chorus line of marching rabbis and John Wayne Gacy, Winter Circus is simultaneously funny and frightening. As Schlossberg says, ‘clowns are everyman armies, a population moving forward. They are cut from the same cloth, but that cloth is not the same. Their skin of advertisements is a constantly changing pattern of language and glyphs projected upon them by society’s wants, needs and fantasies. They are players in a Kabuki theatre costumed in full regalia, like the peanut gallery, sometimes rowdy, and then quiet, contemplative. They grimace and smirk, joke among themselves and jeer each other on.’ Schlossberg gives us posh, nose-to-the-sky clowns with monocles and top hats like millionaires played by W.C. Fields. There are also blue-collar clowns who slide down ladders, landing in buckets of paint, and clowns dressed as tramps carrying oversized empty tin cans with holes in their shoes. Regardless of their overt characteristics, clowns are causalities of the media and advertising organs they mock, and in Winter Circus they are getting organised like workers in a Ben Shahn mural.

In Schlossberg’s recent works, the clowns only make cameo appearances as her images have become increasingly personal. In her solo exhibit at McKenzie Fine Art in New York last winter, she created a form of autobiography based upon her signature collision between individual history and mass imagery. These recent collages are powerful displays of subjective references contrasted with abstract fantasy. According to Schlossberg, she wants to make art which is ‘like modern archaeology, where the dig sites are the generic suburban developments making up our modern landscape’. The images she adopts are not the bones and tools of American suburban culture but its Grecian urns, documenting dominant mythologies and crafting personal histories.

Ana Finel Honigman is currently reading for a Master of Studies in the History of Art and Visual Culture at Oxford University, Mansfield College

Raven Schlossberg has forthcoming exhibitions at the Museum Schloss Morsbroich, Leverkusen, Germany (19 August – 5 October 2003), the Galerie Geiger, Konstanz, Germany, and the Galerie Schloss Rosenberg, Zell am See, Austria (both October 2003).

Raven Schlossberg, Forgetting, 2002, paper and ink collage with acrylic on vinyl