Inscripting: Collages of Emily Shepard

by Peter Frank

Painting and collage would seem two very different disciplines. A painting presents a unified, by inference pre-composed picture (or image) rendered in a single medium or media compound. A collage, by contrast, proposes a multi-faceted, even fractured, visual experience that can incorporate a variety of distinct and disparate materials and shapes. Collage presumes or implies fragile, almost ephemeral ingredients and arrangements; painting projects unity and gravitas. Collage hews close to the fugitive means of the poet while, if anything, painting faces the other way, towards the ponderous materiality and the scalar and imagistic breadth of the altarpiece, the mural, even the sculpture.

But all this differentiation between painting and collage, in spirit and in practice, simply masks the close, nay familial relationship between them. The lineaments of collage are really no more distant from those of painting than from those of its sister practices – drawing, watercolor, and other paper media – and like them, collage springs as much from painting as springs to it, that is, as it serves painting formally and notationally. Collage is its own parameter.

In Emily Shepard’s work, the self-reflexive identity of collage seems not only proffered, but consciously exercised, even amplified. If Shepard’s work were absent its pervasive vigor and effervescence, it could serve as a pedagogic demonstration of “what collage means” (or “does”). But Shepard invests her collage-making with a vivacious spirit, a complexity of moods, a broad but balanced complement of forms and references, and a virtuosic élan that together vitalize her collages, assuring that her artworks present themselves to us not simply as “examples of collage” but as collages, pure and simple – or, more accurately, impure and intricate.

Quite evidently, Shepard approaches the formulation of each collage as a separate, focused task. She is not generating pieces of a puzzle, nor is she playing out variations on a predetermined set of ingredients. Variations on a theme, perhaps, certainly in her most recent series, in which the act of writing becomes dissociated from the effort to verbalize – and does so through the transformation of script into painterly gesture, a knowingly ironic act that claims greater articulation for the nominally “illegible” brushstroke than for the written word. It is a visual artist’s commentary on the loss of the real, the palpable, and the simultaneous loss of language – certainly language of expressive depth – in the early High Digital Era.

Shepard’s poised but agitated compositions, displaying layer upon layer of compromised and muted writing – not so much silenced as short-circuited into a cacophony of mark-making – present themselves not merely as alternate modes of quotidian connection. Rather, they veer toward the elegant to bemoan the loss of the eloquent. They mourn and mirror the vanishing materiality (not to mention sensuality) of daily life, but do not model a remedy.

The energy pulsing through Shepard’s accretions of scrap and scribble at once brings attention back to the current worldwide crisis in communication and – again, without proposing solutions – relieves at least some of the crisis dynamic. The collages brim with wit, their incorporation and superposition of pasted, painted, and penciled elements is invariably graceful (especially as they verge time and again on collapse), and they are infectiously buoyant despite the regrets and misgivings we share with the artist about the state of our civilization, a society whose ontological decay inversely mirrors its technological prowess.

“I think about improvisation,” Shepard writes, “the ineffable, utterings… and also the sense of communication that doesn’t quite ‘land’ or happens at cross purposes, not being understood, given elements obscured, just beyond the range of perceptible understanding.” And yet, she modulates, “I have such empathy for the marks, these players in my pieces…” In this regard, Shepard concerns herself not with the societal disruption induced by new technologies so much as with the psychological toll the resulting alienation from our own civilization takes on our epistemological self-regard. We struggle to understand one another and the universe around us but long ago lost adequate command of the tools afforded us to do so. Our mark-making becomes less and less “language” and more and more “art” – endearing itself to us even as it sinks into mystery.

In this regard Shepard maintains a modern tradition of notational inscrutability, of marks stymied on their way to language but brought to crudescence as alternative forms of image-making. Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg are the principal proponents of such abstract graffiti, of course, but many later 20th-century artists, spanning the globe and drawing (as it were) upon many calligraphic traditions, determine a kind of etched or penciled parallel to the collage aesthetic. The heroic existentialism of the public scribble fuses with the contemplative virtuosity of the Sino-Japanese “written painting” to fill the visual culture of our time with marks as vivid and energetic as they are mute. Together, the mark-makers of late, post, and neo-modernism clearly support and prefigure Shepard’s notion that there is no whole, in language or in art, that isn’t an elaborate sum of parts. A work of art Is at once a puzzle and its own solution; but the solution is never fixed.

Emily Shepard’s mark-making, expressive even in its lingual blankness, connects her to the fragmented world artists have charted since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. So equally does her engagement of collage, an engagement that connects her, tightly, to the “collage aesthetic,” fractured and discontinuous, that has dominated modern life. The mark-making impulse and the collage aesthetic determine the nature of vision and communication among contemporary humanity, and work such as Shepard’s serves to remind us that we look at ourselves, one another, and reality through a cracked lens. The art is in the cracking, and equally in the reassembling.

Los Angeles

May 2023