Cats, Cacti and Cornucopias Collide in Crazy-Detailed Collage
Artist Stephen Eichhorn takes intricacy to new levels
Collages aren’t anything new, they’ve been arounds for hundreds of years. You made them for a class project in elementary school. You revisited collage in high school with assembled photos of friends on your bedroom wall or inside you locker door. They’re quick, zine-y and oh so intimate.
Stephen Eichhorn’s collages are less intimate, more intricate. Built upon a staggering number of man hours, these cut-ups are a whole different beast. Looking at one of Eichhorn’s massively detailed collages is like looking at a Magic Eye, except these don’t give you a migraine.
Each Eichhorn creation is an explosion of color and precision. Hundreds of meticulously cut flowers are layered upon one another, resulting in glorious abstraction. There’s cacti and cats, cacti on cats and leaves on petals on leaves. In his installations, Eichhorn plays with the size, shape and orientation of his frames. Some freestanding cutouts don’t even get a frame. The rule book was thrown out a while ago.
When it’s your job to find interesting photographs, it’s easy to get stuck. After a while, even the best work tends to blur together. I’m constantly seeking projects that challenge my definition of photography. Sometimes, as is the case with Eichhorn, they aren’t straightforward photography at all.
Eichhorn lives in Chicago. It’s encouraging to find an artist who’s keeping at it in the midwest instead of relocating to the coasts. I went to his studio to get a firsthand look at his process, rubberneck those gorgeous images and ask him a few questions.
Eichhorn’s current studio space is on the first floor of the house he shares with his wife. They moved in a year ago, and have been slowly rebuilding their collection of houseplants. This is art imitating life and vice versa. There’s leafy overload everywhere you look.
He specializes in found imagery. When Eichhorn first started collaging, he set a major rule: No National Geographics. He didn’t want to rely on the ubiquity of those photos. While some artists use familiar images to make a statement, Eicchorn has a different agenda. He wants photography with no traceable context. Lately, he’s been pretty into Japanese cactus books. On top of his large bookshelf, he has a collection of free standing cactus cat hybrids.
“For some reason it only made sense at the time to put the cacti with the cats,” he said.
In school, Eichhorn’s preferred medium was sculpture, and he was heavily interested in architecture and drafting. He would make sculptural pieces based off drawings.
“Eichhorn set one major rule: No National Geographics. He wants to make photography with no traceable context.”
The collaging didn’t begin until after college, when Eichhorn began his experiments with found imagery. Traces of architecture remain in his current work; each carefully placed piece constructs a whole.
“I didn’t really take it seriously at first, and then was gently nudged in that direction, like ‘Hey, you may be onto something. You might want to mess around more with this,’” he recalls.
Each piece is time-consuming process. For his larger works, he can spend anywhere from two to three weeks of eight hour days just cutting out images. What staves off the boredom and the maddening effects of repetition? TV documentaries and Netflix series.
“I think it’s really relaxing and there’s a nice rhythm. It’s actually meditative for me.”
When it comes time to assemble a collage, Netflix is a no-go. Visuals are too distracting at this part of the process, so he sticks to listening to drone metal. The weeks spent assembling materials culminate in several hours of careful layering, and there’s not much room for error, especially when you’re working with archival photo mount adhesives.
“Welp, I did not mean for that to happen but now we’re going in this direction!”
Eichhorn wanted to be an artist at a very early age — four or five years old. “When everyone was learning how to read, I opted out of that because it was taking away from art making,” he says.
His younger self would be proud. Eichhorn graduated from School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2006, and besides a scare when he was in-between galleries, he has sustained a living as a working artist ever since.
As much as he spends making, Eichhorn will spend thinking. He mulls over the why and what of his art regularly. That his deliberations and process are “really slow” is crucial. It’s all about being present and making something over time. It might hit, it might miss but the studio time is the first and constant reward.
I had to ask. “Advice for a young artist?”
Find your own space , says Eichhorn. Find a physical arrangement of surfaces in which you are free from distractions and focused on the tasks you’ve laid down for yourself. This might be your own studio space or it might be a residency. Collaborate with likeminded peers when a project demands — it’ll improve all your work. Eichhorn says he owes a lot to a residency at Harold Arts in southeastern Ohio, in particular.
“It was such an amazing experience, especially as a young artist, to be able to work with equally young people but also some more emerging artists.”
So, there it is. Learn from others, listen to yourself, reject NatGeo images and don’t be afraid to dive into lengthy, repetitive processes if they are in service of something beautiful. It’s the only way Eichhorn’s collages exist.
Just don’t expect it to be easy.
The evening before I visited Eichhorn, an old friend texted me, ‘Why is it so hard to make a living as an artist?’ I relayed the query to Eichhorn.
“There is no good answer to that,” he replied.
All images courtesy of Stephen Eichhorn.