Earl Gordon’s mixed media collages are open to scrutiny

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Earl Gordon’s 1999 self-portrait collage is an example of his radiating, fragmented use of mixed media. Earl Gordon’s 1999 self-portrait collage is an example of his radiating, fragmented use of mixed media.

Art History Remix, now on view at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, presents 20 collages by Earl Gordon that are rich in meaning and contain lively dialogues between Western and African art, contemporary and traditional approaches, and drawn motifs and collage.

Gordon’s work provides an interesting contemporary counterpoint to the Joseph Cornell show now on view at the Fralin Museum. Like Cornell, Gordon appropriates found papers, old photographs and bits of fabric collected over the years to create potent little vignettes. Gordon intersperses his collages with intricately drawn patterns and figures that look like colored chalk on a blackboard. He also adds sequins and feathers and shiny foil paper. His opulent surfaces are celebrations of texture, pattern, and color where jostling zigzags, chevrons, and tessellations warp and pulse for a dynamic funhouse effect. These complex, heavily worked surfaces force you to slow down and really look, allowing the visual image and its colorfully descriptive title to sink in.

All these vibrant visual hijinks produce a many-layered depth of field that belies the works’ flat surfaces. Gordon clearly enjoys manipulating space, using angular shapes that resemble shards of splintered glass to direct the viewer from one area of the composition to the next and rhythmically forcing the eye to the center.

Citing such diverse influences as Hans Holbein, Duchamp, Lucas Samaras, and Man Ray, Gordon is obsessed with the Harlem Renaissance and Josephine Baker as well. According to Jefferson School director Andrea Douglas, Gordon’s collages suggest “his biographic affinities to both Western and African art, as well as relationships between artists whose connections are not widely known. While such moments could imply a degree of pictorial cohesion, in these works, Gordon’s representations are fragmented as if a crucible has been broken apart and each element exposed to encourage more direct scrutiny.”

Spiritual guides are an important subject for Gordon, and they crop up again and again in his pieces. “We live in a wounded world. These past years have been hard what with the economy and the wars,” said Gordon. “Everyone I know has been in need of spiritual healing of some sort.”

“Staying Up All Night Long Dancing and Carrying on in Manhattan” refers to the expeditions that Gordon and graduate school friends would take into New York to go clubbing, returning to New Haven just in time for the next morning’s class. The composition vibrates energy with jagged shapes that seem to represent music radiating outwards from the LP record framed within a raised square of paper denoting its importance. I love Gordon’s rendering of the album, an image that occurs repeatedly in his work and for him is symbolic of the healing power of music. “When I’m feeling under par, I can put on certain music and it will do a great deal for me, taking me back in the past and reminding me of experiences,” Gordon said. “I also think vinyl records are beautiful.”

Gordon has a real interest in hands. Three of the works have depictions of actual hands in them, but many of his motifs are hand- or finger-like. “Hands Painted by Hans Holbein, or Tom Fahey I bet you wish you could paint like this,” refers to a running joke Gordon shares with a VCU colleague. 

Hands are notoriously hard to paint. So much so, that if the attribution of a painting is ever in doubt, experts often look at the hands for clues. Gordon traces his interest in hands to childhood. “When I was a kid I used to see these palm reader signs all over the place,” he said. “That bold hand was always something very powerful to me.”

At first you understand Gordon’s collages as works on paper, but you soon realize that Gordon’s deliberate approach to the framing transforms them into sculptural objects where the frame is an integral part of the artwork and not just an embellished add-on. “I think people find the frames a little disconcerting at first,” said Douglas. “But you have to realize they’re part of the conversation Gordon’s having with Western art history. These particular frames evoke a kind of quasi-gentility or sensibility. And because they’re the kinds of frames you buy at Michael’s, they reference our age of consumerism.” 

The show represents a homecoming of sorts for Gordon, a Charlottesville native who attended the first through twelfth grades at the Jefferson School. He received his BFA in sculpture from VCU and his MFA in painting from Yale University, studying under Charlottesville’s own Robert Reed among others. Thereafter Gordon pursued a 30-year career teaching painting and sculpture.

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