Aikaterini Gegisian, Handbook of the Spontaneous Other

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by MACK Books (here). Linen-bound hardcover, 24×17 cm, 144 pages, with 59 color collage reproductions. Includes a poem by the artist. Design by Morgan Crowcroft-Brown. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The artistic problem that lies at the very heart of photographic (and rephotographed) collage is aesthetic balance. If a collage has too much dissonance, it falls apart, becoming a jumble of unrelated images that fails to coalesce into any kind of identifiable meaning; if it has too little, and the fragments fit together too neatly and perfectly, a collage becomes limp, frictionless, and at worst, obvious and boring. Finding the balance point somewhere in the middle, where the juxtapositions have energy, intelligence, and surprise but the connections are still visually vibrant, is the elusive challenge, and it’s one very few photocollage artists have succeeded in consistently meeting.

Artistic approaches to photocollage can be further divided into the artists that crop images down to cutouts of objects that are then assembled into new narratives or fantastical/surreal constructions (like Hannah Höch or László Moholy-Nagy) and those that leave the photographs largely as whole squares, rectangles, and larger discrete shapes, which are then placed into overlapped arrangement (like John Stezaker, and more recently, Katrien de Blauwer.) While scavenged images provide the raw material for both methods, the former initially isolates and decontextualizes before rebuilding, while the latter leaves the image surroundings in place, reminding us that the artist is using photographs with pre-existing histories and identifiable points of view that may become part of the resonance of the downstream collages.

The photocollages in Aikaterini Gegisian’s photobook Handbook of the Spontaneous Other belong in the loose group with Stezaker and de Blauwer, both because she has largely employed squared off full images in her layered compositions and because the backstory to those photographs has relevance to her broader artistic aims. Gegisian has drawn her component parts from magazines from the 1960s and 1970s, as well as advertisements, tourist brochures, and other publications from those same decades, so even though the source material ranges widely from National Geographic nature imagery to explicit pornography, the aesthetics and printed color tones are recognizably consistent. This turns out to be important because it eliminates anachronistic visual jumps and keeps the color palette relatively synchronized, thereby allowing Gegisian to take bigger risks with her internal content combinations; it also allows Gegisian to play with the attitudes and aspirations that enlivened those decades.

Handbook of the Spontaneous Other is organized as a progression, or better yet, a trip around the color wheel, in a series of color-themed sections. The first section begins with white, and essentially introduces us to the visual vocabulary of collage, starting with simple two image pairings. Using mostly black-and-white source material, Gegisian connects the flowing costume of a dancer with the drapery of an ancient statue, extends the line of a ballet barre to link up with a cattle fence, and creates a visual echo between the curve of a snowy mountain top and the swaying hips of a woman in a white dress.

In the pink and yellow sections that follow, Gegisian expands her approach to three, four, and even five images, thereby increasing the complexity of the image interactions. For some, her use of explicit body images (both male and female) will come as a brief shock, as spread vaginas and erect penises are intermingled with insects, flowers, underwater life, and other natural wonders. Linder Sterling and Pacifico Silano are just two of the many artists who have thoughtfully brought pornography (straight and gay) into their collages/montages, and Gegisian’s choices often operate as both seduction and formal design, the shapes and curves of bodies fully integrated into her compositional strategies. Sinuous flowers and swooping skiers seem to emerge from a woman’s vagina, a man’s penis extends the curve of the back of a magnified insect, and a backside view of a woman is decorated with jewelry and bright coral. As we become accustomed to her use of pornographic images, she moves on to more layered creations that highlight the patterns in bent bodies and schools of fish, link pollination, flowers, and dewy dildo penetration, and use the curved shapes of glass and ceramic vases to mimic female hips and breasts.

As we might have guessed, the orange and red sections turn up the visual heat a notch or two, following the color stories more rigidly. Several works are symphonies in matchy-matchy orange, alternately reshuffling flowers, interior design, adobe houses, corals, nude bodies, and other color-coded finds. A few collages in the red section elegantly play with form, using a roller coaster to break up a female nude and pairing a chevron-painted hockey mask with the leg kick of ballet dancer.

In the green, purple, and blue sections, Gegisian’s palette gets cooler and she tries a few new approaches. In several works, she effectively “builds” female bodies out of diverse component parts, creating top to bottom compositions that use tables for arms, porcelain plates for breasts, purple crystals for a crown, and a curved string of beads for an approximation of legs. Other collages seem to generate their own internal motion, with a luge ridge sliding into a flower arrangement, a farmer pouring milk into what becomes lights in the night sky, and ice dancers and sleeping sled dogs turning in a nested spiral. And still others play with visual extensions, connecting a muddy nude woman and a leggy cactus, a man on a ski lift hanging from a woman’s legs, and a gymnast’s hyper extended arms and legs flowing outward with elongated plant forms. The last section in black marks a return to monochrome imagery, where religious penitents are gathered like cattle, and the curves of woman’s buttocks radiate out in spirals like ripples on a lake.

In large part, Gegisian’s collages find the compositional sweet spot, where jarring contrasts somehow coexist in a kind of grace. Her combinations settle into a more formal plane than an intellectual one, as few of her creations seem to bite with the surgical incisiveness that turns charged juxtaposition into critique or mockery. But this centering on shape and color alignment doesn’t dilute the pared down sophistication of her visual logic. Handbook of the Spontaneous Other follows a step-wise rainbow, and that arc ties Gegisian’s photobook into a neat package.

Collector’s POV: Aikaterini Gegisian does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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