Michael Sjostedt is an Easthampton, MA-based artist who works in the medium of collage. His work has been shown in a variety of venues around Western Massachusetts, both in solo and group shows. He currently has an exhibit, Formations, at Thelo in Northampton, MA.
Sjostedt’s work engages a mid-20th century motif, examining and deconstructing the futurism of the era as he explores concepts of liminality through cut and paste collage. His work speaks to the possibilities represented through the deconstruction of mass media, seeing to find a more elusive and personal experience in the mass produced through decontextualization and deconstruction.
I had the chance to sit down with Sjostedt recently to discuss his creative process and the path he took to creating collage. At first, collage seems to be a rather random art form. But, it has a long geneaology and is a well-recognized form within sub-communities of the art world.
Sjostedt came to collage through a life-long fascination with making things. In the early 90s, he dove into that perhaps stereotypical work with polymer clay and made beads. This became his way of making money in college and allowed him to escape a real job. His fascination with making things goes back to childhood, where even sticks in the backyard had him constructing things. But it was painting that he dedicated the most time to. But it wasn’t speaking to him, he was increasingly frustrated with the fact the result on canvas did not reflect the vision in his brain. So he walked away and walked away from art in general, until
I moved to Easthampton in 2010, and…across the street, the Williston Library, they were throwing away boxes and boxes of National Geographics from the 1920s to the 80s. So I pulled some of these, and they were cool, and initially, I was going to do a mood board, I was going to start painting again, and as I was ripping up the magazines, I was like, why don’t I just do collage? The images were pretty cool as I was extracting them from their article, and I started messing around with them, doing collage on small little boards and was immediately hooked.
Sjostedt has long been obsessed with magazines and coffee table books, but as he began to delve into doing collage, he became more fascinated with the images, rather than the stories, and in trying to suss out what the images were trying to say, especially once he pulled these of their original context and began to think about remixing it, essentially.
The transition from painting to collage was a fascinating one, requiring essentially a flip in his thinking: ‘painting what’s in your head is trying to translate it onto canvas and collage was a flip. I was responding to a loaded image and then making it my own in some way.’ In this sense, he was interested in emotion, gender identities, and what it could possibly to or through him. And this is the interesting thing about collage, in that unlike all other art forms, including beat-making, artists work to create things through their own visions or inspirations, whereas for collage, it’s the images and the forms that he finds that drive what he will do with them.
Not that this means there is nothing of Michael Sjostedt in his collage images, especially as his approaches have evolved over the past 7-8 years. More recently, he’s evolved into abstract, as can be seen from Formations, as it sees Sjostedt working with shapes, and creating these beautiful, vibrant collage images that speak to deserts, alien landscapes, and alienation in general.
In a lot of ways, Formations marks a new turn for his work, as it does see him moving towards the abstract, but while it does reflect his mid-20th century aesthetic through the futurism of the shapes and colours, it is interesting to note that there are no images in it, it is all colours and random shapes, created entirely by hand and by him cutting. This is also a bigger series, in that the collages are larger in size than a lot of his previous work. He used larger pieces of paper, 18×24, as opposed to 8.5×11.
He worked on pure aesthetic instinct, without really having to think. And the rush from making collage for Formations also brought a kind of satisfaction he hadn’t felt before. This is not to say that he found no joy in his previous series, but with Formations, it was more intense. Previously, he’s always worked out from his parameters, setting them up first. Whereas, for this series, it began with the experimentation and then found parameters in that process. And in this he found a good deal of freedom.
Formations also seems to draw a line under his previous work and point to new directions. There is a lot of blank space in these works. His earlier work fills the page. Here, there are vast fields of white, upon which these geometric forms of colour explosions announce themselves, all vibrant blues and greens and reds and pinks. And then there’s the small round satellite off in all that space, tying the images together.
When he began this series, he found it a bit scary to have all the open space, worried that he had to fill it, create a fuller image and so on And this was how he developed the idea of the satellite dots off in space, as it created the balance. But there is also the negative of the satellite dots as compared to the explosion of colour that it reflects or is the negative of. And this brought a new issue of limitations in terms of space, because it then became a question of not over-filling space. And this led to a symmetry across the series that hasn’t necessarily existed in the past.
Both Formations, and his new series, Flow, overlap between each piece, making them all look like siblings. In this sense, there is a greater commonality across each piece in the series, whereas whilst there was similarity between the works of previous series, they were more cousins, not siblings.
His work, though, is always centred on that mid-20th century aesthetic:
I’ve always been drawn to that look and that feel and that palette and that simplicity of futurism and that optimism, even though you know that era wasn’t that shiny or bright.
What strikes me of his work, of all the series I’ve seen, is that there is a strong sense of nostalgia for a period we didn’t live through (Sjostedt and I are the same age, a few months apart). Our childhood, at least the conscious part, was the 80s, of Reaganomics and Star Wars. So a nostalgia for the 1950s and 60s makes sense for our generation, for a time when life, at least on the surface, looked simpler and easier.
There is nostalgia, I feel like I missed that era. I feel like I would’ve been a good adman in that era [laughs] or an interior designer or something visual in that era. And I even remember as a kid looking at plastic furniture and losing my mind, and my parents were like “That is the worst shit ever, what are you looking at?” They had this country colonial garbage and I was like, please, please, more white plastic! I was just obsessed with modernism.
There is also the juxtaposition of the optimism and futurism of the mid-20th century as compared to the jaded cynicism of today. Generation X is the original Fucked Generation™, we were the first to have lowered expectations, to come of age during a recession, to have massive student loans, to have no real options for a bright future (oh, you Millennials, what you can learn from we burned out, jaded, cynical Gen Xers). But art is also the way past the irony and detachment of our worldview.
Sjostedt is reluctant to say that he’s working as a means to get past irony, in the sense that his work isn’t really about making any grand statements, he is seeking out experimentation in his work. Having said that, he is conscious of what he’s working towards when he is looking for and through images in his sourced magazines. In that sense, ‘I just like to see what I get and what comes of it, I don’t want to limit myself to, “I’m gonna say this” or “I’m gonna comment on this” I also don’t want to be the one doing that.’
There is also the question of what collage means. Sjostedt relates a few stories of what people see in his work, as compared to what he saw in making the piece, or what he was going for. And this discussion is what interests Sjostedt, to see what people see in his collage, both good and bad (and there have been some doozies). ‘Images are so loaded with so many things that you cannot even consciously explain and you’re just like ‘What?!?’ You just have these visceral reactions. And this is the thrill of flipping through magazines. If I pause on image for even just a few seconds I tear it out, even if I don’t know why [yet].’
He describes the process of actually creating the collage as if it is a Ouija board, ‘letting my instincts dictate what I’m going to do.’
One of the fascinating things about Sjostedt’s work is that it is all analog, he eschews the idea of digital collage, though recognizing that does lead to cleaner, and more sophisticated and neater imagery and product. So there is obviously a statement in working old school. And part of this is in the sensual process of the magazine, the feel of the paper, something that feels ‘natural’ to Sjostedt. And he’s ultimately not shooting for perfection, despite his exacting standards, he doesn’t want slickness of the digital. Rather, his process is immediacy of analog, which also keeps him from over-thinking the process. He’s also a fan of the messiness, which is also more forgiving.
This doesn’t surprise me, really. If you think about Gen X and what we’ve done in the world, besides bitch and moan, we are also the ones who brought back vinyl. I have this idea that culturally, we are nostalgic for a period that existed before we were conscious or even born, usually the period right before we were born. This is also, often, our parents’ time. In the late 80s, our generation went through a hippy rebirth, bringing back the (horrible) stylings of our parents, through bell bottom jeans and tie-dyed shirts, and then we quickly moved onto the late 70s and punk and brought about a revival. When I look at my students today, they’ve moved on from their 80s revivalism and are now interested in the fashions and stylings of the early 90s. Hence, our discussion about nostalgia in Sjostedt’s work.
But his discussion about process, and the analog nature of his creation also makes me think about how Gen X also brought back vinyl. We grew up as vinyl went out, replaced by cassettes. Cassettes sucked, man. They got worn out, they got eaten by tape decks. Their sound generally was shitty. And so, the hipsters amongst us went back to vinyl. Interestingly, I have noticed of late that the bands I am into, largely of 20-somethings, appear to be interested in bringing back the cassette. Why I have no clue, it’s not like there are any obvious benefits to it, especially when compared to either the digital or vinyl.
And the multi-dimensionality of his work, his creation of collage, is very much present in his work. If you look, you can see the layering of images, in some cases, the paper is so old you can either see what’s printed on the other side, or else you can see what’s underneath it. That sensual nature of his creative process exists in the finished product, even under the glass of the frame in which it is mounted and hung on the wall.
His studio may be a little more organized now than when he is actively making art (we are talking between the launch of the Formations show at Thelo and the beginnings of his Flow series), but the low-tech nature of his process is clear. He works at a massive plastic table, upon which sits a series of trays that hold raw materials. He also has his tools, scissors, exacto knife, rulers, glue at hand. And that’s about it. He has an ideas board on the wall to his left, and behind him is a set of plastic drawers that contains more possibilities, images he’s culled from magazines. And that’s it.