Contemporary Artists Cut Cardboard into Culture
Cardboard is the new canvas for an eclectic range of artists obsessed with the low-fi elevation of ordinary materials.
Cristobal Valecillos: Earning Your Allowance. Courtesy of Timothy Yarger Fine Arts
In this era of high-tech, digitized, hyperlinked visual media, a small but salient portion of artists and designers have seen fit to stage returns to ostentatiously analog, off-line, slow, and decidedly un-precious materials and processes—from a surge in interest in hand-dirtying ceramics to the embrace of reclaimed, upcycled, discarded ephemera in collage, assemblage, and installation works. One of the more charming segments of this new take on arte povera is the prevalence of artists using cardboard—the epitome of ubiquitous and overlooked industrial/commercial plainness—to create aesthetically inventive and conceptually rich, quirky, and hilarious works of painting, sculpture, and environmental intervention.
Reasons and meanings behind the choice to use the stiff brown stuff of nothingness in fine art practices are as diverse as the works themselves. From political and economic statements on luxury branding, to cheeky commentary on irony and artifice in contemporary tastes and insider art markets, to a simple, personal attraction to the material on its merits, to more profound meditations on gesture and ephemerality. Starchitect Frank Gehry made a line of chairs out of cardboard in 1972 that went back into production in 2005, and remarked, “One day I saw a pile of corrugated cardboard outside of my office—the material which I prefer for building architecture models—and I began to play with it...”
New York-based Tom Sachs has famously built everything from boom boxes to interstellar landing modules and scale models of electric chairs from the stuff. Last year, LA painter (and gruff contrarian) John Kilduff filled a defunct downtown showroom with an entire car dealership made of painted cardboard vehicles, and has staged everything from flower shops to art-fair bakery cases with the same pitch—that paintings last longer and hold their value better and are healthier for you than a lot of the “real” crap you’re wasting your money on.
LA is also home to the category-flouting artist Phranc. Widely known as a singer/songwriter, Phranc has also pursued a prolific visual art career entirely devoted to working with cardboard. It’s been her thing for a long time, and her genius at making everything from classic toys, taxidermy-style pets, costumes and clothing—all in the name of “the Pop tradition of making the everyday object exceptional. Using found cardboard, paper bag, kraft paper, and paint, my three-dimensional, life size sculptures literally sew together issues of personal identity, American popular culture and politics with the thread of my grandmother’s sewing machine. I am interested in the American obsession with labels both obvious and implied, economic elitism and the business of branding. My use of recyclable and biodegradable material emphasizes the frailty yet durability of cardboard, paper, of myself, of art…”
Bill Barminski, too, has a long history of playing with cardboard. Though known as a painter, his increasingly independent sense of humor long ago inspired him to make unlikely things out of cardboard—rockets, motorcycles, mixtapes, gas masks—offerings which always operated on dual levels. On the one hand, the subversive joy of making that recalls childhood in its imagination and raw fun; on the other, an almost nihilistic thumb in the eye of the expense-obsessed out of control art market and its insatiable appetite for junk. For those reasons and more it was the most natural fit ever when Banksy tapped Barminski for Dismaland, where, among other things, Barminski created the entire security entrance set-up with metal detectors, body-search wands and everything at the entrance to the park. “People went through it!” marvels Barminski. “I don’t know if they thought it was real or if they were just playing along or what—but they did it.”
Photographer and sculptor Cristobal Valecillos uses cardboard in a direct assault on "old master" styles and a vintage taste for elaborate decoration. He builds entire sets, including costumes, from cardboard and paper, then photographs them, then builds frames and versions of the set stages in which to display the photos. This engaging and regal practice is more about the elevation of materials through the deft skill of the artist, the surprise discovery that something so civilized and lovely could be made from simple origins on the strengths of the alchemical magic of what an artist does.
But when it comes to building cardboard worlds, the coolest kids on the block could be Zoey Taylor and David Connelly of Dosshaus. Taking LA by storm with their infectious enthusiasm and self-described obsession for cardboard itself, they make everything from clothes to cars to cameras and photographs—from cardboard and glue. Saying, “Our inspiration is simple, we are building the world in which we wish to live,” they have been staging pop-ups and appearances around town, but are currently completing a fortnight’s residency at Chinatown’s Gregorio Escalante Gallery. They’ve been in there using the main exhibition space as a working studio since February 10th, with a public reception Friday, February 19th to show off the culmination of their improvisational labors. Whatever it is they’ve been building in there, you’ll never see your Amazon delivery the same way again.
Who are your favorite cardboard artists? Let us know @CreatorsProject or in the comments below.