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Collaging the Contradictions

Local artist Violet Ray to speak at JSMA about his jarring Vietnam-era photo collages
‘Marlboro Round-up,’ collage on paper, 1967

The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art is delving deeper into the belly of ’60s and ’70s counterculture art with Advertising the Contradictions, an exhibit that explores the collision of art, culture and politics through the eyes of local artist Violet Ray. While not part of the official West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America exhibit that opened Feb 8., the JSMA added the local artist’s work because of its role in Vietnam anti-war protests — his photo collages were reprinted on fliers and widely distributed. Here is one of those rare opportunities to not only see the work of an renowned and formative artist, but to hear one speak as well; Ray will be giving an artist’s gallery talk about his politically and socially charged work on Feb. 27 at the JSMA.

“He draws attention to the subliminal message of ads,” says Jessi DiTillio, curator for West of Center at the JSMA. Ray’s work uses the juxtaposition of images (often clipped from Life magazine) and words to expose sexisim, racism, environmental issues and the horrors of the Vietnam War, countering the prevalent “American Dream” consumer images of the ’50s. The same way the Dadaists employed collage in reaction to the absurdities and mass violence of World War I, so does Ray use collage to reveal the hypocrisies and consequences of consumer culture and his generation’s war.

In “Spell of Chanel,” 1966, Ray combines a Chanel advertisement, featuring actress Ali McGraw, nude and half-submerged in water, with two Vietnamese women and children who appear to be struggling through a body of water. The collage is seamless; it appears at first to be one image, until deeper inspection reveals the turmoil — the piece becomes even more eerie and sardonic beneath Chanel’s tagline, “This is the spell of Chanel for the bath.”

“Americans were really distant in the war,” DiTillio says of Vietnam. “He brings consciousness home.”  Perhaps one the most disturbing images features an ad for Revlon’s Moon Drops Blushing Silk with the text “Revlon adopts the oh-baby face” above an image of a smiling model. Ray superimposes a young Vietnamese girl into the image with a bandage taped over one eye, while the exposed eye appears severely bruised. 

Other artworks include advertising imagery from Marlboro, toiletries and beverages. Aficionados can study up before the artist’s talk, as Advertising the Contradictions went on view at the JSMA Feb. 9 and will show until April 28. According to the JSMA, Ray is currently working on “a series of mobile projections dealing with environmental issues like climate change and endangered species.” Some may know Ray better as Paul Semonin, who received a Ph.D. in history from the UO and writes about natural history. 

Violet Ray speaks at 5:30 pm Wednesday, Feb. 27, at the JSMA.