When Ray Johnson's art is displayed in a framed format, in a conventional gallery setting, one does not necessarily see what he was up to as an artist. In this setting the viewer is not necessarily introduced to the practice of correspondence which is behind the collages. It is necessary to understand that looking at Johnson's collages as separate entities is like looking at the cover of a book without reading it. You often find a fragment of some correspondence written into the collage itself because it is in this way that Johnson brought flesh and blood characters into his artistic process. The people and references that Johnson weaves into his collages are triggering devices directed at intended or unintended viewers.
This gets into the nature of making collage and what it is all about. Collage is a 20th century form - it is a disruption, intervention, a juxtaposing of materials and elements. Collages are the residue of experience. There are motifs to decipher in collage and this, for the viewer, is a demanding process. In viewing a collage you can never just declare 'this is the end' - it may be seen as an end but it is always just the beginning of your investigation. Each collage is a journey.
Schwitters was a master of reconstructing a time through disparate elements and a way of perceiving the world through the discarded fragments of things that are used in everyday life. In an American context one sees the hermeticism of Joseph Cornell and his sense of collage. Cornell created private universes. Both these artists extend the use of juxtaposition far beyond the immediate political juxtaposition used by the dadaists or any revolutionary poster or piece of propaganda making a point.
Ray Johnson takes that form which is like a motion picture of our world. That is his oeuvre. If you met and talked with him you would ask his opinion about something and he would give you opinions about twenty other things; but in doing so he would somehow or other bring it back to what your point was. He was phenomenal in his way of associating. Collage is the one thing that his whole generation had in common - Robert Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Oldenburg, Lichtenstein - as compared to the abstract expressionist artists - collage is one thing that they all experiment with. Even Warhol is like the collage unamended, the appropriation of the icon from the enviromage of media and ephemera.
For several Canadian artists of the 1968 era Ray Johnson represented an entry point into networking and correspondence. Collage and cut-up became important means for transforming images from the mass media. "Collage or Perish" and "Cut-up or Shut-up" were network commands meant to mobilize the troops on the network of image exchange.
In the years following 1968 Image Bank was started in Vancouver by Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov as a 'bank' for mail art projects. The project was communal and collaborative, or idealized as such, in the attempt to create a shared consciousness. Many of the participants assumed personas for their artistic network and activity. Morris was Marcel Dot (a.k.a. Chairman Dot, Marcel Idea); Trasov, Mr. Peanut (after briefly assuming the more aristocratic Marquis d'Arachide); Glenn Lewis became Flakey Rosehips; Gary Lee-Nova, Art Rat; Eric Metcalfe and Kate Craig, Dr. and Lady Brute. The personas made the identity fluid, situational and circumstantial, signalling that this group of artists rejected the idea of the artist as solitary explorer of the psyche.
Early contact between General Idea in Toronto and artists on the west coast gave a national context to the network. The Image Bank Request Lists appeared in General Idea's File Megazine (1972). File was a parody of Life magazine and meant to be its antidote. Life's injunctions to wallow in the American postwar order of consumer bliss, materialism and the subjugation of the peoples of the world were inverted by File's call for transgression, disobedience and the pursuit of good times, glamour and fame.
Anna Banana, living in Victoria in the early 1970s and publishing a small zine called Banana Rag , also contributed to the development of the correspondence art network. Vile was founded in 1973 as a format for maintaining an inclusive network of mail art. Vile 6 (Summer 1978) was entitled Femail Art, profiling women networkers in an attempt to highlight the activities of women in a male-dominated culture. Anna Banana was one of the many correspondents with whom Ray Johnson maintained contact during the 1970s and 1980s.