THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Evan Carter
More often than not, the university galleries that I visit are fashioned after the modern white cube. The style of a university art gallery can reflect the values of the institution and what its perceived value of art might be.
The State Street Gallery at Robert Morris University is not the austere white cube overseen by a specific curatorial model. Applications for exhibitions can be submitted on the gallery website, and the space itself lacks the air of formality that is commonly associated with the white cube. The recent exhibition “Dancing in the Counterform” contains a selection of work by artist Richard Shipps that could stand up in the white cube gallery but takes on a different life on State Street.
The gallery has a showroom feel, with neon red lights running across the outside. It provides floating walls to allow the room with exhibitions to be busy with things to look at. “Dancing in the Counterform” is no exception.
This exhibition by Richard Shipps contains dozens of works selected and arranged by the artist and spanning roughly ten years of his career. I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Shipps and gaining insight into the work that I may not have had otherwise.
I had many questions for the artist about topics ranging from his selection of materials to his process, as well as the role that the traditions and history of paper cutting plays in his work. Here is what I learned.
Shipps’ work is consistent in that he cuts paper to create a composition on its surface, but there is variation in material and method. Paper is almost always the substrate, but some use watercolor paper while others are made using Tyvek, which allows for more experimentation with paint and durability. Many of the paper pieces are mounted on walls behind glass, while others hang from the ceiling or travel from a wall to wrap around a pillar. These sculptural pieces blend in more with the space and feel more at home in the State Street Gallery atmosphere than they might have in a white cube gallery.
The artist generously explained the processes behind a number of pieces and some far more procedurally than others. Sarondish Fulcrum is a piece on Tyvek paper that he described as beginning with one cut from which each subsequent cut is a response. The abstract composition utilizes patterns of textures that clash and allow a kind of figure to emerge.
Shapes cut from the central areas of the black paper are turned over and border the rest of the image. They are red on their opposite side and feel like runic characters, adding to the playfully sinister and demonic qualities associated with this color scheme. This was aided in that I couldn’t help but see the relief cuts as eyes, feathers, scales and claws.
Richard Shipps, Textured Hex Panel, 2011-2016, acrylic paint on Tyvek paper. Image courtesy of Richard Shipps.
These figurative and narrative elements are absent in other pieces. Works that are freed from the rectangle are abundant in this exhibition. A series of colorful shapes, entitled Textured Hex Panels, are arranged horizontally along a wall, making what is the largest installed work in the whole show. These shapes in blue, orange, green, yellow, and purple playfully clash with modernist reverie from afar while asking viewers to take a closer look at the intricate cuts that give them texture and definition not exclusive to their shape and color.
But their presence in the room speaks more to the activity in the space. Textured Hex Panels is displayed in the open southern side of the gallery around a seating area where people sit and talk or do work. The piece itself feels like a companion to the human activity in the space rather than something that demands the undivided attention and inspection of the viewer.
Much of Shipps’ work is focused on form and light and would be very interesting to see in the formal space of the white cube where their intricacies could be isolated without the visual busyness of the downtown gallery. Nevertheless, Richard’s work functions well in this space. Despite being inanimate objects, they are rhythmic and kinetic in the way abstract painting can be and allude to some of the abstract expressionist aesthetics of Pollack in both form and the esoteric titling.
Pieces such as Organic Flow 21 and Latin Rhythm suggest a channeling of something felt but unseen, while other pieces refer to qualities that are more apparent in the work. Shadow Maker hangs by a wall, casting shadows through the cuts in the paper, while other images made with single incisions bear that as their title and a number to mark its place in the series.
I pressed the artist on his relationship to traditions in paper cutting. The art form has been used to create elaborate decorations for a variety of cultural events, from holidays to wedding ceremonies, and spans centuries and cultures from around the globe. Although Shipps looks at these traditions, he does not prioritize them as reference points to his own work.
Richard Shipps, Organic Flow 21, 2016, Tyvek paper, 48”h x 140”w. Image courtesy of Richard Shipps
He also looks to art history and contemporary art at large, which he says sometimes influences his approach. Paper-cutting is not absent from art history. Matisse was known for his paper collages, as were the Surrealists and Cubists. Contemporary artists like Kara Walker, Sara Sze, and Julie Mehretu utilize paper- cutting in their mixed media projects, which are often driven by weighty concepts and social narratives.
This work is different in that Shipps is dedicated to the process and what he discovers along the way. In our discussion, I see the connection to the modern western traditions of painting and drawing and his employment of paper-cutting techniques to create what I believe he considers a “Counterform.”
I see these works more as unique hybrids of sculpture, drawing, and painting that embody the aesthetics of western modernism while playfully flying in the face of painting and sculpture as the preeminent forms of the period. As an artist, Richard Shipps seems to revel in his materials and process while simultaneously offering objects that play the role of a missing link in the history of modern art.
“Dancing in the Counterform” was at the Robert Morris University Gallery, 401 South State Street, from March 26 to April 26.
Evan Carter is a contributing editor of the New Art Examiner. He earned his MFA degree in 2017 from the University of Chicago and wrote about Documenta 14 in a prior issue of the Examiner.
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