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REVIEWING

Storm of the i: An Artobiography

by Tina Collen


Art Review Press | 2010 | 321 pages | $29.95

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong


author tina collen

Eight words emblazon the cover of Tina Collen’s first book, Storm of the i: An Artobiography, and two are plays on words. The first is easy to find, a narrow line and a dot floating in light italics above a woman’s eyeball peering through a cutout. The second is easier to overlook but far more important—not autobiography, or story of the self--but artobiography, a story of art, told through art.

This memoir is unusual. Framed around the ups and downs of her troubled relationship with her father, Collen’s book could easily have been banal in less deft or more conventional hands. But Collen, an artist and graphic designer, understands what so many memoirists do not: that pain, family, and the search for love and acceptance are universal experiences, and that these  struggles are best transmuted through art.

It is an intensely personal story, and Collen has chosen an intensely personal way to mirror and reflect upon her experiences. The collection of vignettes, photographs, art, and even moving pieces that fold out of the page and reach out towards the reader, transform the book into a kind of artful scrapbook—not the scrapbook of a child, who pastes every last ribbon and note haphazardly onto the pages, but the scrapbook of an adult, who has understood that one of the great problems of life is its clutter, and the task of finding meaning in what can seem like empty chaos--is often simply a matter of sorting.

As Collen points out at the beginning of her story, juxtaposing her words with a delicate picture of indigo mold, “Art is essentially serendipity and editing, as is life.”

The balance that Collen is able to produce with this careful collection of words and images is all the more remarkable because of the value that our literature and art today place on disarray, imbalance, chaos, and multiplicity. Most of the works we prize as a country and a people are those that take what we perceive to be an illusion of balance and unseat it.

Collen moves in the other direction, taking a thing that is reasonless and incomprehensible—her father’s apparent lack of love for her—and forging a work in which many seemingly unrelated elements come together in harmony. The artist’s most famous work, the Fleurotica series, encapsulates this approach. To create this series, Collen created botanical drawings of flowers using collage, replacing the flowers’ sexual organs with pictures of human sexual organs clipped from pornographic magazines. From a distance, the pictures are precise, almost scientific—but when the viewer draws close, their complexity leaps suddenly into focus.

Storm of the i exemplifies this technique. On the surface, it may be a story of fathers and daughters interspersed with pretty pictures, but the works of art that punctuate the pages add extra layers to the history. A black-and-white drawing of sunflowers placed next to an excerpt entitled “The archetypal need for a loving parent,” conjures up thoughts of growth and what living things need to flourish; the dark tones of the sketch suggest the shadowed side of a sunny scene; the wispy roots beneath the surface of the soil suggest a lack of stability and a vein reaching out for sustenance. In this way, a single picture adds tremendous depth to an episode told in four or five brief paragraphs.

Collen’s book could not exist without these visual elements. In the prologue, Collen makes an intriguing claim: “I’m an artist, a graphic designer, not a writer.” For those accustomed to dealing in words, the separation between artists and writers initially strikes a jarring note, but fascination slowly overtakes that note of discord. The processes of interpreting the world visually and verbally are different, and Collen’s refusal to follow the conventions of autobiography throws the whole enterprise into a fresh light. We can only hope that more writers and visual artists follow in her footsteps to produce such refreshingly honest and innovative work.



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