The world in squares

Walter McNamara’s collage art can be beautiful and perplexing

“The Race Started Enjoyable—Ended Badly” by Walter McNamara

“The Race Started Enjoyable—Ended Badly” by Walter McNamara

Photo by David Robert

I am standing in the Northwest Reno Library staring at the art on the walls. People are walking by, looking at me funny as I feverishly take notes. The woman at the coffee stand is closing up shop, clanging metal against metal as she washes dishes.

And I am confused. I’m staring at a collage titled “The Races Started Enjoyable—Ended Badly.” This 22-inch by 30-inch piece, like all of the collages on display, is made up almost entirely of squares, each 1 1/2 inches long and tall. The dominant squares, in this case, consist of the animal star of Camel cigarette packages, which form a T-shape going down the piece. The lower down the pieces are, the rougher and grittier the cigarette camels get; the bottom wrapper looks seriously weathered. Tiles of clouds, blue sky, purple sky and green sky frame the “T,” with the colors primarily getting darker toward the bottom of the collage. And in both bottom corners, there are human foreheads.

I am confused. The piece is fun to look at—I just have no idea what in the hell is going on in it.

After talking to Walter McNamara, the piece made a bit more sense. McNamara is one of the more prominent members of the local art community. He retired from the position of curator of the Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery at the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1992, and now a gallery at the school bares his name in tribute.

It turns out that during his “misspent youth,” he headed up to Virginia City and was shocked at what he discovered—the fun of the Camel Races and the great music and nightlife at the Red Dog Saloon (which is prominently featured in another of the works on display, “After the Races, the Dog Was Smoking").

Artist, Walter McNamara

Photo by David Robert

“It was really an event in my life,” McNamara says. “There was this big party. But in a metaphorical way, you pay for the big party.”

The race started enjoyable, but ended badly. Got it.

I am still perplexed, however, by the three “Net Dreams” pieces. They are drastically different from everything else on display. They, too, feature 1 1/2-inch squares made into the grid, but the squares are almost all a metallic silver color. Each work has 18 squares across and 13 squares up and down, and each collage includes at least one compact disc and several images. One features an old-fashioned hot air balloon and some gears. Another features a bug, apparently hatching from one of the CDs, and a human skeleton. In the third, “Antizm Tilt,” the 18-by-13 grid is tilted, with stair-step-shaped collages on the top (a bustle of items, including welding arcs and a forehead) and bottom (sulfuric earth, bugs and eggs) corners. To the left, a pyramid shape surrounds a CD.

“The ‘Antizm Tilt,’ that started out of, I guess in my sense of thinking, the fact that we’re becoming an ant-like culture,” McNamara says. He goes on to talk about robotics and theories that machines could surpass human intelligence one day. “Where are we going?”

I am still a little confused here.

My favorite pieces on display are two seascapes, “Emerging” and “Floating.” McNamara, using what he estimates to be pieces of hundreds of different images, created new worlds: a lagoon with danger lurking underneath in “Emerging,” and what appears to be an ocean strait between two almost-touching peninsulas in “Floating.”

McNamara says these are a reflection of a glut of water images in popular media, especially gourmet magazines.

I am not confused here—simply impressed.