Paper is not a common material for sculptors to work with, but New York-based Crystal Wagner is not your typical sculptor and she doesn’t exclusively work in paper. But her current show Tropism at Fort Works Art does feature the paper side of her artistic output—which includes ink drawings, silkscreen prints and wall-hung paper sculptures. This is the first time her drawings and prints have been shown together with the paper sculptures. The show at Fort Works Art doesn’t include any of her on-site installation art, but consists of her studio work that’s ongoing when she is not engaged in the installation globe-trotting that, by her estimate, occupies 80% of her time.
Three years after completing graduate school at the University of Tennessee, Wagner began making large-scale temporary installations using chicken-wire armatures, brightly colored plastic tablecloths, and hand-printed cut paper. It was this work that eventually brought her international recognition. She’s been invited to create installations in London, Singapore, Poland, Italy and the UAE, among others. Her next installation will be in Chile.
The drawings included in this show are not sketches for larger works—they could be called invenzione, or explorations of form and detail of a decidedly organic nature that she calls ‘BioJunk.’ She draws only in ink, building upon a gestural beginning; her drawn forms circle like whirlwinds of organic growth, with periodic cellular explosions.
The silkcreen prints here are comprised of 15 or more layers of colored inks that create intersecting whorls of activity. Several of the unique prints in the exhibition have their perimeters cut out with an exacto knife to isolate flying bits of matter. This modification of typically rectangular paper is very much in keeping with the spirit of the image-making.
Some of the hanging paper sculptures undulate freely on the walls while others are completely contained within hand-built display boxes, which the artist refers to as ‘terrariums.’
The constructed paper wall sculptures, both in and out of the terrariums, are suggestive of some kind of growing alien organism. The Tropism of the exhibition title refers to the response of plants when they turn and bend towards the sun. The artist mentions being inspired by organisms that she observes in tidepools, but her crafted vision of teeming life in an alien tidepool is ambiguous as to whether it is plant or animal-derived, or at the level of simple cellular growth. She describes herself as an ‘observer’ and feels that most people suffer today from a kind of sensory deprivation and from “technological glaucoma, where we lose peripheral vision.”
Wagner describes her organism-like forms as hybrids; sometimes the paper is cut into thin filaments, while other sections are covered with overlapping layers of tiny scale-like forms. Clustered circles of paper suggest cell growth, and still other sections have layers of boomerang-shaped cut-paper pieces with graduated colors.
The boxed terrariums that contain some of the paper sculptures serve several purposes. These display boxes are covered with UV-protective Plexiglas and serve to protect the layers of cut paper as well as conceal the supportive armatures behind the constructed forms. The interior of the box is painted black, and this dark background suggests a deep-space reservoir from which the brightly-colored forms seem to emerge. At the same time, the boxes constrain the wild growth within, and this creates a tension between the container and the artwork that verges on (intentionally) unsettling.
Some of the paper forms are sliced into sections that are boxed separately, but displayed next to each other, or the display boxes containing pieces of the dissected artworks are sometimes offset on the wall. It’s debatable whether the slicing and separation of the sculptured forms actually improves them, or is an intrusive interruption of the integrity of the artwork. The works on display are the last of her boxed series.
The paper sculptures that are unconfined by boxes are similar in their organic forms, with high-relief components that rise around six inches or so from the wall. These openwork relief sculptures decidedly benefit from being free of display boxes, and the colors are vivid enough to strongly contrast with the white walls of the gallery space.
In an interview conducted in the gallery, Wagner acknowledged the affinity between her work, the Art Nouveau style, and that of Catalan Modernist Antonio Gaudi, whose work evokes biomorphic forms. Wagner stated that perhaps it is her “intuitive reaction to space” that has caused her work to be referred to as “Art Nouveau on steroids in the 21th century.” She enthusiastically talked of plans to move her studio to a 4,000 square foot space in the mountains of the Hudson River Valley, 15 minutes from Manhattan. Having a larger studio will enable her to finally create permanent, large scale structures and may create a “jump” in her practice.
Also ending today is the accompanying Paper Works show, which was juried by Alison Hearst, Assistant Curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
‘Crystal Wagner: Tropism’ through June 24 at Fort Works Art, Fort Worth.