The Personal is Astronomical: The Collages of Jan Hathaway

by Franklin Rosemont

The nineteenth-century philosopher of laughing-gas, Benjamin Paul Blood, rejected the parochial conception of a "universe" in favor of what he called the pluriverse. In a similar mood, Jan Hathaway in her collages aims not merely to "add a little something" to our awareness, but rather to multiply it—to advance it by leaps and bounds.

In contrast so many would-be collagists today, whose work serves abjectly decorative, journalistic and other ignoble, commercial ends, Hathaway belongs to that great company of daring adventurers, from Hannah Hoch to Romare Bearden, from Max Ernst to Anne Ethuin, who have made collage one of the best and surest means of discovery and transformation. In revolt against a vacuously retinal art and other manifestations of fashionable (and altogether retrograde) complacency, she has stubbornly followed her own wayward path, with poetry and defiance as her map and compass.

In Hathaway's collages, desire rewrites all human experience, history, mythology, the whole world. Her vibrant pictorial language, which owes a lot to passional analogy, invites all things to remove their immobilizing armor and to dance to new and wilder tunes. Realizing that every object and every image is "itself" as well as "something else"—indeed, as many "some-thing-s" as the imagination (all our imaginations) can suggest—she proceeds to transmute all this prime matter into imaginary situations of striking intensity and power.

More than any artist I know, Hathaway has heeded Leonora Carrington's provocative maxim, that "The right eye's duty is to dive inside the telescope while the left eye interrogates the microscope." Juxtaposing the infinite and the infinitesimal (in the spirit of Meister Eckhart, Jonathan Swift, Emily Bronte and Tex Avery), she shows us disturbing visual anagrams, phi-losophical rebuses of astonishing depth, hermetic riddles that call into question who we are, what we know, what we think we want, and why.

For Hathaway, ambiguity is an active and subversive force—a radical defense against the fixed and static, and an effective way of venturing beyond the boundaries of the so-called "pos-sible." Her walls are no longer walls, but luminous caverns, secret hiding-places, unknown rain-forests, orgies of transparence. Her windows within windows are truly magic mirrors, the stuff that myths are made of, beckoning us to join the game.

In this desperate dialectic of the "trivial" and the traumatic, the personal becomes astro-nomical, and both are as changeable as the sea. As Ted Joans once asked, responding to André Breton: "Is Eternity still looking for a wrist-watch?"All art that is worth its salt puts conventional notions of "time" in a tizzy, and heightens our consciousness of the living moment: the moment of poetry, love, a meadowlark's song. In Jan Hathaway's potlatch of marvelous and aleatory images, the myriad forms of past and future add up to endless presents for each and all.