The Persistence of Cookie Tins:
A Review of John Patterson’s
Collages at Volta Coffee

By Charles H. Meyer

Thought of SaraJohn Patterson’s collages on display at Volta Coffee bring together various 20th-and 21st-century art movements as surely as they do an array of vibrant imagery cut painstakingly from hundreds of cookie tins.

Although cookie tins appeal to Patterson for their durability, from afar his collages appear deceptively ephemeral, their glossy surfaces suggesting magazine cutouts rather than metal, their luster and weightiness only apparent upon closer inspection. Ranging in size from roughly the surface of an elementary school desk to that of a picnic table, they also seem more abstract from a distance, their colors blending in a way that recalls the all-over compositions pioneered by Jackson Pollock. But if Pollock’s paintings resemble cities seen from the air, Patterson’s collages look more like overhead shots of discount bins at Toys ‘R’ Us. Indeed, a closer look reveals the details of dozens of cookie-tin designs—steamboats, mountain skylines, the Eiffel Tower, Beatrix Potter bunnies, flower prints, Christmas ornaments, etcetera—all abruptly juxtaposed, looking nothing like Pollock and instead recalling the bright, kitschy representations of Jeff Koons’s recent EasyFun-Ethereal painting series.

“This body of work,” Patterson writes in his artist’s statement, “is the result of my layman study of neurology and my love of the cookie tin. In the last 20 years or so the field of neurology has exploded with fresh insight and spectacular advances, unraveling the mysterious underpinnings of our own cognitive life.” While intriguing, this statement seems an unnecessary, somewhat forced, justification for a body of work whose surfaces already speak fluently every major dialect of a virtual cookie tower of Babel. Although by no means revolutionary, this use of cookie tins shows promise in picking up compellingly on a crucial modern art form, one pioneered by European collagists like Pablo Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch, and Max Ernst, and by Americans like Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg. These artists converted an ever-growing profusion of disposable, mass-produced man-made objects into a new kind of raw (or pre-cooked) material for art making. As our consumption of the earth’s resources continues reaching far beyond a point of critical excess, the collagist’s recombinatory response to the material cultures of modernity and postmodernity seems almost an ethical imperative. What the quarries of Carrara, Italy once were for marble statuary, America’s landfills, thrift stores, and attics now are for the collagist or

Like all collage art, Patterson’s work speaks the language of its appropriated signs, in this case the romantic fantasies, enhanced by marketing campaigns, associated with cookie-oriented holidays like Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and Christmas. But the cutting up and rearranging of these images disrupts their narratives even as it retains their textures, producing associations somewhere between Dadaist nonsense and surrealist dream. Their tension lies partly in their ambiguity: Patterson loosely orders his arrangements both formally and thematically, but to look too hard for intended meanings seems beside the point. Viewers are instead invited to make their own associations or to resist them in favor of simply appreciating the hypnotic and chaotic designs.

Like Rorschach tests, Patterson’s collages speak to each viewer’s imagination differently. He intends them to represent thoughts. “They represent a sampling of the myriad associations our subconscious mind uses to tell our consciousness what is going on,” he explains in his artist’s statement. “A key factor I wanted to get across was the nonlinear aspect of the organization, that connections can sprout in any direction.” The two primary cultural traditions Patterson taps into, collecting and collage, both involve the appropriation and appreciation of objects and forms for their own sake. Both also relate to Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s idea of the readymade, that placing an object—even an ordinary one like a urinal, a snow shovel, or a cookie tin—in a gallery Artists’ reuse of the used constitutes a political gesture both in its conservation of resources and in its détournement of commercial signage to communicate new messages (or non-messages) that critique mass production and consumption. And Americans and Western Europeans are by no means alone in this practice. People throughout the developing world create art from soda cans and other disposable packaging that might otherwise congest their countries as we do ours. Although mostly anonymous, some are renowned, notably Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, whose Old Man’s Cloth (2003) belongs to the Harn Museum of Art here in Gainesville. Like Patterson’s collages, this monumental work fools the eye from afar, appearing to be a quilt of hundreds of gold and silver swatches that are actually small rectangles of aluminum from liquor bottles flattened and sewn together with copper wire. The work hangs from a wall in wavy folds, its resplendence and tremendous scale endowing it with the majesty of a queen or king’s robe. Its stunning grandeur belies its materials’ inexpensiveness, as if Anatsui had spun While Patterson’s collages use similar materials from similar sources, unlike Anatsui’s work they do not prompt us to forget their material origins so much as to rethink them, in this case to look at cookie tins differently. Just as the deadpan pop art of Andy Warhol celebrates commercialism, Patterson’s collages seem to participate in their cookie tins’ fantasies, going so far as to conjure, in their excessive compounding of festive images, the hyper-fantasy of a schizophrenic, year-round holiday—the kind an unscrupulous retailer might drool over. Or perhaps they inspire something more liberating: a carnival of associations parading continuously through our minds as our eyes dart from one fragment to the next, and as the synapses fire between our neurons.

collage by John Patterson Thought of Sara collage by John Patterson
collage by John Patterson Thought of Community collage by John Patterson
collage by John Patterson Thought of Husbands collage by John Patterson
collage by John Patterson Thought of Wives collage by John Patterson
Collage by John Patterson Thought of Lenny Collage by John Patterson


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