By Jenny Neyman
Of all the mediums of artwork, perhaps the most inherently rich in symbolism is collage, created, as it is, with layers — literal and figurative — of bits and snippets of images and materials that are repurposed, modified and reinterpreted into new imagery, yet unavoidably retain a reference to the original. This fusing of old and new creates a sort of journey in each collage, taking a viewer from what the elements used to be along a path of the artist’s imagination to what they have become.
How fitting, then, that Kathy Matta’s art show on display at the Kenai Fine Arts Center through October is based on the imagery of the tarot, the decks of playing cards popular from the mid-15th century in Europe.
The originally hand-painted cards are rich in graphic imagery and symbolism strictly in an artistic sense, with today’s printed cards still retaining the intricately rendered designs and characters of the older, much more painstakingly produced versions. For those of a more spiritual mindset, the cards have also been used since the late 18th century as a divination tool, offering guidance along life’s journey.
Matta remembers being drawn to the cards for their graphic imagery as young as 9 years old, collecting decks throughout her life and examining the vividly detailed images and symbolisms, especially of the 22 Major Arcana — the face cards, essentially, as we would think of a king, queen or jack in a modern deck of cards.
There’s the Hierophant, for instance, depicting a pope or bishop resplendent in fine robes, sitting upon a throne between two pillars, pointing with two fingers to the heavens and two to earth, representing education, convention and obedience.
The Sun, depicting a baby holding a red flag — suggesting the bloody passage of renewal — amid lush sunflowers, all under a smiling sun, indicating attained knowledge, accomplishment and optimism.
Or a darker card, like Death, of a skeleton riding a horse past the dead and dying of all classes, royalty to commoners, speaking to the ending of a life cycle, or perhaps merely a transition with a less finite outcome.
“I’ve always been attracted to the imagery of the decks,” Matta said.
One perspective of the cards, she said, is that they represent the myths and lessons common of humanity, the major experiences we go through — seeking knowledge, facing adversity, finding strength, being tested, etc.
“They have to do with the heavy issues we go through in life, our journey in life. Basically, that’s what I use them as, like telling a story. Not like, ‘Should I buy this car?’ And then read my tarot cards,” she said.
Though she doesn’t consult them as a querent would a fortuneteller, Matta does deal them out as a sort of storytelling device, examining a card and meditating on what meaning it might have in her life. Being an artist, though, contemplation often progresses to imagination and interpretation. As she thought of what the cards represent, she did so in imagery, even if at first it was only visible to her mind’s eye.
“I just came up with the idea in my head and start looking for things that would fit it,” she said.
Matta has done collage for years, more for relaxation and to soothe her roots of learning printmaking in school than as making art to display, unlike the lacquer art for which she has become known. On something of a lark she entered a collage piece in a small show about a year ago, and it turned out to be the seed of her current full show at the Kenai Fine Arts Center.
“I got the feeling that I wanted to do the 22 Major Arcana, and I just started working on that. But my interpretation of it. There’s a lot of imagery that’s in the actual tarot, but I changed them around,” she said.
Thus, her series of collages in “22 Stories” emerged, each taking about a week to complete. She’d start with a tarot card, consider its meaning from the traditional imagery and symbolism, and come up with her own interpretation. Then she’d make her imagery visible on paper, with clipped images layered and painted into her new tarot version.
“I’ve been collecting magazines for years, sitting in front of the wood stove and cutting out pictures,” she said. “… Some of them, when I put them down on the paper it was like making a puzzle. It was stream of consciousness, I worked from thinking about what symbols worked with those cards.”
The Sun card became her piece, “My Inner Sunshine.” Rather than a baby somewhat passively carried on a unicorn through a background of sunflowers — representing learning or the rational mind overcoming fear and illusions — Matta made the point more forcefully. In her piece, an older girl in sunglasses dives into a pile of sunflowers, with a Mona Lisa-esque sun looking enigmatically out of the frame, as if to challenge the viewer to take their own leap into discovery.
“It’s almost like an enlightenment kind of thing,” Matta said.
Her version of the Hierophant is titled with a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “Rules Are Not Necessary, Sacred Principles Are.” Instead of the rather reverent treatment of a learned holy man, Matta’s spin instead questions authority. The robed figure is dethroned and lowered to the bottom of the frame, with a demon figure assisting him with his slipper, and an angel emerging from a man’s pipe smoke, clutching the hierophant’s heart.
“The angel is coming out of his pipe dream, but the hierophant sees this angel looking down at him and holding his heart, so he’s exposed,” Matta said.
The Death card gets a more lighthearted treatment in Matta’s “I’m Seeing a Re-Birth.”
The skeleton is a rather dapper gentleman, with the head of Marcel Duchamp, the 20th- century artist known in part for his “readymade” pieces, such as a bicycle wheel mounted upside down on a stool, and a porcelain urinal titled “Fountain.” In the foreground a girl giggles over the bottle of arsenic she’s holding. Opposite Duchamp, a woman sitting on a skull swoons in a “I can’t handle all this” sort of pose. A bicycle wheel is strategically placed to further the Duchamp joke. A red rose blooms prominently in the middle of the frame. In all, it’s a crazy-making visual, creating the sense to not take death quite so deathly seriously.
“That death isn’t final, and to put some humor behind it,” Matta said of her intention for the piece. “It’s saying that death isn’t the end, just a transition or rebirth.”
“Healing Angel” is her take on the Temperance card. In most pieces she paints here and there on the collage, transforming parts of it, but “Healing Angel” became completely painted. In the card, an angel pours liquid from one receptacle to another, representing not only temperance and moderation, but balance. That’s where Matta took her cue.
“It has to do with balance, and that’s something I really need in my life. Definitely that card is very important to me. It’s telling me that I really need to stop and take time to smell the roses,” she said.
In her version, the angel is surrounded by water, but her hands aren’t shaped to pour it. They instead sort of meld with the ground.
“It’s almost like she’s meditating with the Earth, she’s feeling it. She’s surrounded by water, kind of emotional and calming. And she’s an angel, so divine guidance, rebirth and balance — that’s the main thing,” Matta said.
But even her most calming pieces have an element of the ominous to them, as all are pasted on a background of grinding gears, valves, steam pipes and other industrial machinery. Though some are obscured or treated with pops of color, most are left exposed and in grayscale, suggesting the monotonous, imagination-crushing potential of technology, standardization and mass production.
“The gears have to do with today’s society, mechanization and computers,” she said.
It’s not necessarily a statement against technology as tools — Matta has a computer and makes use of it — but when use becomes abuse, such as with identity theft or surveillance of private citizens.
She chose to utilize images from the Industrial Revolution rather than today’s computerized one, in part because she’s long been fascinated with antiques and older styles of art and craftsmanship, like Tiffany stained glass, etchings and the ancient method of lacquer art.
“You can buy a computer program and can make one of your photos look like an etching, and it takes away from making that kind of art,” she said.
Interspersed with the collages are old metal shears hanging on the walls, further harbingers of what’s lost when convenience steamrolls creativity. In collage, there’s not much room for convenience in the conceptualizing, hunting, cutting, arranging and manipulating process.
But in some things, the process matters as much as the product. In art, it’s all the time, Matta would argue. Certainly, “22 Stories” demonstrates a process, of interpretation and creation, as much as a product. Matta hopes viewers take a journey through interpretation when processing the images, as well.
“I think it’s kind of fun, actually. Use your brain, get out of the box. That’s why I did it,” she said.