At the big local show responding to the big Seattle Art Fair earlier this month, there was a big work of art named Kick Ass. Just like it sounded, it was ambitious; it stretched 12 feet long and stood 6 feet tall, swallowing an entire wall. But it was also attractively subtle. It was a picture of various things, but you couldn't quite make out what they were, or how exactly they appeared there. It was like an archaeological discovery. The medium, listed on the wall label, was "collage, toner transfer on panel."
This did not answer many questions.
So I asked Robert Hardgrave, the Seattle artist who made this chest of hieroglyphic treasures, to tell me how Kick Ass came into being. Among other things, I discovered that Hardgrave has a Xerox machine of his own, a habit of hiding penises in pictures just to see if people are paying attention (there is not one in Kick Ass), and the mental ability to envision complex designs frontward and backward as well as in positive and negative.
This recipe took about three weeks.
1. Using fine-point Sharpies and acrylic paint, he created elaborate doodles on paper. He took those pages to his Xerox machine and copied them every way he could think of—reversing images, printing images atop each other, running one print through multiple times to gather shadows and noise. (Hardgrave pumps out drawings and copies constantly. For a large collage, he chooses from a cache of thousands; there is no pre-planned theme.)
2. Gluing together OfficeMax's biggest pieces of paper (three by six feet) covered in toner, he created a single black surface measuring 12 by 6 feet. He hung that sheet on the wall and began cutting out his prints and attaching the Xeroxes to the paper, building the collage intuitively, by feel.
3. When particular areas felt wrong, he cut them out or colored over them with a pencil (this would prevent them from being transferred later). He added lines by folding and scoring toner-covered paper.
4. Slicing into the finished collage with an X-acto knife, he reduced it to puzzle pieces. He numbered the back of each piece and arranged them in a chevron pattern.
5. He painted a wood panel the same size as the collage. The painting had the same sort of shapes and forms and fields of color that appear in his drawings, but this without outlines and in light colors—blues, greens, yellows, and pinks. He let the painting dry.
6. Onto the surface of the dry painting, he reassembled the collage facedown, placing each piece according to its number, using a coating of clear acrylic polymer as glue. Overnight, the acrylic in the toner on the collage transferred to the acrylic painting, through basic acrylic-to-acrylic bonding. Anything dark in the Xeroxes switched over so it was now on the surface of the painting, in reverse.
7. The most laborious part—this took three days—was scraping away the paper of the collaged prints so that only the dark toner images remained. Hardgrave used a kitchen sponge, rough side.
8. Hardgrave took to the finished transfer with paint. He worked slowly and tentatively, careful not to overpower the collage images while adding the excitement of painting. He used matte acrylic and Flashe vinyl paint, in order to create chalky textures that would contrast with the shiny plastic of the transferred toner.
9. With whatever paint was left on his brush after he finished with a color, he created a stripy upper border at the top edge of the panel along the way.
10. He stepped back and gauged the overall design. He cut away or added transfers. He painted over problematic areas. At one point, he stepped back, looked, and saw nothing else that needed doing. He recognized shapes he'd left in there, like feet, and Elvis in profile, and a house from Tatooine. Without knowing why, or exactly what he had made, he was satisfied. Kick Ass was done.