Mark Wagner got the idea for his money collages, now showing at Western Exhibitions, after having lunch with a friend. “I got out my wallet, and he reached into his pocket and pulled out this tangled mass of bills. He had to spend some time smoothing it out. Something about that transgression of money stuck in my mind. I was uneasy at the messiness of it, but it had an appeal–like watching a horror movie. You’re not supposed to like it, but you watch it anyway. That visceral reaction is one of the strongest things about art.” There’s an antiauthoritarian streak at work too; Wagner once cut up his college diploma to use in a collage. At this show’s opening, he wore a paper flower cut from two one-dollar bills: “I made it that morning, after some phone consultations with my girlfriend.” All his money collages are made from one-dollar bills. For some, he cuts a single dollar into very thin strips and reshapes the bill, pasting it onto a board. In The Bubble, the dollar is bent into an elegant curved shape with a keyhole opening in the middle. In Chatter, it’s cut into thin diagonal strips, then pasted back together with the order of the strips reversed, making the whole bill look fuzzy. Other collages use more than one dollar to make designs. The almost surreal Akitu is a clutter of George Washington faces and face fragments; Topiary Dollar collages the leaf shapes on the bills’ borders into a “bush” shaped like a dollar sign.

“I try to choose subject matter that relates as tightly as possible to the materials,” Wagner says. “I like as many things as possible within the work to relate to each other. If your materials are clothing tags, the thing to make out of them is a garment.” He’s done that here in Tag Jacket, displayed near an artist’s book, Tag, that collages many clothes labels on each page. “With the money collages, I thought of monetary value as well as other kinds of value–I did some collage portraits of my friends. I also thought of Americana and did money portraits of Ben Franklin and George Washington.” Wagner, who grew up in rural central Wisconsin, is the son of an auto and farm-equipment mechanic and sees himself as a blue-collar worker. “I’m making things. I think of my dad’s and mom’s workshops, and my early tinkering there.” As a child he made wooden toys, and his mom taught him to sew at four. Now he tracks the hours he works on each piece and calculates his salary per hour if it sells–often $50 to $100, but that doesn’t take into account his costs, and many don’t sell.

Among the courses Wagner took at the University of Wisconsin at Madison–he received a BFA in 1995–was a video and performance art class with Marshall Weber that he says blew his mind: “He kept relating video art to the culture at large, and he would go on these wild tangents where he would link up all this stuff together, connecting Marx to Martha Stewart. He introduced me to the idea of critiquing the media.” A course in making artist’s books started Wagner working in that mode; now living in Brooklyn, he helped found Booklyn, a nonprofit selling artists’ books. In general he takes a hardheaded, practical approach. “I always try to think of my viewers rather than myself,” he says. “I try to find things that I will be interested in and that viewers will be too. A lot of artists are too self-centered–they don’t realize that they’re servants of their viewers. Your first job is to get someone to look at it, providing the pure retinal pleasure of looking. If they don’t want to think about it more, I like to at least give them that. I also like to give the people who like to think something to chew on as well.”

Mark Wagner

When: Through Sat 4/8

Where: Western Exhibitions, 1648 W. Kinzie, 2nd fl.

Info: 312-307-4685