Vermont collage artist Marcus Ratliff spent 40 years in an office on Madison Avenue plying his trade as a graphic designer, but inside his heart he had plans to return to an art form he no longer had time to pursue. His work in New York City saw him creating catalogs, posters, books, and other material for clients like Leo Castelli, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and others, but what he really want to do was make art for himself.
“I just got too damn busy and put it aside,” Ratliff says. “I just had to spend time in a different way.”
Looking back, he doesn’t see those four decades as an obstruction to creativity, but rather time spent gathering his tools and perfecting his methods. The collage work Ratliff creates now is done with the same methodology and materials he used all those years as a graphic designer, and much of his source material was amassed on Madison Avenue. Some of his current works use portions of his design work from that era, and his working size, 9″ x 12″, is a continuation of his graphic design standard.
Many of these works are on display in his new show, The Ladies Room, at the Big Town Gallery in Rochester, Vermont. They reveal the vast swirl of his expertise, not just at wielding an Xacto knife and applying glue, but pulling from the deepest recesses of his accrued knowledge and interests regarding art history to create unexpected connections to, as Ratliff puts it, “myths and ancient ideas of all kinds that creep into forms of art.”
“I’m certainly influenced by Surrealism, and the things that don’t belong to each other originally, but when put together something happens,” he says. “There’s some spark of some sort that comes from putting things together that were never meant to be, and I like that.”
If graphic design is the practice of bringing different pieces together to create a cohesive presentation, Ratliff’s collage work is about taking those same parts and shuffling them into a new, sometimes disruptive, meaning. His piece Back to the Future features Little Red Riding Hood pulling a curtain to reveal her future encounter with the wolf. For Icarus Flirting, Ratliff mixes Greek mythology with 1920s lingerie to fashion something both absurd and tragic, displaying Ratliff’s dark humor. “It’s a little bit amusing that he has no idea that when he flies out to the sun he’s never going to survive it, and they don’t know it either,” muses Ratliff.
Ratliff moved to Vermont part-time 15 years ago, following his late wife’s diagnosis of ALS. He continued commuting back and forth to the city until after his wife’s passing in 2004, when he retired to devote his life to full-time art making. He now lives in Norwich, Vermont, where he creates collages in his home studio.
Originally appeared in Take Magazine.