John Sparagana fatigues images by manipulating them. First he scans pictures and runs off inkjet prints, then he crumples the pictures in his pocket and kneads the glossy paper for days or weeks until the sheet’s fibrous structure is loosened. The result is a soft fabric more than double in size, with its original image lightened and diminished on the new surface, appearing like a ghost. After wearing down multiple copies of the same image, the artist then carefully slices these images to tiny squares, recompiling them to form even larger pictures. Sparagana composes within this structure by selectively weakening his collages, introducing different colors or materials to stress or obliterate sections, and returning to images with different treatments, revealing in their differences the complexity of his approach. It is an overall physical process; five years ago, I visited Sparagana’s studio and was most surprised by the literal weight of his collages, especially given the pulpy, fragile surface of the artist’s papers.
The resulting works are firmly in the genre of collage, yet they operate in two directions: With their reliance on grids and fascination with images, Sparagana’s collages have much in common with the optical intensity of digital distortion or algorithmic abstraction, yet the artist adapts his images with the kind of diagrammatic storytelling more fundamental to collage. They are artworks that take their start from mass-market media, but they are also responses to those original images, as much interpretations as adaptions.
As for the images themselves, Sparagana’s work in Crowds & Powder at Corbett vs. Dempsey features an array of bodies, clumping and indistinct within urban landscapes. Some are recognizable and even named, like the Kennedy Brothers 1 (date), while others are masked (Mercenary 2, 2013), diffused (Tahrir Square, 2013), or silhouetted (Times Square Crowd, 2013). Clearly flowing into a discourse on political imagery and media, Sparagana’s images—and his own embodied treatment of them—turn on aesthetic distinctions between individual figures and bodies within crowds, and indicate more finely the sublimation of individuality within political and historical memory. Even the Kennedys are pictured here as a fused unit, like an indistinct crimson hydra sprouting three smiling heads.
Previous exhibitions have seen Sparagana blending media images with references to canonical artwork, for example by overlaying soldiers in Afghanistan with Andy Warhol’s flowers, or cracking Frank Stella’s radiating lines into photos of the Haitian earthquake. In Crowds & Powder, only the images themselves and their material treatments provide the building blocks of Sparagana’s meanings, giving the work and its discourse a firm sense of focus and decision, grounded in expertly crafted collage.
Crowds & Powder is on view at Corbett vs. Dempsey through January 25, 2014.