The following is the recent essay about St.Lewis by Judith B. Farquhar PhD. Max Palvesky Prodessor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago.
Bricolage and Assemblage
In French, “bricolage” refers to the work of a builder who uses whatever comes to hand to build something new and useful. The resourceful builder, the bricoleur, is a humble figure, a sort of handyman, whose creativity does not demand the heavy equipment and purpose-built tools of the engineer or the scientist. Even less does his art require “raw” materials. The glossy surfaces and ambitious scale of modernist aesthetics are not for the bricoleur. He works in a more open and historical field, he draws on a happenstance treasury of found objects, his assemblages serve the immediate needs of those who are near and dear. If you need a garden bridge, he will make one from the broken lawn furniture you have in the garage. If a doorstop is needed, there’s a plaster bust of Plato, needing only a little polishing, around here somewhere that will serve.
The great French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss spoke of the bricoleur and his distinctive cultural work in the introduction to his classic work The Savage Mind (Pensée Sauvage, which could also be translated as “Wild Thought”). Levi-Strauss emphasized that the work of bricolage was a “science of the concrete,” and he distinguished it from the kind of work done by theoretical scientists and abstract philosophers (like himself). At the same time he compared bricolage to art, noting its particular relationship to concreteness and materiality and its capacity for developing a unique aesthetic. Most important in this comparison of the artist with the handyman, Levi-Strauss said that the objects used by bricoleurs to make new objects (to make new culture, he means) are “pre-constrained.” They are “odds and ends,” or the “remains and debris of events.” The raw materials of this creativity come pre-cooked.
Levi-Strauss was ambivalent about the bricoleur: he found the craft worker and his inimitable objects admirable, but with a hint of condescension. The bricoleur created useful and artful objects, but perhaps, Levi-Strauss suggested, he knew not what he did. Louis St. Lewis may bring the creativity, resourcefulness, and craftsman’s eye of the bricoleur to his assemblages, but he does more than that. He knows what he is doing. Or perhaps it is the assemblages themselves, these gathered personages, who know. Certainly they seem very knowing. The many-times altered face of that by-now-familiar baby is wise beyond its years; women’s perfect faces accept our rude gazes but withhold their own; the unreadable faces of celebrities keep their secrets about fame. This collection of works could just as well have been called a group of portraits as a show of assemblages. These bodies are human. Their impressive size, a move toward larger scale for St. Lewis, makes the same claims on interpersonal space that humans do. They practically reach out and grab us with their branchy arms, they threaten us with six-guns, they aim their naughty bits right at us, daring us to touch. Catching glimpses of laminated faces in different lights, at different times of day, we know the shifting moods of these figures. They are great companions.
Perhaps this is because they are so plural, so clearly made up of “remains and debris.” They have their own histories, a depth and layering of associations intrinsic to their very form. In being re-used or re-assembled into some new formation, they do not lose their pasts. These silver platters served meat to other eaters, these flutes and horns warbled for long-gone ears. Growth and weather marked these branches in woods far from our present houses; other feet wore these shoes, walking on similar but different linoleum floors. Gathered and juxtaposed in marvelous new personalities, the histories of these objects are all present. They join in a cacophony of voices, speaking of more than one other time.
Yet they speak as a person speaks. These conventionally hung artworks are like a group of wallflowers. Pretty girls waiting to be chosen for a dance, they are both spectacle and spectator, both melancholy and challenging. Their physical presence occupies space and keeps us company as friends and acquaintances might. But their voices, the mingling and jangling voices of all those “pre-constrained” objects, are less smoothed and polished than we think our own are. What are they telling us? Perhaps these speaking objects remind us that we too – however brushed and fluffed we may be in our art-opening clothes -- are products of a kind of bricolage: an almost accidental gathering of diverse historical threads, an incoherent mixing of many unfinished stories, an illogical hybrid of contradictory views.
Assemblage is radical in this way. It offers no single field of presence: no canvas, no homogeneous stone, no flat screen. There is no single medium that could flatten the work into a simple object of contemplation, a pattern of differences all made of the same stuff and all dating from the same year. Instead we have a pattern of differences made of only differences. “Mixed media” has seldom meant so much.
St. Lewis makes a sly reference to homogeneity, though, with those nails. Everything is nailed together with such conspicuous excess: too many nails, the nails are too big, there is too much of every nail left over . . . and then the nail heads are painted. The nails are aggressive, in-your-face marks of the process of assembly itself, perhaps the one voice in these portraits that still belongs to the artist himself. This artist has said that he assembles his world anew every day. With nails. As such, they must become a medium for painting, a minimal site – how many angels on the head of a pin? – on which the artist daubs his presence and his activity as artist.
This is “wild thought” indeed. St. Lewis allows these works to escape his control, to be so much more than an expression of his intention or the outcome of his personal aesthetic. For wild thought, there is always a multiplicity of thinkers and a wandering away of ideas. As we spend time with these wallflowers, they speak differently to each of us, the associations they embody are partly provided by each of us. Levi-Strauss quotes Franz Boas, another great anthropologist, to speak of the “new worlds” that are made from the “fragments” of history. St. Lewis’s assemblages are worlds indeed, and as difficult to reduce to uniformity as the mundane world is.
Yet, Levi-Strauss also says that the work of art always has “the dignity of being an object in its own right.” Amidst the cacophony, that is true too: each of the present works has a personality, a dignity, a claim of its own on our response. No wonder Louis St. Lewis sometimes speaks, as he borrows the faces and lives of celebrities, about tragedy and sacrifice. Somehow the magic trick has been pulled off, and these cobbled together gatherings of leftover stuff have become the human creatures of which myth is made.