A Cut Above

Inside Landon Tom’s frenzied cut-up world of collage

Text by Carmichael Doan  ||  Portrait image shot by AJ Feducia

We are surrounded by mountainous pillars of stacked periodicals and magazines. The workspace is high-ceilinged and cluttered with an assortment of distractions and obnoxious eyesores. An old pizza box crowds the area that I’ve been allocated to sit and observe and question. I turn to my left and spy a drum set through a labyrinth of trash and discarded shapes and ideas. The off-white walls are lined with vile images of penises, distorted hand-drawn humanoids, and messages that range from uplifting and philosophical to disturbing and confusing.

This place is disorienting, and yet at the center of the miasma sits Landon Tom, calmly browsing through an old magazine. His eyes fall on the edges for a moment, then dart back and forth as he accesses earlier cutouts and possible amalgamations. One hand slides deftly across the glossy edges of a random image. The other, meticulously holding the barrel shaft of a single edge razor, begins to shift the blade down on to something that has caught his attention. There is precision in his movements and clarity in his intentions as he scans through the dizzying array of photos before him.

Landon Tom is an infamous name in certain circles. I’ve often heard his name spoken in whispers by fellow classmates and mutual acquaintances. He is more often known for his time with his old band The Jump Offs but recently has been garnering attention for his clean and kinetic work in photomontage collages. There’s a palpable buzz surrounding his artistic endeavors, but there’s no trace of urgency in his body language or movement.

Tom is quick to disclaim that he’s not an artist. He has never been to art school or studied art in any incarnation. His interest is one purely born of aesthetic appeal and the appreciation of others he has stumbled upon along the way. He talks about how he is currently fawning over the works of Aaron M. Fitzwater, another collagist he learned about through his vast network of social media accounts. His wide-eyed enthusiasm is contagious, and it’s easy to get swept up in his thrall as he scrolls down his phone explaining which pieces are “rad” and their inherent “rad” qualities. Whereas most classically trained artists will spit esoteric jargon, Tom is not bound by those constraints; his musings skew toward one-liners. He peruses another collagist’s work on his phone, and espouses its virtue with an assured, relaxed tone: “This is dope. I really like this." 

Mindful of his limited experience in visual arts, Tom, nevertheless, brims with energy as he elaborates on the appeal of being a collagist and the evolution of his art. “It’s funny how collaging is not original, but in recycling images and reordering things, you can create something new and unique. I think it’s really fascinating in finding out what people like. In the beginning, I didn’t think anybody would think it was cool. I didn’t think anyone would like it, really. I would just do obscene stuff and dumb stuff, like cutting out a picture of some weed and putting it onto a musubi or something.”

Browsing his catalog of work, I am reminded of David Banash’s Collage Culture, which described collage as an artist’s way to uncover meaning within a ready-made consumer culture. Tom’s work cuts critically into that same vein. Whether juxtaposing an anonymous surfer up against a dizzying layout of urban sprawl or idyllic scenes against the backdrop of mechanized repetition, his works challenge the average thought process by raging against naturalist ideologies or by exposing cartoonish political theorem. Decidedly metropolitan, his work parodies the typical tropes of luxury culture a la Hannah Hoch, but there is also a heavy influence of technological advance and of the surf/skate/ocean culture that is clearly derived from his experiences living in Hawai‘i. While his statements maintain a playful and aggressive tone, they also serve to provide a clear glimpse into his influences from living in New York and California. “People are always asking what does this piece mean to you,” he begins, “and in all honesty, I’m really just superficial.” His smile is off-putting. I don’t know if he’s lying or joking. “I don’t even know what I’m doing,” he deadpans. 

Part of Tom’s antagonistic approach in art stems from his history as a musician. Although his name is synonymous with his former band The Jump Offs, an indie rock band formed with former high school classmates, his initial and most influential foray into music was in the Operation Ivy-inspired punk/ska band, The Ex-Superheroes. His musical evolution was birthed in that embryonic punk rock scene and has since evolved and crystallized into an erratic but effective artistic method that has translated seamlessly into his collage work. “The way I approached music is the same way I approached this,” says Tom. “When I was first in a band and just learning to play guitar, I sight read or played it by ear, and it’s similar to my collage work or my visual art in general. No one ever taught me how to do this. I actually take a really simple approach, and I just look for what intrigues me and what looks dope and put the two together. As far as classical art training, I guess I would be interested, but I’m just in the beginning of what’s happening, and I’m enjoying the process of letting it unravel before me. I like the randomness of letting the piece evolve. It’s like freestyle jamming and letting the creative thoughts just flow.” 

Observing Tom, there’s a discernable oddity about him. His mind quickly wanders from topic to topic, but once he lands on a train of thought he delves into intricacies that would you lead to believe this is where he wanted the conversation to go all along.

As he lights a cigarette I notice a huge scar on his right hand and ask him the circumstances revolving around it. He calls it his Fight Club scar, and it very closely resembles the same wound from the movie. I wonder out loud if the story of his scar is as intense as the space monkey scene he is alluding to. He laughs and begins to explain in great detail about his recent bicycling woes.

Tom likes to ride his bike. He likes to ride it a lot. He recently was involved in two collisions where an automobile struck him while riding. Both times he says that he could have been killed quite easily and elaborates on how car culture today is a badge of our obnoxious and overbearing society. As Tom bounces between relaxed states and fiery diatribes, I imagine these are the same nebulous forces that are reflected in his art, the very same anecdotal outbursts that have garnered him such a rabid following.

“I don’t really feel like I’ve received any negative criticism yet, but maybe it’s because no one knows that I’m doing this,” he says, despite two upcoming shows at The Human Imagination and The Manifest. “Actually, I think that would be great if some people would hate my stuff. At least they’d be talking about it and reacting to it.” As he gathers up the images in front of him, he points out one of the collages he has been working on.

“You know, sometimes when I’m creating a piece, I can craft the meaning as I go through the process of imagining what goes with what. It’s like I can create a dark and gritty world by imposing this guy’s image over the backdrop of a ghetto or war scene and then totally switch it up by throwing it over stars. Then the image means something entirely different. It becomes hopeful and bright. I love stars. Stars are awesome.”

I agree and we laugh.

Follow Tom @landonjumpoff