Ochres, Tans, and Greens, 1996; postage stamp fragments on board, 16 x 20 in.
Years ago, when I was visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I saw some near-miraculous micromosaics in their collection, 19th century works whose images were made up of tiny bits of glass, so fine that they appear to be paintings unless looked at very closely. Paul Edlin's (1931-2008) recent show, "Family Business", at Andrew Edlin Gallery, had something of the same sense of wonder in its technique. Made of tiny bits of postage stamps, the images fairly crackle with the tension between variable color and precise form.
Ochres, Tans, and Greens detail
Yet, looking closely, it is all intensely precise: small sliced pieces of postage stamps from all over the world are fitted into carefully placed patterns on the surface. They become a mystery as I try to decipher words and images on the cut-up pieces of paper.
House of Collage, 1992; postage stamp fragments on board, 18 x 14 in.
Paul Edlin was a man who lived an isolated life because of deafness. He was given his first show at the age of 65 in 1996 at Gordon College in Massachusetts by the artist George Wingate, who had encouraged me to see this show, for which I am grateful. George met Edlin at the Art Students League, where Edlin had studied for about 10 years with Will Barnet and Henry Pearson. I see a strong influence of those teachers in the sophisticated abstraction of the two works above.
House of Collage detail
There's great pleasure in seeing the way colors and forms interact in the very small pieces that make up the larger work. I learned from the gallery press release that a 16 x 20 collage could take three months to complete. Do we view this as the obsessive work of an outsider artist, isolated and personally intent on a task? I prefer to drop the label "outsider" and call Edlin an artist who had discovered a technique that perfectly suited what he wanted to say.
Jonah's Sister, 2000; postage stamp fragments on board, 20 x 16 in.
What he wanted to say varied, from abstraction to images biblically-based, figurative, or landscape-like. Every work has a clarity of shape and is animated by elements perfectly placed across its surface. The figure in the upper left in Jonah's Sister holds bright rays from its winged arms that anchor the whale with its surprising pink passenger. An irregular rounded form––turtle? earth?––weights the bottom right. The narrative is intriguing, not fully understood.
Ghost of Ahab, 1998; postage stamp fragments on board, 16 x 20 in.
The Ahab of this image must be the character in Melville's Moby Dick, rather than the biblical evil king Ahab, although he is dressed in ancient-styled garb. He holds up a whale and what can be seen as a ship, though a fanciful rendering of one; the ship's form balances that of the whale. But then, on a red table stands a small man; could it be Ishmael? actually, his skin is dark, so maybe it's Queequeg, acted upon by circumstances that rule his life.
Eye of a Witch, 1985; stamps, tempera, watercolor, crayon, ink, pencil, 10 x 8 in.
This piece was one of several earlier works in the show, and one that I love. It is quite different from the controlled refinement of the postage stamp pieces, but has some of the same quirky personal imagery and love of surface texture.
Flower Village, 1993; postage stamp fragments on board, 14 x 18 in.
Giant Among Friends, 1996; postage stamp fragments on board, 14 x 18 in.
The two pieces above are very different in their active landscape space, populated by trees, animals, humans, games, buildings, a castle!, a giant!, connected by wandering paths. A first glance made me think I was uninterested in these, but that was wrong; they are vivid and charming.
Past and Present, 1999; postage stamp fragments on board, 20 x 16 in.
Two powerful portraits, simple and direct, showed another of Edlin's approaches to the image. In Past and Present the central head is surrounded by circled vague figures, dancing as memories around the intensely staring face. Edlin's portraits remind me a little of the work of the Chicago painter Jim Nutt.
Past and Present detail
In its straightforward pose, Past and Present has an uncanny presence with its outlined eyes and blue mouth demanding a connection with the viewer.
Rebel, 1999; postage stamp fragments on board, 20 x 16 in.
Rebel has a different quality, as the eyes looks up from a slightly downturned head, a rebel being a little sly. The great mass of yellow hair is luscious against the red face and green background; and the blue scarf/shirt is electric.
Looking at the details of the two portraits I can see that Edlin was very aware of the issue of form within outlines: he used the direction of the pieces of paper to follow the form of chin and nose, cheeks, forehead, and hair, changing direction to emphasize their volumes. He used the stamp pieces as someone would use a brush and paint. I can hear myself, when I used to teach figure painting: "follow the form with your brush to describe it, as though you were caressing it". Paul Edlin loves his materials in this way, and he loves his subjects; he caresses them with his eye, his imagination, his heart, and it is a joy to to see the results.