Part 2, project 5 – the combine

This project is about using found objects and making a piece of work by attaching them to a support. The advice is to do this on the flat and to use a support strong enough to allow for stapling, puncturing, stitching and otherwise reliably connecting disparate items to a surface that will eventually be viewed in the vertical. Robert Rauschenberg is the key reference and so I ran a search for some background.

I found two key sources; one is the Tate which contains a selection of images, the other a Wikipedia page that carries information about his family, friends, work history, and relationships.

Of the Tate collection, most are unavailable (Search results | Tate), but there are enough to get the gist of Rauschenberg’s work. And I have a problem with it because, despite the titles, I don’t know what they are or why they are, so when they don’t engage me visually, and they don’t, then we have nothing to say to each other.

But what I do see from his wikipedia page is that Rauschenberg seems likely to have struggled all his life to fit in, to make sense of himself and his relationships, and to have a need to organise his work around that. His parents were fundamentalist Christian and, from his failed marriage and subsequent gay/bi relationships*, this can’t have been easy for him. I wonder if his combines – works made from found objects and fixed into place on a solid support of some kind – are his way of bringing the world to him on his own terms and stabilising it. Again from his Wikipedia page,

Rauschenberg collected discarded objects on the streets of New York City and brought them back to his studio where he integrated them into his work. He claimed he “wanted something other than what I could make myself and I wanted to use the surprise and the collectiveness and the generosity of finding surprises.

If I could ask him, I’d ask what fixing these discarded objects, these things he couldn’t make himself, and giving them importance meant to him. I’d ask what drew him to particular discardees – was it shape, colour, texture, meaning, size and origins? Did he collect to maintain a stock of items to sift through when he wanted to make a piece of work or did he go out looking for particular sorts of items to add to something already in progress?

I’d ask what satisfied him most, the objects themselves, finding them, or integrating them into his work? Are those items in any sense rescued?

Are his combines an externalisation of a need to bring things together, to stabilise them by holding them in place?

He lived through a world war, deployed by the Navy as a neuropsychiatric technician in California, he was dyslexic, and he couldn’t stomach cutting up a frog in a biology class. How did those experiences impact on his later work?

I’m not going to answer these questions for him, post hoc psychologising isn’t ethical and it isn’t the point, the point is the curiosity in the framing of them.

Practical work

I’m not Rauschenberg and I don’t have his drives; mine are different. I’ve used a free carrier bag made of cotton and primed it onto a piece of cartridge as it was quite flimsy. Then I stapled both to a flattened cardboard box. I’d crumpled the cotton which began to look like waves, and I’d found a piece of bark that became a ship, held in place by the two handles of the bag stapled onto the surface (and right through to the A1 board!). Part of the shop’s logo looked to me like the ornate prow of another ship and so I used twigs and ivy leaves to make masts and sails.

From my waste basket, I retrieved some transparent film I’d taken off a canvas board and some old prints of other work. These I glued in place then used dilute paint to make drips and sweeps of movement. Some of this I dabbed off with flannel before it dried.

I’ve let the image leak out above and below the central painting and I’m thinking about what to make of the cotton flaps either side. Top right, there’s a piece of last week’s palette.

I want to pick out the foreground ship a little as it’s got a bit lost, so when everything has dried, I’ll maybe use some inks or soft pastels to make lines.

Finished with pebbles from the garden and acrylic pen black/white/gold detail to selected parts of the painting. It’s become a fantasy voyage, a kind of Golden Fleece enterprise with eyes in the wood and the sea, either being evil/good or warding off evil. I like to think they’re benign and protective. They were inspired by the Sakala carrier bag which comes from a shop that goes in for a great deal of eastern influenced spirituality. That prow is probably a tree of life.

This is a long way from Rauschenberg but it is at least a construction from objects that can be said to be found.


*While, in what I’ve read, there’s no mention of Rauschenberg being gay or bisexual, he had ‘romantic’ relationships with Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, and long term partner Darryl Pottorff. [Robert Rauschenberg – Wikipedia]. Homosexuality was not fully decriminalised in the US until 1973 when Rauschenberg would have been approaching his 50s. Wikipedia.

Crop. I’d keep this, or make prints.

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