The Paper Sculpture Show

at UIC Gallery 400, through February 28

Walter Fydryck

at Gallery Chicago, through February 29

In an unusual exhibit at UIC Gallery 400, 29 artists or groups created projects for viewers to assemble, following instructions that require the use of scissors, X-Acto knives, tape, and/or rubber cement, all provided by the gallery. Carrels constructed according to a design by one of the artists act as work spaces. Visitors are asked to leave their works behind for the duration of “The Paper Sculpture Show.” So instead of a clean, white-walled space we’re presented with something that looks like a kids’ playroom: the assembled works are scattered all over, on shelves, walls, the floor, the windows.

The Art Guys’ Paper Stunts is typically playful and relatively simple. The viewer is offered three preprinted sheets of paper, two showing a face and the third containing three sets of instructions, the most complicated of which produces a paper airplane. Visitors have altered the faces in ways not suggested by the artists–for example by cutting out a mouth. By contrast David Brody supplies instructions in 11 steps for making a miniature camera obscura in his Rental Truck Camera Obscura. Admittedly I’m a klutz, but I gave up after a half hour of trying to assemble the object, when it became obvious that my two tabs 4b were never going to match up. The two completed results on display do make enclosed boxes, but I couldn’t see any camera obscura image inside them–maybe they don’t work.

It’s clear from the assembled objects that not everyone has followed the directions. Indeed, Mary Ceruti, Matt Freedman, and Sina Najafi–the curators of this traveling exhibition–contradict themselves many times in their tongue-in-cheek catalog essay. They say, for example, that viewers “must build these projects” and that “it is not necessary to touch even a single piece of paper to appreciate the work of the artists.”

Some of the projects, while fun, seem a bit art schoolish in their tendency toward self-deprecation. For Things You Don’t Like, Ester Partegas asks viewers to first construct a trash can, then “write things you don’t like about yourself” on a piece of paper and place the paper in the bin. I uncrumpled some of the papers, which often revealed pretty mundane dislikes (“I hate my hair”). For Straws and Spitballs, Rachel Harrison asks the viewer to construct a straw, cut out a reproduction on paper of one of her artworks, chew it into a spitball, insert it into the straw, and blow the spitball at a target. I did all this but was distressed by the foul taste of the paper–were the dyes or the paper toxic? Also art schoolish but in a self-deprecatingly self-aggrandizing way is Glenn Ligon’s Pictures at an Exhibition. He has viewers construct a little model of a gallery with his own paintings on the wall. The kit includes a little freestanding paper viewer, who in one case thoughtfully considers the art with a “Yes, hmmm” speech balloon but in another critiques Ligon’s show by facing the exit.

The minimal instructions for Charles Goldman’s Night in Day leave most of the creativity to the viewer: “Poke holes in paper/hang in window.” But the results prove that not every viewer is an interesting artist: on one piece of paper, the holes spell out “Juana,” accompanied by poked-out hearts. Another piece is more thoughtful: in Stage/Levee Helen Mirra asks viewers to fold in half sheets printed on both sides with two textures, then place the papers at the line between the floor and wall, creating a ridiculous faux baseboard. One of the best pieces here, Stage/Levee extends the exhibit’s inherent self-referentiality to call attention to an often unnoticed part of the gallery.

Just as modest yet elegant is Coffee Cup by Sarah Sze–best known for her detailed sculptures. After you construct a paper coffee cup, you’re asked to insert one of six discs colored various shades of brown to represent the beverage itself, selected according to “how you like your coffee.” To judge from two completed examples on display, the discs can be inserted at different levels of depth too, indicating how full your cup is.

Trying to insert tab A into slot B does have the worthwhile effect of reminding you how labor-intensive and even boring making art can be. Unfortunately, the activity is kind of boring in itself, especially when the instructions are complicated. (David Shrigley acknowledges this by offering a parody of overly complex directions–you know The Paper Scupture is a spoof by instruction number two: “Earmark the westernmost corner of the starboard half.”) Admittedly the curators’ catalog introduction is somewhat fanciful, but I have to take exception to their notion that “most art exhibitions are dead by the time the first viewer steps into the gallery.” They even describe viewers’ reactions to other exhibits as “autopsy report[s].”

Wrong. To thoroughly apprehend one of Sze’s sculptures–rhythmic assemblages of hundreds of tiny objects–is to play a major role in “creating” the work. Great works of art essentially reconfigure the mind, an effect that can last for decades. Anyone who’s ever been transfixed by a masterpiece and emerged from a gallery, church, or museum profoundly shaken is likely to scoff at the notion that it’s more enlivening to see an exhibit in which one can either follow or deviate from detailed instructions on paper folding and rubber cementing.

While there’s a degree of interactivity to a few of Walter Fydryck’s 27 paint-on-Plexiglas works at Gallery Chicago, other aspects of the exhibit make it unlikely to attract trend followers. A portrait of Andy Warhol in one of the front windows might be at home in a shopping mall, and a number of pieces resemble decorative furniture–there’s even a table and four folding chairs, Nature Passage, with leaves and fruit painted on the tabletop and women’s faces on the seats. The Plexiglas top rotates, allowing the viewer to change the object that’s superimposed over a given face. The piece is likely to be seen as custom furniture, however, rather than interactive art.

Two five-panel paintings on Plexiglas would be harder to dismiss. The center panel of Woman With Leaves shows a woman’s face while the four hinged panels on the top, sides, and bottom are painted with different leaves. These four panels can all be swung in front of the woman, creating a dense weave of superimpositions. But the piece is just as complex with its wings open, because each panel casts the shadow of its image on the rear wall–and since the panels can be arranged at different angles, the shapes and positions of the shadows are also variable. Sea Shell Lady is similar in design but with shells on the outlying panels and a woman’s face that can be positioned right side up, upside down, or sideways. Fydryck’s lines and colors are not especially complicated (though similarly schematic work has made Tom Wesselman an art star). But the transparency of Plexiglas and the variability of the panel positions and the shadows all serve to dematerialize the art object in interesting ways. The superimpositions and shadows create a sort of labyrinth, causing the imagery to hover at indefinite levels of depth.

A former ad agency art director who was born in Chicago in 1941 and lives here today, Fydryck told me that he hasn’t sold much work in the dozen years he’s been making fine art full-time. But some of his pieces are arguably more interactive–and more interesting–than the conceptual instruction-based works in “The Paper Sculpture Show”: Fydryck’s art engages not the hands but the eyes and mind. You’re asked to question what you see but never permitted to resolve it into a static object, in a great tradition that goes back at least as far as Cezanne’s landscapes. It’s a tradition seemingly denied by Ligon’s “craft kit” for making paper galleries.

Interaction with Fydryck’s work doesn’t depend on the viewer being able to manipulate the art. In two abstract pieces using immovable forms, Inward Drift and Outward Drift, Fydryck places Plexiglas with “clear paint” on its surface in front of a canvas painted with a brown triangle. The clear paint casts circular or irregular shadows on the triangle, whose color ranges from very dark at one end to very light at the other, adding to the perceptual subtlety. Both the patterns of refracted light and the triangle itself seem alive and mutable, stimulating the senses and the mind rather than simply lying on the wall or floor.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fred Camper.