Clear-Eyed Collages Elicit The Mysteries of Everyday Objects

Looking at a piece of art from up close and at a distance lends itself to different, if related, kinds of experience. The artist works at arm’s length, whether wielding a brush, a chisel or a chunk of charcoal. Intimacy is implied through touch, but in engagement too. Yet artists step back from their efforts in the hope that remove—both literal and aesthetic—will bring a greater clarity and resolution.

This approach doesn’t necessarily guarantee success, of course. Artists can miss the forest for the trees (or vice versa) as much as anyone. Who hasn’t spotted a painting or sculpture from a distance and walked up to it in a state of anticipation, only to be disappointed by drab or unfelt crafting? Similarly, a piece that entrances us as we press our nose against its surface may become indistinct from even a few feet away. The ability to hold our attention from near and far is a significant indicator of merit.

I was reminded of this fundamental notion while attending two exhibitions devoted to the medium of collage: Lance Letscher at Howard Scott Gallery in Chelsea and Joshua Dorman at Pierogi 2000 in Williamsburg. It’s difficult not to be hooked by the specificity of the materials they employ, yet that specificity doesn’t hinder an overriding unity and flow. The work of each artist will have you shuffling back and forth in bewilderment and liking every second of it.

Of the distinctive set of materials particular to each art form, some announce themselves more forthrightly than others. The challenge for artists using readymade items for collage—newspaper photographs, scraps of fabric, train tickets, what have you—is to transform a functional and, at times, stubbornly physical object into a vehicle for metaphor, into something other and greater than a mere thing in the world.

Mr. Letscher and Mr. Dorman are wise to the transformative properties of art and apply their knowledge with persuasive skill. Both men can trace their roots to the Surrealists and Dadaists, who prized the pictorial discord that arises when disparate bits and pieces are cut and pasted together.

Mr. Letscher owes a debt to Kurt Schwitters and his loving amalgams of everyday detritus. Automatism—or, at least, the mind’s more obscure wanderings—feeds Mr. Dorman’s methodology.

Yet the artist whom their work evokes most strongly is Joseph Cornell, the reclusive mama’s boy from Flushing whose dioramas of dolls, bottles and vintage bric-a-brac simultaneously offer an homage to childhood and a curse upon it. Cornell’s example is so utterly singular as to prevent anything resembling a school from following in its wake. Mr. Letscher and Mr. Dorman aren’t, strictly speaking, his students.

What they do share with Cornell is a conviction that the objects amassed over a lifetime—mundane stuff that has been used, damaged, forgotten or discarded—are imbued with the residue of events, personalities and bygone eras. It’s a measure of Cornell’s deep regard for his materials that the items at his disposal were allowed a certain independence. His art elicited and elaborated upon, rather than prescribed, the memories attached to them.

Mr. Letscher and Mr. Dorman exhibit the same sensitivity, acumen and generosity. Mr. Letscher favors hardcover bindings, ledgers, notepads, album covers, something that looks like a tourist brochure from 1952 and other ephemera. Mr. Dorman’s collage palette, as it were, is more limited but no less evocative: Topographical maps, yellowed with age, serve as the grounding upon which he draws, paints and doodles.

Of the two, Mr. Letscher, who’s fruitfully squirreled away in Austin, Tex., is more purely dedicated to the piecemeal aesthetic of collage. The work makes itself felt through accumulations of discrete and often tiny bits of material. Notations and jottings by anonymous persons and staining caused by excess adhesive are the only direct intimations of the hand.

Keenly attuned to the surface qualities and tonal palette of the myriad items he works with, Mr. Letscher creates images that evoke the cosmos, microcellular life forms and, in the case of the monumental Lucky Cat (2005), the deepest reaches of the earth’s crust. Diagrammatic structures, floating ovoid forms and radiant pinwheels of baby blue and dusky pink are created and choreographed with a clear-eyed aplomb. A strain of mysticism typical of his earlier work is less in evidence here, but the pieces certainly aren’t lacking in poetry and, at moments, a newfound whimsy.

Mr. Dorman’s encompassing art is less focused than Mr. Letscher’s, but that’s probably the point. Accentuating and sometimes obscuring the rhythmic patterning of maps, he creates elaborate and fanciful landscapes that you can “stare at 150,000 times and always get something different” (as one visitor to the gallery exclaimed).

Alien monsters ensconced in a box, turd-like sculptures, precisely rendered insects, veering cityscapes, splats and spills are just a few of the zillion or so events that dot Mr. Dorman’s scribbled, vertiginous vistas. Meandering this, that and every which way, the pieces go nowhere in particular, and they do so with peculiar invention and charming illogic. Like Mr. Letscher, Mr. Dorman follows, with enthusiasm and gratitude, where his materials lead him. It’s a pleasure to get lost with both of them.

Lance Letscher: Recent Works is at Howard Scott Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, until Jan. 7, 2006; Joshua Dorman: Lost Travels in End Land is at Pierogi 2000, 177 North Ninth Street, Brooklyn, until Dec. 23.