High, Low, and In-Between

Jyung Mee Park, view of installation at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1999. All works made of rice paper.

Anyone who has ever been to New Orleans during Mardi Gras has heard this cry, as crowds rush the parade floats begging for beads, plastic cups, toys or, perhaps, a coveted “Zulu coconut.” In all the excitement, the massive sculptural forms that provide the support for the masked figures tossing the trinkets seem to take a back seat to the jostling, drinking, and reverie. However, Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide puts these visual displays in the spotlight and especially lauds Blaine Kern, the largest of the floatmaking companies, for its expertise. (The company even maintains “Mardi Gras Land,” where past pieces are exhibited as museum artifacts.) Although made from a mixture of materials, a good number of these mobile sculptures—and they need to be described as just that—are made of papier-mâché, still one of the most economical, light-weight, and durable media around.

“Fat Tuesday” is the colloquial name for the day before Ash Wednesday, when Lent, the Christian liturgical season of fasting preceding Easter, begins. It represents a last chance for indulging in all those things that will be “given up” as penance for the next 40 days. The particular form that the celebration takes depends upon particulars of the locale, whether it be Rio de Janeiro in Brazil or Viareggio, Italy. The carnival sculptures reflect the culture as well.

Arnaldo Galli and the Cinquini Brothers, Il Cigno Torna a Volare, 1992. Papier-mâché.

While many of the New Orleans parades center around mythological and historical themes, the floats in Viareggio’s carnivale are blatantly political. Likenesses of Italian politicians are brutally caricatured, and metaphors are easily translatable into current events. The Italians have also advanced the technology of paper construction to an unparalleled level (in fact, a number of years ago Blaine Kern lured one of these floatmakers, Raul Bertuccelli, to New Orleans). The floats can measure as much as 50 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 65 feet high. Often their height will exceed the dimensions of the factory’s doors, requiring an elaborate system of pulleys that allows full extension only after exiting. The sculptural process is a year-long activity: it starts with drawings, followed by full-size clay models supported by wooden armatures. Plaster molds are taken from the models and cured in a special drying room before the newspapers and glue are cast into them. The last step is painting and assembly. At the end of carnival, they are disassembled, parts recycled, and the rest thrown away; the process begins anew.

Sandy Skoglund, Walking on Eggshells, 1997. Cibachrome photograph, 47 x 61 in.

Carnival sculptures like these represent a form of visual communication that might be dismissed by many in the fine art world as too populist, too “low.” The imagery is cartoony, and paper is seen as a throw-away medium, suitable only for children’s art projects and nothing more. But paper as a “high-art” medium has been coming into its own. The past few decades have seen a resurgence in the hand-papermaking movement spearheaded by organizations such as The Friends of Dard Hunter and by small and mid-sized papermills such as Kakali (Vancouver, British Columbia), Sea Penn Press (Seattle), TwinRocker (Brookston, Indiana), Magnolia (Oakland), Found Stuff (San Diego), Carriage House (Brooklyn), Pyramid Atlantic (Riverdale, Maryland), and Dieu Donné (New York). There are even commercial, handmade paper boutiques such as the trendy Kate’s Paperie in SoHo. Like their “low-art” contemporaries, “high-art” sculptors are finding paper to be a versatile material.

View of the Orpheus Parade, Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2000.

Sculptor and painter Willie Birch consciously exploits the low-art image of papier-mâché, mining both North American and African folk art traditions to create his politically charged works. It comes as no surprise, then, that he has chosen to forsake New York and live, instead, in his native New Orleans. His neighborhood, within walking distance of the French Quarter, is filled with the colors and sounds that only the Mississippi Delta can spawn: at any moment a local band might conduct a practice march down his street or a “Mardi Gras Indian” might strut his feathery stuff. Like the float artisans, Birch makes his work out of recycled paper and glue. He is not afraid to be populist in his content, and his sculptures reflect the life and customs of the people he knows. His solo exhibition at Exit Art in SoHo (1992) presented life-size renditions of an array of folks, from school children at a blackboard to a mother and child, patiently waiting, perched on their suitcases, to an African man sitting straight-legged on the floor playing an immensely long horn. All of these works were linked to textual commentaries, whether as an accompaniment or as part of the figures themselves. Works such as Sister (1991) show the influence of the time he spent in Kenya on a Lila Wallace grant, while Memory Jug for Uncle Nat (1995–96) looks as though it was found hanging from a tree in one of his Louisiana neighbor’s backyards. In all of these cases, Birch’s choice of medium is inseparable from his imagery.

View outside the floatmaking studio of Fabrizio Galli and Roberto Alessandrini, Viareggio, Italy.

Like the masters of Viareggio, Jeanne Jaffe, a Philadelphia-based artist, uses plaster molds, but her work takes an entirely different approach. Using pulp beaten from cotton linters, Jaffe makes casts of off-scale body parts and enigmatic objects. She combines these images to create unsettling, dream-like juxtapositions that seem to lurk just below the level of consciousness. Whether as reliefs or discrete sculptures, hands, feet, ears, shell-like shapes, branches, baby pacifiers, and what seem to be unidentifiable inner organs (of the type preserved at the local medical Mütter Museum) all take their place within Jaffe’s constructed mindscape. Rather than evoking folk art, her use of paper enhances the ephemeral nature of thoughts: an oversized pacifier-cum-head seems to hover mysteriously in mid-air (supported by a line of monofilament), and a curtain of surreal forms turns lazily in the ambient breeze (Pre-Verbal Objects, 1993–94). Few other sculptural materials could mimic the weightlessness of thoughts.

Willie Birch, Memory Jug for Uncle Nat, 1995–96. Papier-mâché and mixed media, 30 x 15 x 16 in

The lightness and fragility of paper have also been exploited by artists who normally work in other media, further boosting it into the arena of high art. Two of these, Christy Rupp and Sandy Skoglund, produced sculptural installations in conjunction with Dieu Donné Papermill. Rupp has spent a career working with issues of nature, survival, and ecological balance. Her 1986 Social Progress, for example, positioned a giant snail at Broadway and 23rd Street in Manhattan, struggling to pull an ear of ant-covered corn. Made of Designcast and steel, its sheer mass and scale exuded slowness and intransigence. On the contrary, in Moisture Seekers (1997), abaca was stretched across armatures to become the skins of amphibians slithering across the gallery wall. In this case, the transparency of the paper allowed light to filter through their bodies, and Rupp’s choice of such a hydrophilic material complemented her subject matter. Sandy Skoglund is known both as an installation artist and a photographer. Her constructed environments have used both conventional and unconventional sculptural media, from clay to plastic, raisins to ground beef. She then photographs them, usually with live models, and produces large Cibachrome prints. In Walking on Eggshells (1996– 97), Skoglund transformed paper made from cotton pulp and bagasse into wall tiles, a sink, toilet, and bathtub in a room-sized installation in which the floor is covered with empty brown chicken eggs. Resin snakes and hares encounter each other amidst the shells, and, in the photograph, two naked women, backs turned to the viewer, step gingerly toward the sink and the tub, seemingly unaware of the goings on. Again, paper’s implied sense of fragility complements the content.

Jeanne Jaffe, Pre-Verbal Objects, 1993–94. Handmade cotton paper and mixed media, installation view.

Some artists have gone to even greater lengths in blending the inherent qualities of paper with their subject matter. Sandy Bleifer, a Los Angeles artist, has literally burned her paper body casts and combined the results with wire, wood, and molds of cinderblocks. In a 1994 installation about the Holocaust, disembodied legs, arms, and torsos were hung from the ceiling, mounted on the walls, and strewn onto the floor. The flaking soot, peeling surfaces, and smokey smell of the charred paper molded into human form presented a startling contrast in images and materials. Like Rupp’s Moisture Seekers, the paper became a natural stand-in for skin; this time, however, it was the skin of Hitler’s victims. Earlier pieces, such as her Hiroshima Memorial Series (1990) and Paper Becoming Crucifixion (1988), also exploited the evocative and provocative images produced by burning, with the former referring literally to the intensity of the atomic bomb and the latter acting as a metaphor for emotional pain.

Sandy Bleifer, Holocaust #3, 1994. Handmade paper, fire, and mixed media, 38 x 34 in.

Like the carnival floatmakers, whose creations easily withstand the weather and the crowds, there are artists who seem to delight in defying this apparent weakness of paper. Jyung Mee Park, who recently showed at the Corcoran in Washington, DC, and at P.S.1 in Queens, New York, builds sculptural installations out of rice paper. Using as many as 10,000 individual sheets, folded, stacked, and interwoven, she builds massive forms—without any adhesives—that convey both stability and fragility at the same time. Although the final result is definitely more “high” than “low,” Park’s artmaking process lies somewhere in-between. The repetitive manual labor required to fabricate her sculptures recalls the piecework performed in factories and sweatshops. Much like sculptors Liza Lou or Ann Hamilton, Park enlists the help of volunteers (in the case of P.S.1, 400 students from the International High School at LaGuardia Community College) to help with the obsessively detailed work. One of the forms in her Corcoran installation towered 22 feet in height.

Three Studies, 1996. Handmade cotton paper and mixed media, dimensions variable.

Perhaps the most outrageous contradiction of the common perception of paper as a material unsuitable for three-dimensional construction has come from architect Shigeru Ban. In the 1980s, Ban often used cardboard tubes for exhibitions. After the 1995 Kobe, Japan, earthquake, he remembered having been impressed by their load-bearing capacity and so began incorporating them into emergency shelters. He used them again for refugee houses in Turkey and Rwanda and even built some permanent structures. His most recent construction, the Japanese pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany, went a step further: it was made entirely of paper—a matrix of paper tubes topped with a canopy of paper.

Christie Rupp, Moisture Seekers, 1997. Handmade paper (abaca), dimensions variable.

There is no doubt that paper has gained some acceptance in fine-art circles. The list of artists either working exclusively in the medium or combining it with other media is too extensive to chronicle here. Ming Fay, Peter Koos, Nancy Cohen, Mary Leto, Iaian Machell, Winifred Lutz, and Susan Share are but a few of those working in the United States alone. It goes without saying that this new interest in handmade paper is worldwide.

In addition, the breaking down of what is considered “high” or “low” in art has been long in the making. It has been nearly 90 years since Marcel Duchamp began exhibiting bicycle wheels, bottle racks, snow shovels, and upside-down urinals as ready-made sculptures. Today, “high art” museums routinely mount major exhibitions of “outsider” artists like Howard Finster, while the Museum of Visionary Art in Baltimore presents “low art” in such a professional context that it purposely blurs any high/low distinctions.

Christie Rupp, Moisture Seekers, 1997. Handmade paper (abaca), dimensions variable

But questions about paper as a sculptural medium still remain, and old biases persist. I once overheard a prospective buyer at Dieu Donné grilling a gallery representative about the guaranteed life-span of one of Rupp’s Moisture Seekers. (Would he have expressed the same apprehension about a two-dimensional drawing?) College sculpture programs continue to be dominated by metal, stone, and wood. And then there is the dilemma created by slide registries and grant agencies that force a choice of separate categories: does a paper sculptor pick “works on or of paper” or “sculpture”? Hopefully, the artwork produced by sculptors such as these will contribute toward the medium’s receiving the respect it deserves.

Virginia Maksymowicz is Assistant Professor of Art at Franklin & Marshall College. Her own cast sculpture is made from handmade cotton paper.