Ben Butler’s site-specific installation at Rice Gallery, Unbounded, is a dream project for anybody who ever got lost playing with Lincoln Logs, an Erector Set, LEGO® bricks or Tinkertoy® building sets.
This is a man who, self-admittedly, has always been drawn to really repetitive work. He began with a small truckload of poplar boards, delivered to his Memphis, TN studio, which he then hand-cut on a table saw to yield 10,000 sticks. He purchased 30,000 wooden matchsticks and cut away the phosphorus tips.
In his studio, against the wall, he created a large jig and started assembling precise two-dimensional grids from the sticks. At their junction, a hole was drilled and a matchstick tapped into place to hold the sticks together. Line up, intersect, drill, tap, repeat. He continued this process, over and over again, until he had created 300 randomly shaped flat sheets of varying heights, which were then brought to Rice Gallery.
Butler’s fondness for the hand-pegged, three-dimensional cubic grid is not new; he has utilized the form in previous works, but never on this scale. Drawing inspiration from traditional Japanese stone gardens and Chinese scholars’ rocks, where the adjustment of the positive can manipulate the negative, he sketched onto paper a winding path with nooks and crannies, which was then replicated on the gallery floor with blue tape.
Aided by a construction team with electric drills, they positioned wall after wall, loosely following the winding blue tape path, drilling holes and placing matchsticks as they converted the two-dimensional walls into an organic, natural grid city. Diagonals were added for structural integrity, and decisions were made to add, subtract or edit in response to the space.
Unbounded is a physical experience. The viewer is invited to sign the guest register and later leave comments for the artist. For those who are able to download the app, an audio tour is available for smartphones. While walking through the space, and when positioned just right, the viewer can see long tunnels of perfectly aligned boxes. At times, the structure reaches for the ceiling; at other points it is waist high. There are many small areas where the visitor can stand still, surrounded by the colorless wood, and feel enveloped by this man-made square cell forest.
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In the lobby outside the installation, watch a video by Brenda Cruz-Wolf as the artist explains his process. A second video by Joshua Fischer shows the build from start to finish, using time lapse photography.
While the installation is site-specific and designed to be temporary, Butler believes the materials will “carry with them the history of Unbounded,” and he plans to use them again in the creation of future works.
For those new to Rice Gallery, it is best reached using Campus entrance 1 at the intersection of Main and Sunset. Paid parking is available in the Founder’s Court Visitor Lot directly in front of Sewall Hall.
Unbounded continues through August 28, at Rice University, Rice Gallery, 6100 Main, 352 Sewall Hall, open Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., 713-348-6069, ricegallery.org. Free.