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Dunlevie's Deconstructive Collage

by Thomas Leddy, Department of Philosophy, San Jose State University

Kathryn Dunlevie: Cover Versions, Waverley Press, 2012.

Collage has always involved taking apart, putting together, pasting-over, and cutting-out. But there’s something new here.  A hint: many of Dunlevie’s images are reminiscent of deconstructivist architecture, particularly that of Peter Eisenman. Based on a combination of the deconstructionist philosophy of Derrida and the constructivist architecture of the Russian revolution, deconstructivist architecture looks like modernist architecture exploded and recreated as science-fiction illustration. As with Eisenman, Dunlevie looks for that which lies between traditional oppositional categories, a theme touched on by Gerald Brett in his essay, and by Dunlevie’s own remarks about alternate worlds. (See David Goldblatt, “The Dislocation of the Architectural Self,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticisism 49:4, (1991) 33—348.)

But it’s more complicated than that. Dunlevie’s art has two competing personalities: one incredibly precise and ordered, although maze-like; the other baroque, lush, and exuberant; this all symbolized in her piece, Introduction to the 20th Century, with its Rorschach ink-blot on the one side, and an architectural white fan on the other. It’s like Nietzsche’s marriage of the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

And, although deconstructivism was mainly a reaction against the eclecticism of postmodernism, Dunlevie retains postmodern elements, for example appropriation and pastiche. Nostalgia, too, plays a role: as in the album’s frayed edges (they’re mostly from our generation’s teen years), and the places where the record caused the surface of the image to wear away in a semicircle (as in Hotel Thireas.)  

A large part of the aesthetic interest in her pieces is in the cut-outs and what they reveal, both formally and semantically. One looks for secret meaning in the words that remain from the albums after the overlays and cuts. And sometimes it’s there. Underneath, you know it says “Boston Pops” and “Fiedler,” but all you see is “Ops” and “Fiedl,” and that makes you think Field Ops, which is the title of the piece (it’s like deciphering vanity license plates). You also think “fields,” as you notice luminescent leaves interweaving over the like-colored album as if to say “Lush insistent nature will have its revenge.” Similarly, in But Beautiful, big diaphanous leaves form a back-to-nature hat for an elegant lady. And, in This Land, luscious purple tulips erupt through an American landscape like something out of Monty Python.

In Drushba Eterna, (“drushba”  means “friendship” in Russian) the base album features a military band. But what we see first is the word “eternal” minus one letter, as if indicating an unconscious dream of the afterlife. And then there are the curtains that frame this piece. Is there something baroque in deconstructivism, just as there is something classical in postmodernism?  It’s there in Shanachie, an architectural photograph turned into an Escheresque labyrinth, and in Ari’s Rest which allows upside-down Russian onion-dome architecture to show through a precise formalist cut in a geometrically complex photographed pool. Collectors Series, named after the phrase at the bottom, is perfectly bisected by a black line, as though it were a couple of architectural models (series of two) and not a photograph (once again of Greek tourist spots) collaged over an album. In Waiting,my favorite, a green door balances two lighter greens that appear behind cuts in the photo, the album’s abstract checkerboard pattern working now as a prefect background. And Cello Concertos looks as though it were some sort of crazy drawing from the 18th century…it’s actually a reproduction of a Fragonard or a Watteau, photos of palm tree branches giving exotic luxuriance to the original while also invading the album’s space. Nashville Skyline, based on a Bob Dylan album, gives credit to Dionysian excess of the baroque (ladies’ trumpets blaring away), while a guitar-shaped space-ship hovers above.

And in Missa Gaia, another ship, floating above the earth, is really a hotel that mimics a Greek village. In Beloved, the photo of a classical fountain and windows is juxtaposed against a cloudy sky on an album featuring the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (note how the jagged cut of the balcony parallels the clouds). The cuts can be funny too, as in Kin, where Yul Brynner peeks out of one window of an overlaid architectural photo, and Deborah Kerr out of another, her giant purple dress sweeping her magically through the walls.

Nietzsche would approve.

KATHRYN  DUNLEVIE                                                                  CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHIC COLLAGE

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