Geometries Are A Balm: Six Questions with Dara Cerv

Danniel Schoonebeek



[The Charmer]

Dara Cerv‘s collages disassemble the chintzy, winterfresh landscapes of American glossies, sift through their rubble and mountains of discarded food, and reassemble images in ways that expose the ridiculousness of American iconography and our obsession with crisis acting. Cerv’s awareness of the spectator, the watchperson in art and in culture, allows her to reexamine how we look at the assembled world. Her work asks us how looking has been commodified and reassembled in the magazines we consume. And often these collages expose themselves as well: they reveal their layers, the narratives underneath the narrative, and suggest that images might have lives that extend far back beyond our present-day consumption of them. Much like the malleable, ever-changing lives of words, images possess a freedom to adapt and change their meanings throughout history, and Cerv’s collages identify that as a far more potent freedom than the ability of the watchperson to look. —Danniel Schoonebeek



Danniel Schoonebeek: The camera work is fascinating in your collages, where the witness and the witness’s eye are positioned, how the gaze is resisted and refused. Here the man’s mouth is replaced with a horn, a loud and clamoring instrument. This repeating filmstrip of the woman comes out of the sky and impales the man, and furthermore she’s looking outside the frame, away from us with a smile. Can you talk about how you locate the eye in these collages and how you approach their layout?

Dara Cerv: I suppose I’ve not included faces in many collages, which does in a sense refuse or resist the gaze. The face is what we are taught to respond to from the time we are infants—part instinct and part human conditioning, if we can pick apart those two anymore. It’s how we think about developmental milestones, and track the “success” of our children’s interpersonal skills. But there are alternatives to that—there are people who don’t fall into our normative categories and cannot connect in the ways we impose upon them. So I guess when I think about locating the eye I don’t want to assume the norm, that a viewer would only connect with a person in the frame if they can see their face. I don’t think this is a new idea by any means, but it rings true for me. While some might see it as an erasure, I see it as a way to locate the eye elsewhere, perhaps in the subconscious. When there isn’t a face available where it should be, as in this collage, where do we go to connect? Possibly inward, where the subconscious resides.

Closely related to the subconscious here is the subjective impulse, another place I locate the eye. The eye is an interpreting one, housed in the viewer’s perception. For instance, you’ve interpreted noise and violence and someone being impaled in this collage. The flip side of this is how calming I find it. The man’s head wasn’t (torn off and) replaced by a horn—his face is covered over by the flow upwards of his thoughts. He’s a (former snake) charmer. And the buildings in their slow collapse are predictable. I don’t want to burden the image with meaning, but let’s say it’s a bit about the whole Adam and Eve trope. Basically, when I’m locating the eye, I’m usually working from a place that likes the dream or the hyperbolic state of the subconscious, or from which the wilder version of something takes hold. I guess I tend to see people in this way. I use the face as a way to connect—that’s inevitable—but what about the possibilities outside of that? And what about stripping your gaze of what you know and what might get in the way of you actually seeing another person?

As far as approaching layout, I gather cuttings and background images and I arrange and rearrange until I feel something. And when I say feel something, I can’t name what that is consistently. It’s always different—it can be surprise. Or sadness. Or complicity. Or joy. I don’t always glue down what I make, because I want to see certain elements doing other things.



DS: Your collages are fascinated with surveillance and demolition. In this collage, like the one before it, a person is seated amidst destruction with her face pasted over while the viewer watches from afar. Even more interesting, we’re watching over the shoulders of the men who are spectating. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, if you will. How do surveillance and destruction work for you in collage? Would you say they’re built into the work, insofar as you have to “survey” and “destroy” works on paper to make them into collages?

DC: This question finds some answers in the last one, with reference to the destruction of the normative or norming gaze. Again you cannot look the person in the eye, as the face has been removed. Again I don’t want to burden this with meaning, but yes, destruction of how we as members of a consumerist and condemning society look at people comes into play in some things I make. Does transferring this type of gaze show that it doesn’t have to be our filter? Though, honestly, I didn’t set out with this intention. I actually created this after reading a friend’s poem (from which it takes its title), found elements that worked together, and then meaning came through that didn’t necessarily have to do with the poem’s ideas.

There is something here, too, about how people casually watch and accept destruction, and the human penchant to survey it. You asked about me surveying or destroying works on paper and if it’s built into the work. I would say no, not even symbolically. For me it’s usually about seeing and building. Seeing is different from surveying because it implies appreciating what is seen as opposed to a sort of calculated, surreptitious, or sterile observation, the purpose of which is to gather information. Building is construction, or the opposite of destruction. It’s also a positive transfer of energy, moving existing materials from one form into another.


[When You Cannot Find Me it Won’t be for Why You Think You Cannot Find Me]

DS: You’re also a poet, and here the lines of the collage, much like the lines of a poem, weave behind and in front of the bathing figure and distort the bathing figure and almost take the bathing figure apart as they cascade down the page. I also love how the world we glimpse through those falling lines is so leafy and splattery and chaotic, I know that world. How do poems inform how you see collages, and how do collages change your poems?

DC: I suppose the kind of poetry I’m most drawn to does what this image does—lives in different places all at once, calls into question anything that tells a reader that reality is fixed and flat. Your interpretation includes a bit of “taking apart,” but in the making I was driven more by the expression of layered states of consciousness, of integration, if you will. Here’s the state of existing in several states at once. Consciousness can imply a rich history. And I think that this happens for you when you note, “I know that world”—you know your world and how it relates to the one that seems to form in your absorption of this image. The poetry I’m drawn to does this—the words are there, they intend something, but things shift as you read and reread and take it in. The best poetry changes me. And another way that collage and poetry meet each other for me is through titling. Often when I title a piece, it becomes a line in a poem or starts the process of writing a poem.


[I can’t hear you / over this whole roar]

DS: You once told me that you started making collages partly as a means of dissipating anxiety and training your focus on details, whereas I look at the web of white lines that form the backdrop of this collage and I’m all panic attack. In fact the entire image gives me anxiety: the many-holed, square head disembodying itself from the body via jet propulsion, the anchoring weight of those pearls on the body. Can you talk a bit about how these works are a salve for anxiety and stress?

DC: Think again about the transfer of energy. If you are putting a ton of energy into a way of being that harms you and then, say, you “recover” from that way of being, where does the energy system you’ve created orient? Recovery doesn’t mean that something ends, anyway. Then the energy would end—physics and karma don’t allow for this. Recovery means that the energy keeps moving, just in a different way. And that’s been my experience. When I was younger, this began to be my answer. The output still needs to happen in some way, with a lot less harm. The old habits through which I exercised control have been replaced by ones that bring comfort or pleasure. I’ll look to your word: anchor. The process of making these images physically anchors me to the world and to myself. I’m not a euphoric art-maker by any means. I don’t disappear. I don’t want to. But even that is a newer habit. The physical nature of the work grounds me. Your “jet propulsion” is my waterfall. This image, while I understand what you’re saying about the ways in which it affects you, is calmed and calming for me. The figure’s casual slouch as she looks into an unidentified glow, the echoing lines in the sky and water and circles in the head-box and necklace. The geometries are a balm.


[reminder party]

DS: A lot of these collages have monoliths in them, a word I use thinking specifically of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The terror of any monolith, I think, is the fact that its silence does the talking. The image itself is the language. And here our image is three ribbons of twine tied around a severed finger, symbolically saying either remember, or don’t forget, given your persuasion. And this is one of the rare collages where the frame is devoid of people. How does silence work in your collages?

DC: Well, I wouldn’t say the frame is devoid of people. There’s a human finger that holds certain human connotations about what it means to tie a string to this particular body part. Human memory is built in, therefore people are there. And, yes, silence is certainly there as well. You’ve picked up on the symbolism here for sure—silence, with a meditative stance, indeed works as remember or don’t forget. For me, these two ways of saying the same thing are different, to which you refer. We’re talking effort, either way, but remember is an act of preservation or holding on: remember how this or that changed you. Don’t forget is an act of self-preservation or learning from a thing: don’t forget how that worked out. It comes as no surprise that the monolith and its silence appears for you across different pieces, as I’m often struck silent by the silence of large structures. Clearly this wants to come out in what I make.

I recently visited a state park in Sandy Hook, NJ, where there are the ruins of military buildings, and I had to keep putting my hands on these thick stone walls. Whatever their energy is, I’m drawn to it. The huge lighthouse that was there, as well. I like the idea of creating the feeling of history in my work, and a personal reminder about time and what endures, erodes, changes. There is life in inanimate objects because we attribute feelings and thoughts to them or project onto them, and the monolith for me is a lovely exaggerative form. I enjoy the near-melodrama of it. I think a lot of people think that my sarcasm is like 80% of who I am, but I can be pretty sentimental and squishy. So I make a connection here of learning how to make that part of me bigger. The monolith of the emotional? I don’t know. That might only make sense to me!


[Let Me Know When / You’ve Met Your Disconnect]

DS: Are you a scissor or an x-acto kind of person? And will you talk a bit about the places you cut these images from? The color palette, iconography, and overall composition here are so strange and beautiful and jarring. It’s like if Mad Max were somehow set in the Metropolis universe and David Hassellhoff as Knight Rider was one of the drivers. For you, do your collages exist in any sort of universe? Is there a narrative that takes place anywhere?

DC: I’m both a scissor and an x-acto kind of person, though I prefer scissors for dexterity’s sake. I’m a detail-oriented person and I get closer with scissors. I’ve loved projects with scissors since I was a (perfectionist) child. I had an art teacher in 9th grade who would chastise me for being too controlled/controlling when I made art. She told me if I were to just let go that I would produce “better” or more “interesting” work. I’ve been thinking about this lately for some reason and wonder if it’s time to handle things with a less rigid set of hands. I’m perhaps less curious about ripping paper or not cutting so perfectly—flat texture—than I am about creating a three dimensional texture.

My sources range from 1940s photography magazines to 1960s Women’s Day, 1970s pornography to current New York Times magazines. I get my copies of the latter from my mother, who still gets the Sunday edition. I love the crossword puzzle just as much as the material. I’ve found used books that have great compelling and muted stock photography. This particular collage finds its imagery from several sources across decades. Nick Ruth, my “color and composition” professor during undergrad, is who I thank for a better ability to understand certain subtleties regarding both of these topics. I’ve transferred a skill set I no longer use because I don’t paint anymore, and it serves me well I think.

As for the atmospheric aspect, I’m fascinated with seemingly barren or empty environments in which people must face something about themselves without the help of others or in their normal zone of comfort, almost to the point that it has manifested symbolically. Space seems to be one of these environments (I only imagine) and this piece does have a sci-fi quality. This takes me back to the question about silence. This piece is quite silent for me, and peaceful. It’s a coming to terms with something away from distractions. It’s almost a room in my own mind. It’s meeting that something, whether it’s a “disconnect” (as the title implies), or a connection. Funny how it has changed. When I made it I was dealing with some feelings about my perception of a person who I thought was sort of misled in a quest to find themselves. Now it’s a part of me. I think that’s basically why I do this—it’s a way to connect.