September 1 , 2011
By Ken Krayeske • 8:30 AM EST
Re-Covering Time: How Alan Bisbort sees modern America. His collage exhibit of a year's worth of Time magazine covers will open this afternoon at The Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford.
Disclosure: Alan Bisbort is a friend. I am writing this column about an art exhibit featuring his work, and interviewing him taught me about him, art and the world. In the effort of transparency, I have known Alan for years, and will attempt to practice disinterested and objective journalism in this week's column. But I like Bisbort and his ideas, so this is a one source story only interviewing him.
The late Donald Barthelme, that celebrated poet and author, wrote in his posthumous 1997 tome Dealing With Not-Knowing: ''The principle of collage is the central principle of all art in the 20th century."
The very much alive Alan Bisbort, freelance writer, editor and collage artist, agrees.
"Collage most evokes what it is like to live now," Bisbort said. "Collage serves a function psychologically ala Freud, where you manipulate the world around us to suit our personality and view of the world. There is an element of positive wish fulfillment."
Bisbort has been making collages for more than 30 years, and his skill has naturally developed. "If you do anything long enough, you get good at it," he said.
The zenith of Bisbort's amateur career as a collage artist will begin Thursday, September 1, at 5:30 p.m. when the Charter Oak Cultural Center opens an exhibit of Bisbort's collages of Time magazine covers from 2011. The exhibit will run through September 23.
The exhibit will be set up like a newsstand, with all the covers on one wall.
Bisbort bought a cheap subscription to Time magazine and every week this year, he has been making collages out of the covers, using only the images from inside the magazine.
And Bisbort's career will peak again in February 2012, when the Thomas J. Dodd Research Library at the University of Connecticut in Storrs will display the entire run of all 52 Time cover collages.
Bisbort grew up in North Carolina in the 1960s, and read Mad magazine, Paul Krassner's the Realist and other outrageous, satirical parodies of modern living.
As a student at the University of North Carolina, he worked at the campus library. He and his friends - hippie wannabees is what he said - had access to a Xerox machine.
In the rebellious genius of Mad and the Realist, Bisbort and his mates would scissor through magazine and newspapers and other print items and make collages. "We would do it to amuse ourselves," Bisbort said. "We were steeped in jagged, off beat sensibilities."
Mostly, he would make random pieces of art. But, he said "It would give me a sense of deep satisfaction to start with nothing and end up with a complete work of art."
His awareness of 20th century collage artists like assemblage artist Joseph Cornell and abstract expressionist Robert Rauschenberg helped inspire him.
Rauschenberg devoured images and digested them on his canvasses, using pictures of JFK, parachutes, bald eagles and maybe even an actual car tire in a collage.
The political use of collage dates back further, though. Collage artists helped fuel the Russian revolution at the turn of the century.
During the Weimar republic and throughout Hitler's reign in Germany, Hannah Hoch, a Dadaist, pioneered the use of photo montage. Hoch's imagery often included same sex couples, at a time when such a thing in Hitler's Germany was unacceptable.
Her most famous piece, "Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany" employed magazine images to satirize mass media, fashion photography and the beauty industry.
For years, Bisbort utilized random images. When he and his friend, author Parke Puterbaugh travelled around the United States for four months, Bisbort would take the free real estate magazines and tourist brochures and chop them up.
"I wanted to depict truthfully a community that is sold based on lies in those travel brochures," Bisbort said. "I wanted to use my art for a higher purpose, not just random fun."
Bisbort's old column and blog with the Hartford Advocate provided a good reason to chop up pictures and rework them.
More recently, Puterbaugh sent Bisbort a free subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. Bisbort would slice through the magazines, and make collages out of the covers and send them back to Parke.
"Magazines are great symbols of our consumer culture," Bisbort said. "Every cover is a lie. The ones that lie the best, sell the best."
Like Hannah Hoch, Bisbort provides acerbic commentary on our modern times with his Time covers.
Time is a bellweather of conventional wisdom, Bisbort said. "This is what middle class America views as newsworthy," Bisbort said, and his collage of the covers are a time capsule for 2011.
One imagines Time founder Henry Luce turning over in his grave looking at Bisbort's rendition of Anthony Wiener week. Bisbort remade to reflect the media saturation of Twitter, sex gossip and downfall of the Congressman from Brooklyn.
Luce gave America magazines like Fortune, Time and Life, which, for a time, were a glue that held our society together. Through Luce's editorial lens, he basically dictated American policy towards China for almost five decades.
But Bisbort theorizes America went off the rails at the dawn of the atomic age. The pages of a 1950s Life depict a schizophrenic dichotomy, with images of a giant Cadillac on one page, facing down a photo of a backyard bomb shelter.
"We have a view of ourselves as an exceptional nation," Bisbort said. Fifty years later, Bisbort posits the 21st century likes to think it is evolved and modern, but we haven't gotten that far.
"Everything isn't what it seems. It is all image," Bisbort said. "We have pictures that are not pictures - they are photoshopped. We have news that is not news - they are press releases with some additional quotes dropped in. We have newscasters who are not journalists - they are actors. Our culture projects a surface image that is not true."
The collage, then, is an attempt to pierce the corporate veil. Unlike rock music, which everyone thinks they can play when they pick up a guitar, collage is something everyone can do with a pair of scissors, paper and glue.
"When you look at collage art, and you think you can do it, you can," Bisbort said.