In the case of a decaying city, stagnancy can be captivating when seen through a particular lens. As Rene Ricard had put it when he spoke of Jean Michel Basquiat: it’s a literal case of bringing something in off the street but with the element of chance removed. Scranton-based artist Joseph Opshinsky, renders new color in his work depicting the historic buildings of Northeastern Pennsylvania; recreated through the medium of finely cut collage paper. His current exhibition on display at Crane Hall, Local Color: Cut Paper Collages, show what he says are the “effects of time on the localized scenery, replete with the scars of a once prosperous mining industry.” Joseph and I spoke for a while prior to his exhibition opening, during which we breezed over his choice in media, life in in Scranton, and spoke an exhaustive amount about a few of our favorite writers. For the win: Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool. He tells me, “I was always looking for the smaller victories.”
When discussing his process, each piece begins with a simple contour line drawing, fleshed out in meticulously hand-cut layers of colored paper. At first glance, the immediate thought of stills from a rotoscope film cross my mind, and a reminiscence of early Alex Katz work on cut paper—which actually was an early influence to Joseph, he tells me during our conversation. He tells me that he has a way of falling into the mediums as he lets the transition from one naturally unfold to whatever is next. Prior to his motif use of collage paper, he went through what he describes as a love-hate relationship with traditional media; mostly with acrylic and oil paints. “It just wasn’t working for me,” he tells me, “I couldn’t get my point across… during my senior year, my thesis was all chalk pastel—with a similar subject matter to what I am doing now. It was a more immediate application and immediate mark-making.” After college, he dabbled back in oil painting. Although seeming to return to the proverbial drawing board, trial-and-error eventually opened doors to a radical use of magic markers—Crayola during the time, given the limitations of a non-metro context: A.C. Moore and Michaels existing as an artist’s silver lining amidst a franchised America. Eventually he came across archival markers, both serendipitously and for posterity sake. It was only a matter of time, along with the demand for crisper lines and bursts of color, that Joseph arrived at collage.
Recently Joseph has stepped away from observing man’s mark, and has headed in a more woodsy direction. He explains to me his recent fascination and study of wildflowers. He finds them to be gems in nature; both sharing a similar affinity he has for railroad trestles, and old buildings. We begin to talk about Vladimir Nabokov’s passion for lepidoptera (the study of butterflies), and how he, similar to Joseph, had gone out on road trips to gather and collect butterflies. His success in art, literature, and teaching came secondary to this passion for discovery. To Joseph, literature is the foundation to his expression. “I get more out literature than I do out of painting. That could be problematic, but these are the things I surround myself with…its nice to have another outlet that can thrive parallel to the art, as well as influence the art.” He collects images from books—images of upstate New York in Richard Russo’s books, of the southwest and Mexico in Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, and the woods in Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories—in the same sense he collects images on his hikes and kayak trips. He tells me, almost as a confession, “I like post-war guys…I’m a guy from Scranton Pennsylvania—I can’t lie.”
Despite the tug and pull in his exploration of mediums, Northeastern Pennsylvania had always remained Joseph’s subject matter. He has always felt a strong connection to it, and is hard-pressed to step away. “It does resonate to me..I have a fairly strong connection to it.” A nostalgic factor during college—or a big camping trip as Joseph calls it—was certainly the driving force in his art. But in the twelve year interim, post-undergrad, of being back amongst the locals in Scranton, he transitioned from feelings of nostalgia towards a need to document what remains in the historic town. Today, as he tends to go back to city life with his career as a traveling artist, the lens in which he views Northeastern Pennsylvania is an objective one; one that has become a conversation between the two contexts of post-industrial grittiness and the after-effect of nature overgrowing the man made. He describes how there is something to be appreciated about the compost piles, which are the refuse rocks from coal mining. He refers to them as a “lunar landscape.” The process of decay in Scranton comes at a slower pace when compared to the aggressive bulldozer re-inventing the Philadelphia turf. “Things do eventually change, but I’m not so sure if for the best..it’s something to lament.”