What is the future of paper in an age of digital media?
That question applies to art as much as to literature and journalism. And if there’s any group most likely to continue using and disseminating physical paper in an ephemeral world, it’s professional artists—the same dogged types that have kept alive celluloid and Polaroid prints long after the masses deemed them unnecessary.
In “From Ordinary to Extraordinary: Paper as Art,” currently running at the Cornell Museum at Delray Beach Center for the Arts, 20 contemporary arts offer their response to this question, whether they were asked it or not. There is an overwhelming sense, when walking through this sprawling, two-story exhibition, that these artists are saving a medium, or at least delaying its obsolescence. Taking in some of this stunning work, the thought “who needs computers?” crossed my mind more than once, to say nothing of “who needs paint?” Paper art is about a heck of a lot more than origami.
The variety in “From Ordinary to Extraordinary” lives up to its name, and encompasses everything from the paper-based, light-up sculptures of Frank Hyder to Annie Vought’s painstaking, hand-cut representations of handwriting to the nebulous wall art of Charles Clary, whose created a number of vibrantly colored, sensational 3D pieces specifically for this show. Japanese-born, but now Florida-residing, artist Hiromi Moneyhun does more with an X-ACTO knife than many artists could do with the best digital art software on the planet. She pays homage to woodblock prints from Japan’s Edo period by creating impossibly rich and meticulous wall hangings, carved from black canson paper that resembles metal. The artist’s almost Rorschachian images of human figures and women’s faces seem to melt in front of your eyes, captured in a state of mid-drip.
Even when some of the artists stray from producing purely paper-based work, they seem to be commenting on the novelty of paper in a largely paperless society and finding creative ways to recycle printed material. Houston-based artist Cara Barer, for instance, creates photographs of books that she tore apart and sculpted into kaleidoscopic visions, like flowers in bloom. The accompanying wall text says that she scoured secondhand bookshops for her material, looking specifically for outdated reference books “complete with mold and neglect.” If this is the future of the printed word, I’d certainly rather it be turned into an objet d’art than shuttled to the dump.
A similar sense of inventive upcycling imbues the sculptures of Alex Queral, who grafts humorous busts of Salvador Dali (his gravity-defying handlebar ‘stache reaching up to his eyeballs), Nurse Ratchett and other iconic faces onto the backs of phone books—the artist’s way of immortalizing a now-moribund paper resource.
But the most breathtaking example of an artist integrating paper into more elaborate forms is Brooklyn sculptor Will Kurtz. He makes life-size composites of people he sees on the streets of New York—a couple of bag ladies conversing, a woman walking five dogs—then lathers them in secondhand paper from head to toe. He chooses which color and type of paper like an offbeat fashion designer; one of the women in “Church Ladies” has shoes made from the New York Times, smiling images of the Mona Lisa and Barack Obama on her back, and a purse collaged from Broadway show advertisements. He creates a physical, indelible sense of New York in a way that no photograph could.
Kurtz’ magnum opus, though, is “Laid Out,” a wall hanging of a nude woman splayed across a bed. Everything except her glass eyes is made from cardboard, newspaper and tape; the artist even left a little gap where the model’s belly button would be. There’s a raw urgency to this piece, a self-reflexiveness that displays the artist’s materials, his labor and his choices right in front of us. It’s both marvelous and a call to action, seeming to say that with these everyday materials, you can create a masterpiece like this too.
“From Ordinary to Extraordinary” is the first Cornell Museum exhibition from its new curator, Melanie Johanson, who replaced longtime Cornell curator Gloria Adams in late April. She had one month to not only put the show together but to expand it from its original incarnation: An exhibition on dolls fell through, so Johanson suddenly had two floors to fill with her paper show, not one. Even so, she told me she had to cut herself off, because she was discovering more wonderful work than could fit in the galleries.
It’s worth nothing that I haven’t covered the Cornell’s shows very often over the past few years, mainly because they didn’t have the cachet of serious art. Shows about Elvis and ‘60s pop culture and kites and golf memorabilia and pirates are fun to pass the time, but there’s enough disposable entertainment in our cinemas and on our TV sets that museums should aim a little higher. In that sense, “From Ordinary to Extraordinary” is a shot from the bow, and I look forward to Johanson’s continued stewardship of the Cornell—which will hopefully become a fine-art destination to rival the Norton and Boca Museum.
"From Ordinary to Extraordinary: Paper as Art" runs through Aug. 24 at Cornell Museum at Delray Beach Center for the Arts, 51 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach. Tickets cost $5 or free for children younger than 6. Call 561/243-7922 or visit delraycenterforthearts.org.