Paper Sculpture Show, installation view, 2003.

“The Paper Sculpture Show”

Long Island City, NY


All of us have probably made a few paper airplanes or tried our hand at origami, but this innovative exhibition “The Paper Sculpture Show” lets loose 29 contemporary artists to come up with inventive ways you can turn ordinary sheets of paper into sculpture. The curators of the exhibition are SculptureCenter Director Mary Ceruti, artist Matt Freedman, and Cabinet magazine Editor-in-Chief Sina Najafi. Their choice of artists includes many who are well known such as Janine Antoni, The Art Guys, Nicole Eisenman, Rachel Harrison, Glenn Ligon, Cildo Meireles, Sarah Sze, Fred Tomaselli, and Allan Wexler. Most of these artists seem to enjoy exploring the realm between two- and three-dimensional art in this new way. Each artist created a design for making a sculpture out of paper using basic materials and every-day techniques such as cutting, folding and pasting. This interactive exhibition consists of printed copies of the artists’ designs which viewers are invited to assemble and put on display. Most ideas the artists came up with are quite inventive and produce interesting sculptural forms.

Janine Antoni’s design makes use of the act of crumpling a sheet of paper. Her sheet has myriad lines and numbers on it so that the viewer can attempt to crumple the paper in the same way that the artist did originally. This seems pretty impossible, and most viewers who chose this one seemed to use the paper in their own inventive way. One very simple yet beautiful idea was a sheet of midnight blue paper designed by artist Charles Goldman. The instructions were to use a pin to make holes in it and then put it up so that light comes through. Viewer-created examples were taped to the glass doors at SculptureCenter and provided some of the best aesthetic experiences of the show. Another artist, Aric O’Brosey, designed something that is supposed to look like a baseball glove when folded and pasted together correctly. This one proved very difficult, and the examples displayed were creative to say the least. Ester Partegas designed her paper sculpture as a paper cup/waste can for viewers to throw away the things that they wrote down on extra scraps of paper. Among the paper sculptures designed by the artists there were a few one-liners, some purely formal inventions, and relatively few designs where the depth of the concept seemed to match the effort required to realize it in physical form. Many of the artists seemed to approach this idea as a novelty and something fun, but not necessarily a serious example of their sculptural work.

Ester Partegas, Things You Don’t Like, 2003.

What makes this show truly innovative is that viewers actually make the paper sculptures that are put on exhibition, raising questions about the nature of the art object and roles of artist and audience. The “Paper Sculpture Show” engages the audience to act as creative partners with the artists. Viewers can choose the design they want to work on and are free to follow or not follow the artist’s directions. Viewers diligently work away at the work stations in the exhibition designed by artist Allan Wexler. The work stations are put together from sheets of plywood in the same way as the paper sculptures. In fact Wexler’s work stations may be the most exciting sculpture in the show.

This traveling exhibition changes constantly and may be entirely different in a different space with a different audience and on different days. At SculptureCenter it was interesting to see the inventive imaginations of so many individuals, but the exhibition can look messy and unorganized. Sometimes you might even wonder where the art is, since all you see is tables covered with many colorful pre-printed sheets of paper in various designs and scattered about on the walls, table surfaces and the floor some of these sheets cut, folded, pasted and put together. The room looks far more like an art classroom than an exhibition space.

There seems to be some attempt at exhibition organization. Certain spots in the room have been designated for particular finished pieces; however, many people seem to put their work wherever they like. Some of the most interesting individual pieces were by people who really did “think outside the box” and put several different patterns together or used the paper in their own unique inventive way. As an art teacher I really enjoyed seeing all this creativity and how some viewers rebelled against the artist’s directions. However, I could see that things could get really visually chaotic by the end of the three-month exhibition period.

Staff at SculptureCenter admitted that they had to do some occasional editing of the show. They try to keep this to a minimum because after all the failed attempts and the mistakes are part of the idea of the show. When I was there, some unfinished pieces were scattered about on the tables, a few frustrated attempts were on the floor and a few apparent “failures” in the garbage cans provided. I was told that some people spend hours there working on their paper sculpture creation. The staff feels that the audience has been seriously engaged with the exhibition, and that it has succeeded far more than expected in getting usually stand offish gallery goers to become actively involved in art. Maybe even New Yorkers need to play.

The show will travel to several other institutions, and in fact was shown concurrently at DiverseWorks in Houston, at the same time as SculptureCenter. The exhibition is accompanied by a full color catalog whose introduction by the curators is in itself a creative invention. The catalog has examples of all the paper sculpture designs along with information about each of the artists. With this book you could make your own paper sculpture show. The book also has a clever essay by Frances Richard that covers everything from the history of paper to ruminations from Gertrude Stein. The book is far more interesting than the exhibition that I saw, so viewers might skip the exhibition and just buy the book unless you really want to spend some time creating and perhaps become the “star” of this show.