Allan McCollum: Unity and Variety in Art

As we discuss in chapter 8 of Design: A Beginner’s Handbook, unity and variety are two of the most fundamental principles of design. On their own, each can make strong and compelling compositions. Together unity and variety create visually rich, harmonious and dynamic statements.

Most of the time unity and variety are used as underlying structures of a composition, not the first things we notice. In today’s blog post we feature the work of an artist who brings those principles right to the forefront and celebrates unity and variety in both form and conceptual content.

Allan McCollum is a self-taught artist who lives in New York City. For most of his career he has explored how objects are made (handmade or mass produced), displayed…and how they acquire meaning. His artwork has been exhibited around the world and is in the collection of major museums. McCollum’s artwork usually consists of collections of hand made objects combined in straightforward installations (e.g., groupings of objects mounted on the wall or objects arranged on tabletops). Many of his installations contain hundreds or even thousands of individual items.

Allan McCollum installation, Surrogate Paintings

One of McCollum’s early works is titled Surrogate Paintings. It consists of many small painting-like objects mounted on the wall in a manner reminiscent of the way galleries might display artwork or families might show their photographs. These generic forms that suggest paintings/photos/prints serve a function similar to the cardboard television sets we see in furniture stores. They are stand-ins or place holders suggesting something else. When exhibited in a gallery they tend to transform the whole space into an artificial environment – prop paintings in a staged setting.

Allan McCollum sculptural installation, Perfect Vehicles

Another of McCollum’s collection pieces is titled Perfect Vehicles. Here 50 identical forms are each painted a different color. The individual objects are cast from ginger jars and once again are generic representations suggesting the originals. Like many things in museums and personal collections, jars start out as functional items. Over the years they become collectible and even sacred depending on how they are used and seen. This transformation from commonplace to precious is similar in nearly every culture and country. In the installation Perfect Vehicles McCollum explores this duality. Do we see these hand cast and hand painted vessels as special or do we see 50 routine ginger jars?

Allan McCollum sculptural installation, Individual Works

Individual Works is a series McCollum started in 1987. To create these pieces he collected small inconsequential objects from a variety of sources including supermarkets, hardware stores and even the sidewalks of New York City. These items included things such as bottle caps, drawer pulls, measuring spoons, earrings, push buttons, cat toys, etc. Rubber molds were made of each object and the molds were used to produce plaster castings of the original object. These single anonymous plaster objects were then combined in many different configurations to make new and unique items. McCollum developed a numerical inventory system to use during this process that guaranteed no two objects would be duplicates. Each finished object was cast in gypsum and hand painted with enamel paint. There are over 10,000 unique objects in each Individual Works collection. One of McCollum’s intentions when making Individual Works was to ask what it means when something is hand made or something is mass produced. Here each object is hand made but identically colored and the numbers are equal to commercial production runs. McCollum is also questioning the traditional notion that artworks can only be rare one-of-a-kind objects that deserve to be collected by the wealthy.

In Allan McCollum’s installations viewers see unity and variety at play in the most direct and obvious ways.

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