Written by Salvatore Schiciano
Around half a decade ago, I was fortunate to come upon the work of the artists and writers of the San Francisco Renaissance, in particular, the collages of Jess and the poems of Robert Duncan. I found Jess’s collages especially exciting as they appeared to be in a state of constant expansion packed with an abundance of allusions. Similarly, I witnessed a kind of parallel expansiveness in the extent to which Jess’s work generated widespread interest, and that would, in turn, lead me to the lesser-known collagist Helen Adam, whose works present an engaging amalgamated cosmos that deliberately teeters on the edge between the horrifying and the hilarious.
A recent publication, The Collages of Helen Adam (Further Other Book Works / Cuneiform Press, December 2017), edited by Alison Fraser, sheds new light on the life and collages of Helen Adam and her sister, Pat. The Adam sisters became immersed in the San Francisco Renaissance in the early 1950s, and were familiar with the likes of Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer, and the circle of Jess and Robert Duncan. Inspired by this group of artists, Helen created a suite of collaborative photo-poem collages; in one, she crowned Duncan “The king of the all the poets.” Helen and Pat’s childhood practice of scrapbooking likely matured into their collage works of the late 1950s and may have been influenced by Jess’s collage practices.
During the 1950s, the Bay Area collective began exploring the relationship between visual and verbal expression. A large part of Helen and Pat’s source images were taken from popular periodicals of the period, such as Life, Vogue, Picture Post, and National Geographic, along with Victorian illustrations, including Gustave Doré’s renderings for Milton’s Paradise Lost and for Dante’s Divine Comedy. The visual material was reconfigured into unexpected satiric compositions depicting witchcraft and images of supernatural female empowerment. The foundational stones of socio-critical collage work, as conveyed by the likes of Max Ernst, established unwritten alchemical instructions for the potential of compounded images, which I believe Helen and Pat adopted with exquisite accuracy.
The 20th century presented an incalculable expansion of mass-media technology and image exposure, widening the nets of advertisers while also providing a surplus of materials for collage artists, the latter likely being unintentional. From this sheer visual assault, Helen and Pat appropriated the representations of glamorous models from popular advertisements and performed their transmutations. Terrifying titillations, such as a snake consuming a frog is superimposed over what would have been a fashion shot revealing excessive cleavage; the folds of the snake’s body echoing the fold of the models’ breasts. Plays on words and puns, decontextualization, and reconfiguration are mortared together with metaphor as much as with paste, often resulting in humorous and hellish binaries. Series that demonstrate this double-play most successfully are the sisters’ collages of the 1950s and early 60s in San Francisco, as well as in Helen’s collage epic In Harpy Land (1976-77).
Collage often relies on the content brought to a work by preexisting imagery. If an image is composed in a certain way to present information to a specific demographic, then it carries a certain amount of conceptual weight, or energy keeping with the often supernatural theme involving witchcraft and magic. Reconfiguring disparate images can combine these varied energies and in so doing create a newly charged pictorial language. Thus, fashion models become conjurors of familiars. In magical lore, a conjuror can summon animals as extensions of themselves to do their bidding; similar to the how in classical mythologies certain animals are associated with certain Gods (i.e. Owl represents Athena, Peacock represents Hera). These are woven into the photographic composition causing humorous double-entendres, as when vices are vivisected into an appropriated uncanniness. Adding to the visual-verbal play are witty captions, such as Perhaps No One Will Notice Them or The Flesh of Love, which vacillate between the subtle and overt ways in which women are portrayed in popular media.
The familiar expression about jokes being funny because they are true carries some weight here where the Adam sister’s collages vibrate. In his theoretical work Jokes and their Relationship to the Unconscious, Freud explores the integrating mechanics within jokes as a corollary to how dreams functioned. Joke-work, like dreamwork, shares aspects of conscious and unconscious interpretations as well as the release of repressed emotions which produces humor successfully manifested. Furthermore, there is a “social process” whereby the sharing of jokes with others serves further to develop shared areas of the communal psyche. Examples would be pointing out the “trappings” of consumer culture and how it leads to conformism in the masses. The Adam sisters' collage work is directly engaged with the subject matter form which it is taken – commercial advertisements. Pat and Helen’s works showcase these dangers with a bit of tongue in cheek.
The obscure supernatural threads which Helen and Pat drew from in their collaging can be seen as a counter to their own mundane low-paying jobs. Their bleak and powerless professional positions held in this realm are inverted into the all-powerful entities such as the Harpy Queen of the ballad-collage In Harpy Land, where engravings of the poetical epics of Milton and Dante are transformed into a new mythological surrealist nightmare. The way in which images blur together through the process of cutting and pasting into a collage can be seen as allegory to the collective supernatural works that Helen Adam mingled and migrated between with an unparalleled magical imagination.
The concept of magic, or reality depending on one’s inclination, is integral to the work and the belief structures of Helen and Pat. I am sure they knew that magic was more real than the scientifically rational choose to believe, and that you just need to pay closer attention. This is not the superficial magic of contemporary Hollywood or Photoshop but maybe something more akin to the talisman FDR affixed to the dollar bill in 1933. Along with the Gold Reserve Act the following year, FDR literately turned paper into Gold, better than gold actually, and it may be worth noting that God wasn’t added until 1956. The limits of this world may be limited by the languages we choose to understand or believe, but the worlds we allow ourselves to create are limitless which I think Pat and Helen always knew and believed.
For more information regarding the 2017 publication The Collages of Helen Adam please follow This Link.
Copyright © the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York and used with permission. All images are of items from the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.