"The biggest artistic challenge in this project was probably just embracing the cardboard for what it is," says Brendan O'Connor, co-curator of this weekend's Cardboard Art Festival. That is, "besides the ginormous paper cuts you can get if you're not paying attention."
The three-day festival is the brainchild of local event producer Mark Baratelli, who swears the whole thing was a bolt from the blue. "I was standing at my desk, and I just said, 'Cardboard art festival.' It popped into my head, I wrote it down, and I bought the domain name later that day. I just felt like it could happen."
It clearly took a true impresario (that is, someone able to write the initial check, as well as inspire the enthusiastic assistance of numerous helpers) to pack this many events into a weekend. Opening night (6 p.m.-midnight Friday, $5) reveals the art, installed in Julio Lima's bright-orange Say It Loud studio; DJ Nigel will kickstart the dance party. Contacts from Baratelli's biggest success, the Food Truck Bazaar, facilitated Saturday night's ClandesDine pop-up dinner ($75), at which chef Bryce Balluff of the Fork in the Road food truck will prepare and serve a five-course dinner to guests seated among the art. (Flambée preparations are a bad idea, we're thinking.) After kiddie workshops all day – check cardboardartfestival.com for the schedule – Sunday night wraps up the fest with performances from Dog Powered Robot and Andy Matchett & the Minks (7:30 p.m.-midnight, $5).
In addition to helping put together the festival, O'Connor (the artist behind the SIT Project, those decorated chairs you see lashed to LYNX bus stops) will also be showing new work, along with Nathan Selikoff, whose towering cardboard-tube stick figures were seen in 2012's Walk On By and Creative City Project; Adriaan Mol, known for his wood-block interpretations of pop-culture standbys like R2-D2 and Space Invaders; painter Christie Miga and graphic designer Evan Miga, creators of Dog Powered Robot's cardboard automatons and their imperiled city; Jessica Earley, the multimedia artist whose yarn-bombing installations brightened Urban ReThink at Walk On By; and Doug Rhodehamel, the other curator of the show and the local artist best known for his creative reuse of refuse: paper-bag mushrooms, soda-bottle jellyfish, 20-foot-long cardboard sharks.
Despite being the most lowly of art materials, and one of the few that's free (in this case, a large percentage of the cardboard used was donated by IKEA), cardboard art has its high-profile adherents. Frank Gehry's 1972 Wiggle Chair, a curvy piece of furniture made from laminated layers of corrugated fiberboard, was a witty riff on Charles and Ray Eames' laminated plywood furniture. Sculptor Ann Weber was directly inspired by Gehry when she began creating her massive woven totems. Tom Sachs, though he doesn't work solely in cardboard, first got noticed with his cheeky series of cardboard-built objects stamped with luxury logos – a Prada toilet, an Hermès Happy Meal, a Chanel chainsaw.
But no matter how weighty the artist's ideas, the material itself is light, both literally and conceptually: There's an inescapable association with childhood play. Earlier this year, a short film called Caine's Arcade made the rounds (if you didn't see it, you were either in a coma or a lot more resistant to Internet videos than the rest of us), a tour of 9-year-old Caine Monroy's fully functional game arcade made completely of cardboard boxes. Yeah, it was heartwarming and educational, but my first thought was, that's art. Specifically, it reminded me of Michel Gondry's cardboard sets for the "sweded" films in Be Kind Rewind and the cardboard TV studio in The Science of Sleep. If there's an artist alive who personifies the mix of high art and humble materials, who blends adult sadness with kid's-eye ingenuity, it's Gondry (see Science of Sleep's self-generating cardboard city for proof).
Rhodehamel, who has been working with cardboard for years (in fact, he had so much stashed away he didn't partake of the IKEA donation) comes close to capturing that same wild whimsicality-slash-practicality. His huge installation Deep Blue (at Bold Hype in 2009) was a multisensory experience created with little more than what he calls "discardboard," day-glo paint, adroit lighting and an eerie aquatic soundtrack. He was a motivating figure for several of the artists in this show.
"To be honest, when I was approached by Mark to help plan this event I was actually inspired by Doug," O'Connor says. Earley admits, "When I first started working on my pieces I was really struggling … but Doug gave me a tip on a better way to manipulate the cardboard which helped me along so much."
In fact, the surprising complexity of working with cardboard was a common refrain when discussing the show with the artists. In addition to the paper cuts, O'Connor says it was tough at first to let the cardboard be front and center in the final product and not just a tool or framework: "I had to kind of let go and try to 'keep it simple, stupid,' which I think totally paid off."
Earley says, "It's really fun to look at a piece of cardboard now – something we normally toss aside, throw away or use for practical things in our lives – and to see all the possibilities of what it could become. A typewriter? Why not! A flock of flying cats? Absolutely!"
Cardboard Art Festival
Friday-Sunday, Jan. 25-27
Say It Loud
1121 N. Mills Ave.