Tacking a 20-foot sheet of paper to the wall is a hellish experience. This is why pragmatic and market-conscious artists do not make large-scale works on paper. The material creases and tears, humidity buckles it, pinning and repinning eats away the corners -- and this is before it even leaves the studio for the cruel world outside. Even non-anal-retentive collectors avoid huge paper works. Framing costs a fortune and weighs a ton, if it's even physically possible. A work left unprotected faces the danger of someone jostling a glass of red wine and indelibly imprinting an event on its surface.
But paper is a wonderful thing. And artists who understand this are willing to endure the material's practical challenges. Smooth, dense and creamy or tissue-thin, paper beautifully absorbs pigment. There is a certain sense of nostalgic opportunity to a blank sheet; an expanse of white paper can still evoke the sense of limitless potential it held for us as children.
Topping out at 150 inches by 412 inches, Jene Highstein's enormous drawings at Texas Gallery push the paper envelope, so to speak. Highstein creates sculptures and drawings of genial, rounded, quasi-architectural forms -- simple, solid images in a style called "animistic minimalism" for its subtle quirkiness.
Stairway to Heaven is a 168-inch-long vertical paper rectangle with a narrowing, zigzagged black path that leads up to a door. The pigment is marvelously opaque and matte. Highstein achieves his dense, chalky texture by mixing his own paint; combining powdered pigment and graphite with a binder allows him to pack in more color than is available in manufactured paint. The visual denseness of his drawings implies the same tactile solidity as his massive sculptures. This effect could not be achieved on canvas.
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Open Coliseum is created on two seamed sheets of paper. (Rolls of paper come in huge lengths, but 80 inches is about the maximum width available. If you want anything wider, you have to piece strips together, which can be distracting to the viewer.) The image is a bowl shape with rectangles designating doors and overlapping spaces delineated by narrow white seams between the areas of pigment. Highstein's similar, three-dimensional forms had openings just large enough to crawl through, but neither the drawings nor the sculptures are spaces you necessarily imagine yourself inside. They are, rather, animated architectural entities. There is an empathetic -- but controlled -- organic nature to the forms.
Highstein's largest work, Connected Tower and Room, is 34 feet long. Two cylinders -- one tall and slender, one short and squat -- are linked together by an angled walkway. The larger, bloated room floats high, and the ramp leads down to the slender one. The seesaw effect is comically skewed, and the slightly off forms have an amiable lack of slickness.
Earlier works by Highstein are covered with dense, linear trial-and-error networks, but these works are less labored and dramatic. The faint pencil lines of earlier sketches are still visible here, but only in the matter-of-fact manner of working out placements and shapes. The dense areas of black are workmanlike, without a painter's affection for applying material to a surface. Highstein wants dense, solid areas covered with pigment, and he works methodically to blacken the expansive surfaces.
The largest drawings may illustrate the downside of Highstein's material choices -- nicks and tears in the paper are straightforwardly mended -- but the scale is necessary to their success.
Meanwhile, in her show at Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery, Melissa Thorne has forsaken the cult of paper. Gone are the delicate sheets of translucent drafting vellum. Gone, too, are the puddled transparent inks she used to create her geometric drawings. In her new show of paintings, she has abandoned rolls of paper for canvas tightly stretched across panels. Still, Thorne applies and sands myriad layers of a translucent Gesso-like substance to the rigid canvas surfaces -- an attempt, no doubt, to duplicate vellum's waxy luminescence.
Throne is one of a number of artists mining resale stores and eBay for imagery and inspiration. The paintings, which look like digital-age quilts, are based on knitted and crocheted afghans she's culled from thrift stores. Working from the afghan's actual measurements, Thorne methodically counts the stitches and translates the patterns and colors into a grid of tiny squares. She measures and pencils the grids but carefully paints them in without any masking. By laying her paintings flat on the floor and working out from the center, she has managed to retain the effect of watery, pooled color, with the urethane-based binder and pigment settling delicately onto their surfaces. The process creates a lovely little halo around the edges of the squares and bands of color.
The paintings have the lurid hues of acrylic hobby-store yarn: bright unnatural pinks, vivid purples, chemical blues, as well as pale "decorator" tones of mauve and pale green. The patterns and colors are meticulously guided by the original craft object, and there is a conceptual obsessiveness to the project. Thorne develops a relationship with the creators through the objects created; even the odd squares where the crocheter ran out of one color and tacked on whatever was at hand are faithfully recorded.
With such a laborious process, you can't blame Thorne for making her life a little easier by working on a more durable surface than her tissue-thin vellum. But something is lost in the translation. Up close, the subtleties of color application give the works their geometric yet handmade appeal. But from a distance, the surfaces feel flat and deadened, like digitizations. Their appeal isn't wholly negated, but comparing them with an earlier work on vellum hanging in the back gallery makes you miss the quality of light playing through the ink stains on the translucent surfaces. There must be a better solution -- frosted Plexiglas or something -- that could offer a compromise between practicality and visual effect.
These two shows remind us just how many factors affect the making of art -- the creator constantly negotiating between visual and conceptual and material choices. Compromises -- and creative solutions -- go with the territory.
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