Woman on bench in gallery
Art Appreciation for Everybody—Kathy Bruce, “Conquering Darkness”

Engage Art | Artist to Artist, In the Know, Reflection & Growth | September 23, 2021

In our “Art Appreciation for Everybody” series, we consider ways to look closer at artworks we may not fully grasp at first. We are not art historians—but we are longtime art appreciators who have spent many years engaging art both personally and professionally. In our last installment, we discussed Jared Boechler’s Soft Sounds and explored the hidden richness and layers of mystery in artworks that may look “obvious” at first. Today we want to take a closer look at a collage, part of a collection of collages created by artist Kathy Bruce during the pandemic.

“Conquering the Darkness–Covid-19” by Kathy Bruce.

As always, before we dive in, spend some time considering Kathy Bruce’s Conquering the Darkness, a Visual Art Finalist in the 2020 Engage Art Contest

Ask some preliminary questions, like:

  • How was this created?
  • What does it remind me of?
  • How is she using color? Why?
  • Is this work more about thinking or more about feeling?
  • What does it make me think about or feel?
  • Can I discern a story or question or idea in this artwork?

Conquering the Darkness is a collage that appears to be created from magazine clippings. The centered image constructed from all those various clips is a mysterious human figure. The man is stepping out of a field of stars to walk on water. His upper body is distorted and contorted, head back, eyes closed, hands raised, perhaps in surrender, fear, or warning. Upright but flailing against the dark background, his shadow appears against a bold slash of red in an otherwise muted color palette. The location is off-kilter, the trees askew, like we’re looking at a scene in a movie and the director wants us to understand that something is wrong here.

In this article, we’ll look more closely at Conquering the Darkness through the following lenses: 

  • Personal Context: Covid-19 and creating in isolation
  • The art genres and styles referenced: collage, symbolism, color theory, and composition 

Personal Context

Current Events—the COVID-19 Pandemic

Kathy Bruce begins her artist statement by saying that Conquering Darkness “is about HOPE and the human spirit surviving the isolation, fear, and distancing we are all living with as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.” The COVID-19 pandemic has touched every corner of the world. We can all too easily remember the unprecedented “isolation, fear, and distancing” that started coloring our world in the 2nd quarter of 2020 and have been present in differing amounts ever since. However, Kathy is taking a rare global universal experience, not flinching at the challenges it brings, and reframing the event as an opportunity for “resilience of the human spirit.” So, first of all, bravo, and thank you for sharing your optimism with the rest of us!

With Conquering Darkness, Kathy lands squarely in the camp of artists who respond to the realities of their times with politically and socially engaged art. Often this type of art is created in collaboration with the audience, or it seeks to influence behavior or policy. This work is seems to be trying, instead, to evoke a personal feeling—of being off balance and out of sorts—that is also a fairly universal feeling during this time. The overriding characteristic of this art genre is that it can only be understood if you also understand the context it was created in. 

Most graffiti and street artists today create art that is politically and socially engaged. Artists may choose to generate work from a particular point of view (even one they don’t hold) as protest or as satire. Sometimes art is used as propaganda, as well. Here are some historical examples of artists who worked, at least some of the time, in this vein:

  • Diego Rivera’s art focus on the lives and needs of workers was very controversial. 
  • Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and Massacre in Korea comment on the horrors of war. 
  • Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With named the elephant in the American living room for his viewers in 1964. 
  • Projects like Face2Face illuminate underlying commonalities where they are often ignored. This photo project in Israel and Palestine features large-format portraits of residents from both areas making funny faces. 

One of many street art murals installed in Bethlehem over the years by London-based street artist Banksy. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Kathy’s choice to create artwork in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic holds space for her viewers, who share her context, to reflect on their unique moment in history. Her description of this work infers that she wants to encourage thought, conversation, and healing.

Working in Isolation

We need to consider the significance of isolation to understand this artwork. Kathy works in the US, where many nonessential businesses were closed for months, and people were earnestly discouraged from leaving home. We all have probably experienced some degree of this unnatural isolation in the recent past. We all know that the COVID-19 pandemic has also created a time of significant insecurity—job insecurity, food insecurity, and not finding goods that are typically readily available. Kathy has been working in collage, among other media, for decades, but I wonder if the sense of not knowing what was going to happen next, what could be afforded, or what would be available influenced her choice to use collage so extensively during this time? In any case, collage is an excellent example of how you can make fine art with whatever materials are at hand.

The artist working alone—whether by choice or circumstance—is a time-honored trope. But why? There are, of course, many artists who have worked alone and uninterrupted for many reasons. Some examples:

  • The currently resurgent Yayoi Kusama has lived her entire adult life in a psychiatric asylum in Japan. 
  • Georgia O’Keefe found “a kind of freedom” at her Ghost Ranch, where she said God told her if she painted the mountains enough times, she could have them. 
  • Cezanne transformed his style through experimentation during an extended stay in Provence. 
  • Frida Kahlo said she painted herself because she was “so often alone.” 

“Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress,” 1926, by Frida Kahlo. Courtesy of FridaKahlo.org.

Many artists experienced a burst of inspired creativity in 2020. From YouTube to Taylor Swift’s recording studio, artists were drawn to create during this enforced pause from daily life.

About a year before this artwork was created, a blog on SkillShare investigated the value of solitude for artists. The conclusion—that “alone art time can boost creativity and efficiency” will sound familiar to those who hang out in the Engage Art space. We agree with the author that engaging art, much like engaging Scripture, requires “time for introspection and reflection.”

Working in series

This collage is one in a collection. Kathy writes, “Since February 2020, I have been sheltering-in-place working on collages as a response to the pandemic. Conquering Darkness is one of 60 collages I have made over this time period.” There is a long history of artists working in series or collections. It is an excellent way to gain skill or experiment with a technique or medium, explore one subject (think of Van Gogh’s sunflowers and Monet’s water lilies), or underline that a collection of things are the same in some way.

Any aspect of art can characterize a series. For visual art, think of color, texture, line, edges, subject, emotions, media, genre, etc. On stage or screen, consider prequels, sequels, and work that fleshes out a minor character. Musicians will sometimes weave the same (or a similar) musical phrase into multiple songs to reference a character or feeling. This is called a lietmotif

German composer Richard Wagner used lietmotif to build the stories in his operas—introducing them with characters or during emotional moments and then referencing them later to help the audience remember and connect the dots. Other composers followed suit. Can we count an opera—a musical with no dialog, only songs—as a series of sorts?

A well known contemporary example of lietmotif is the music for the Star Wars movies by John Williams. The “Luke Skywalker” music lets you know when the good guys are going to save the day, and you can count on your ears to know when Han, Leia, Anakin, Obi-Wan, or many other characters (or the things they value or represent) are on the scene. 

When artists work in series, they have the time and space to consider a subject more deeply and reveal connections that otherwise might not be evident. As we’ve said before, “who you really are always comes through in your artwork.” Often, a story or progression shows up, whether the artist put it there on purpose or not. 

In this case, we only have this one image—Conquering Darkness—to consider, so we don’t know the stories that come out of Kathy’s collection of collages from COVID (but that alliteration would make a good title if she ever exhibits them together!).

How does this artwork change for you as you consider the artist creating in solitude, exploring her subject over an extended series? Does it cast any new light on the nuances of her artistic choices to know this is a “snapshot” in an “album” of 60 images? Can you relate to ruminating on circumstances you can’t control, exploring many variations on the theme?

Art Genres, Styles & Techniques Referenced 

Collage

Many of us explored collage at a very young age, affixing macaroni, dried beans, buttons, and pieces of cloth or paper onto a piece of cardboard. The result may have hung on the family refrigerator until the bond gave way. However, collage (from the French word to glue) is an ancient genre of fine art, tracing its roots back to at least 10th-century Japanese calligraphers who would piece together fabrics and papers and then write on them. 

By the 1700s, decoupage (“to cut out” in French) was trendy among upper-crust European women who made useful flat objects (screens, a board to hide the fireplace opening in the summer, etc.) more pleasing with the technique. 

Cubists Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso brought collage into the fine art realm by including pre-printed paper—from newspaper to wallpaper—into fine art paintings, shocking themselves at their audacity. This subversive act shifted the art world on its axis. It was the beginning of an era where the reigning questions included:

  • What is the real difference between highbrow and lowbrow culture?
  • What is the value of fine art versus design? 

Collage became part of the artistic language for a series of art movements:

  • Dadaism—an artistic movement (visual, literary, sound) between WW1 and WW2 that replaced logic with nonsense, reason with irrationality, and aesthetics with objects purchased at the store. They were exploring the question: In a world where so little makes sense, what is the value of culture and art? Some people think of Dada works as “anti-art.”
  • Surrealism—an artistic movement (visual, literary, theatre) that uses unusual juxtapositions and dreamlike imagery to engage the subconscious.
  • Pop Art—an artistic movement in the 1950s and 60s that drew upon popular culture imagery and forms, like comics, soup cans, and images of movie stars. Richard Hamilton, an early pop artist, defined the movement as: “Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big business.”

Several specific types of art fall under the collage category, depending on what materials are used, including:

  • Papiers collés—made with bits of paper
  • Decoupage—made with cut-out images or cut pieces of colored paper
  • Photomontage—made with photos
  • Assemblage—made with 3-D objects

Collage has been a popular means of exploring biases and assumptions through art. The mass-produced materials artists have used in collages were mostly of their specific time and place, which infuses collages with the social and political conversations happening then and there. 

Part of the power of collage stems from humankind’s desire to find relationships and meaning in everything. 

  • The juxtaposition of objects and images collaged together gives each item a new context and a new relationship to the things around it, which becomes considered within current and past social, economic, and political circumstances. 
  • This sets up any specific collage to underline or subvert—or both—the dominant messages of the day. 
  • Some avant-garde artists took collage a step further by not planning their compositions. By leaving the potential relationships among materials and images to chance, they undermine the idea of the artist as “creative genius.”

How does Kathy’s medium, collage, contribute to the overall impact of her artwork? How might topics that are historically connected with collage—engaging with what is culturally relevant, questioning cultural norms, naming the absurdity in the world—add layers to Conquering Darkness

Symbolism

We discussed symbolism at some length in our analysis of Soft Sounds—including a look at the history of symbolism in general, and symbolism in Christian religious art more particularly—and that information is relevant for this piece, as well. 

To review, Symbolist art:

  • Is more interested in expressing an idea or an emotion than showing the world as it is
  • Uses symbols—whether they’re visual images or literary imagery—to express ideas that are hard to get at otherwise, including a state of mind or emotional condition or concepts about our relationship with the Divine
  • Can draw on well-known symbols, symbols established within the work itself, or personal symbology
  • Comes from an understanding that artists can access and communicate the truth
  • In visual art follows the practice of fellow musicians and writers to go for nuance and include obscure references
  • Became widely available as a language for artists to use

Symbols in Conquering Darkness

Kathy writes about how her collaged “spiritual warrior” displays “resilience” by “surviving against evil” while being buffeted by “invisible blind forces behind the deadly Coronavirus.” She labels him a “spiritual survivor.”

From that introduction, the symbolism here may include:

  • The spiritual warrior is of both the earth and the sky. The water and the stars are juxtaposed, so you don’t know where one stops and the other starts. This star-child water-walker, arranged in a pose that suggests crucifixion, gives a layer of Christ-likeness to the figure. But there’s an air of ambiguity that seems to be part of the purpose.
  • The spiritual warrior is leading with his heart, which reads as vulnerability. He is also almost naked. In this artwork about the Spiritual Battle, where is his armor against the jaggedness and disjointedness of this environment? Against the growing stormcloud? Is his vulnerability somehow a strength?
  • Look at his shadow—hands raised (symbolizing what? Surrender? Warning? A reference to the crucifixion?) on a red background (Death? Danger? Warning? Difficulty?), by far the brightest color in the work.
  • I can’t help feeling that there is a significant disconnection between the boldness of his body and the fragility of his tiny neck, teetering within the only other spot of red background. The angle of the head is mirrored in the shadow, also on red. This must mean something—underlining his human frailty as opposed to his courage in moving forward, perhaps?
  • The whole of creation is present in this image—water, clouds, stars, sky, trees, and of course, man. The collage technique shreds them, pokes them, and puts them in uncomfortable positions. I resonate with that aspect of the work as a visual explanation of a global pandemic. 
  • The symbols I think I see here identify very ephemeral ideas and states of being. But this is exactly why I can see the HOPE Kathy speaks of. In the midst of complete disorientation, of disaster, of the blackness threatening to swallow him whole (perhaps depression, the unknown, COVID?), he still steps forward, heart first. With the profound and visceral understanding of his (and our) exposure and weakness, “through faith, the warrior is emerging from the darkness, out of Nature, from the sky, trees, landscape, and water as a spiritual survivor. ” He made it. By following his example, so will we.

How much do you think Kathy is using personal symbolism? Why is the natural world depicted skewed from its typical orientation? Why would she create a “spiritual warrior” as such a fragile creature?

Color Theory & Composition

  • Kathy uses primary colors—blue, red, yellow (plus black and white)—but most are very muted. 
  • The red shadow is almost entirely surrounded by the darkest colors in the image. In fact, all of the warm colors are interrupted and nearly swallowed by the cool dark ones. This artistic decision forces the splash of the figure’s foot and his shadow to the front of the imaginary three-dimensional space. The way the colors are arranged places emphasis on certain aspects of the composition. 
  • Because this image is rendered mostly in blacks and dark blues, when there is a lighter or more saturated color, it stands out more than it otherwise would. 
  • The lightest, brightest and darkest colors are all clustered in and around the figure, except perhaps for those orangy rocks all the way to the left.
  • Might the color choices themselves suggest the battle of good vs. evil? Is the “spiritual warrior,” light against the dark background, keeping evil at bay? Or is he barely getting out alive? Or both?
  • Ragged edges emphasize the out-of-control posture of the figure.
  • Consider the diagonal composition. Imagine a line from the left top corner to the bottom right corner, creating an upper and lower triangle.
  • The cut pieces of paper are arrayed in a progression from almost brick-like regularity in the upper right corner to freeform and chaotic on the lower left. 
  • The color palette is darker in the upper triangle and lighter, although still muted, in the lower.
  • The man’s head, chest, and shadow—all of his unclothed and vulnerable parts—are situated within the upper triangle. Everything propelling him forward in is the lower one. 
  • If you only looked at one triangle at a time, you could be looking at two completely different artworks. 

Where is your eye drawn first in this composition? Are there aspects of the design that lead you from one element to the next? Does it change your perspective about the work when you look at individual elements—both the shapes of the cut paper and what is on them—instead of the entire composition? What might be implied in this diagonal composition? The spiritual world vs. the natural one? Our thoughts vs. our choices? What do you think?

The Artist

Kathy Bruce is a sculptor and collage artist from Ithaca, New York, who holds an MFA from Yale, a certificate from The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and was awarded two Fulbrights (three decades apart!), among other accolades. She has exhibited around the world. You can explore more of her artwork at her website, www.kathybruceartist.com

Conclusion

There is so much going on in this image that I am confident I am not doing it justice in this analysis—which has been more about questions than answers. I hope my thoughts can lead you to ask questions that will give you a better appreciation for collage art and this specific piece. What have you learned by looking at this artwork that you will take with you as you experience art in the future? 

Conquering the Darkness is the third installation in our Art Appreciation for Everybody series. If you want to read more, check out part 1 to look at Neo-Expressionism and Conceptualism and part 2 for a discussion on Trompe L’Oeil and Symbolism. We hope you’ll join us the next time we evaluate a piece from Engage Art’s Gallery. In the meantime, we encourage you to find works you would like to consider for yourself—and do it! Assessing other people’s work is a wonderful way to exercise your art thinking skills, expand your ability to enjoy more types of art, get your creative juices flowing, and bring new ideas into your art practice, art appreciation, and life.

In any case, we hope you will continue to explore new types of creativity as you Engage Culture, Engage Scripture, and Engage Art.


Teresa Cochran has been involved in various arts since she was 3. As an adult, she has been immersed in visual, literary, and performing arts for decades, over time developing a professional focus on public art, public participation, public space planning, and facilitating juries to choose artists and art. She’s also mother to two artists and wife to another, a permaculturist, 4-H leader, practiced chef for special diets, and a proponent of arts-integrated, Montessori, and International Baccalaureate education. Teresa is the Contest and Content Director at Engage Art and has been with the contest since its inception.

Submit Your Artwork Today!

Curious? Interested in submitting artwork to our contest? Know someone who might be? Through April 14th, 2022, the Engage Art Contest is open to the whole world! Get your foot in the door by claiming your Artist Page now!