Sunday, September 9, 2012

Troy Dugas's Product-label Mandalas

Robert Boyd

Troy Dugas, Distilled Pride, 2012, vintage product labels on wood panel, 48" x 48"

Troy Dugas describes the work in his current show at McMurtey Gallery like this:
My collages are made from vintage product labels purchased in unused bundles. The material is cut or shredded then arranged onto flat surfaces (paper, canvas, or wood) to produce artwork that appear woven. Repetition, pattern, precision, and scale are used to distract from the original purpose of the label to sell a product. The essential elements of color, shape, and line are utilized in a new way, and the altered context of the source material provides new meaning. The immediacy of the graphic label is substituted with aesthetic sensation and contemplation. There is a certain mischievous pleasure in the process of this transformation, and at the same time, a kind of meditation.
The sentence  "Repetition, pattern, precision, and scale are used to distract from the original purpose of the label to sell a product" is ironic--after all, these collages are in fact products for sale in a gallery. But what interests me is that these labels are themselves the product of artists. Designers toil endless hours to make product labels that will catch the eye, that will be associated with the product in the mind of the consumer, etc. These artists are often not considered artists because of the nakedly commercial nature of their work--but as I mention above, artwork you see in a gallery or at an art fair is just as much merchandise as the products whose labels Dugan used.

Given the graphic richness of product labels, it's not surprising that contemporary artists make work based around them. Andy Warhol didn't make paintings of Campbell's Soup cans and sculptures of Brillo boxes merely because of their banal ubiquity--he was attracted to their graphic strength as well. In fact, the designer of the Brillo box, James Harvey, was himself an abstract expressionist painter. Critic Irving Sandler relates a story about Harvey and Warhol in his memoir, A Sweeper-Up After Artists. He had teased Harvey about Warhol's appropriation and in response, Harvey sent him a signed box of Brillo as a gag gift. When Warhol saw it, he immediately called Harvey and offered a trade, a signed Brillo box for a Brillo Box. And Warhol was far from the only artist to work with product labels. In fact, there are other artists who use product labels to create design-heavy colleges, similar to Dugan's. I recently saw some by Alison Foshee at the Pearl Fincher Museum. And Al Souza has made collages of cigar bands.

Troy Dugas, The Finch, 2012, vintage liquor labels on wood panel, 48" x 48"

Most of Dugas's collages are circles inscribed in a square (The Finch is an exception). This gives them the look of a mandala. That adds a layer of irony to the work--staring at them could be an aid to meditation if they were used as mandalas, and yet the hustle and bustle of consumer culture is the opposite of meditative, it is the essence of being in the material world, of being in the world of Māyā. Is Dugas suggesting that enlightenment can be found in consumer culture? He speaks of the meditative nature of the work, after all. (One is reminded of the Zippy the Pinhead comic by Bill Griffith in which, at the suggestion of Zippy, Buddhist monks start meditating in front of spinning washing machines at a laundromat--which with their circle-in-a-square design also resemble mandalas.)

Troy Dugas, Wurtzberger, 2012, beer labels on wood panel, 48" x 48"

Adding to the irony is that many of the labels Dugan uses are beer labels or liquor bottle labels. Perhaps starring at one of these while intoxicated will aid a viewer in having an epiphany. "It's coming through a crack in the wall / on a visionary flood of alcohol." (from "Democracy" by Leonard Cohen)

Troy Dugas, Alexander Keiths, 2012, beer labels on wood panel, 48" x 48"

I find Dugan's collages quite beautiful, perhaps all the more so because I suspect they will fade pretty quickly. The paper used on produce labels is not the best--exposed to oxygen they will yellow--and the inks, particularly the blue and black inks, used in commercial printing have a tendency to fade. When you look at old collages (those by Kurt Schwitters displayed at the Menil last year, for example), you see the faded, yellowed remnants of something that must have been quite bright and vivid when originally made. That gives this kind of a work a poignancy.

Troy Dugas, Alexander Keiths (detail), 2012, beer labels on wood panel, 48" x 48"

But they won't fade for many years, and you can see them now in their prime at McMurtrey Gallery through October 13.


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