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1993 04 06 Sculpture Public Works James Carl beer can cross in gallery close up
1993 04 06 Sculpture Public Works James Carl street performance Carl sitting with beer can cross and man sitting roadside
1993 04 06 Sculpture Public Works James Carl street performance Carl sitting beside road with beer can cross interacting with public
1993 04 06 Sculpture Public Works James Carl beer can cross in cart on street performance
1993 04 06 Sculpture Public Works James Carl alley performance garbage truck with cardboard dumpster above cab
1993 04 06 Sculpture Public Works James Carl cardboard and actual dumpster
1993 04 06 Sculpture Public Works James Carl man walking up alley back toward camera pulling cart with beer can cross
Public Works James Carl cardboard dumpster in gallery

James Carl - Public Works
April 6, 1993

1993 04 06 Sculpture Public Works James Carl beer can cross in gallery close up

The Art of James Carl

...sculpture has been created by artists thinking not only about the materials they were employing, but about those which they were not employing.
- Nicholas Penny1

I was introduced to James Carl's sculpture with Public Works, cardboard only (1993), a one-to-one scale cardboard replica of a steel garbage dumpsters.2 I still remember the frail individualism of its cardboard body in contrast to a real steel dumpster, posed ominously in the alley beside the gallery. At the close of the exhibition, Public Works was abandoned alongside this dumpster. Its huge steel mandible seemed a weighty sign of enduring social authority, a gaping maw on a trough of flowing commodities.

The unpainted pale brown cardboard replica managed to satirize the modernist ethical dictum (and dilemma) of "truth to materials" and criticize the entire self­ denotative modernist enterprise even as it was subsumed by the social structure of consumption and disposal. At the time, I thought the replica a necessarily supple, if somewhat duplicitous reaction to that social authority. The flow of Carl's cardboard (art) commodity seemed to flesh out the structure of state authority. It was as if Carl's sculpture was the individual sculptural body socialized, made in an anorexic cardboard image of the steel skeleton that supported it.3

But I also recall the exhibition as being like a giant pop-up book, a sculptural exhibition catalogue of a sort, as if it were a deliberate and ironic sycophancy suited to the fetishistic book and catalogue consuming habits of a specialized art audience. Public Works was smart and neat and looked like art from an art magazine, and through this complex entanglement with art institutional authority it transformed the outdated coinage of the atavistic sculptural object into a credit.4

Throughout the decade of the 1990s cardboard seemed to be Carl's signature material. Between 1990 and 1994 he produced a series of works titled re:possession. These sculptures were one-to-one scale replicas of consumer appliances: washing machines, stoves, refrigerators, and television sets. Constructed from salvaged cardboard appliance boxes, it was as if they were the consequences of the containing boxes having been imprinted with the images of the previously contained objects; ghosts that became plans for the construction of sculpture. James Carl's sculpture looks good. It looks good for some of the same reasons that Rachel Whiteread's5 and Colleen Wolstenholme's6 sculpture looks good, because the particular represented objet trouvé ironically mimics the secure formal conventions of modernist industrial "good design" at the same time that it transports us within a scale model of charged metaphors. Cardboard evokes prototype, the model and the toy. Architectural models were once cardboard boxes (now they are plastic), but cardboard boxes are still architectural models. Cardboard is boxes7 and boxes are architecture. Recall the cliche of the innocent child under the Christmas tree preferring to play with the gift boxes and the wrappings rather than with the gifts themselves. Cardboard gift boxes in the hands of children (and sometimes in those of artists as well) become happy, flimsy houses and castles and ziggurats, and parodies of Utopian modernism. As plaster is to gypsum ore, so cardboard is to wood. It is still wood, but wood refined and redefined, its values disturbed with those of industrialism. As particleboard is wood transformed into a hard synthetic material, so cardboard is the softest of the woods, composted into paper, akin to soil, peat or humus. Wood seems never to really die. It expands and contracts with changes in temperature and humidity, is always full of tiny insects and subtle vegetal rots. Timber always seems ready to take root again. Cardboard partakes in all the characteristics of wood, but as pale memory.

As a color, cardboard is neither white nor brown, but a sallow mix of the two. Brown evokes the ordinary, the color of wood, earth, beer, manure, rusted iron and un-patinated bronze.8 It is the artistic atelierbraun of Spenglerian historicism.9 White can be innocence, but in art it has conspired with neo-classicism and imperialism in a process of petrification that is the body of the state. White plaster was a paradigmatic material of both classicism and early modernism. The English aesthete Walter Pater, seconding Melville,10 wrote of the "mystery of white things [...] the doubles [...] of real things, themselves but half-real, half material."11 As a "half-material," plaster was suitable for replicas, molds and provisional experimental art. This identification once caused white plaster and now causes Carl's pale brown cardboard to be read as if a solipsism, a sign for signification itself. Along with and usually preliminary to plaster, cardboard is a contemporary "quintessential art-school material."12 Art students now use cardboard as they once used plaster, because it is lightweight, relatively easy to work and freely available. To work with cardboard and plaster is a neophyte habit that can continue as a mature vehicle for an artistic ethic: the simplicity of means. This very lack of an involving technology makes the working of cardboard accessible to a non-technical but specialist art audience. The limited audience for contemporary visual art has only small knowledge of the technical processes historically used in the production of sculpture. The rude working-class esoterica of metal working, for example, can quickly alienate a middle-class art audience unfamiliar with such technologies. (As haptic and sensual art, sculpture has easily been accused of anti-intellectualism, as if intellection was the sole property of nascent Eloi.13) Cardboard, on the other hand, is familiar and domestic, and most middle-class persons can imagine themselves working with it, given a good pair of scissors or a sharp knife, some tape and glue.

Carl's sculpture is contemplation on the preciosity of the sculptural object, a strangely collaborative criticism of the aesthetic or museum object. For even given its relatively cheap materiality, Carl's sculpture is undeniably precious: precious in the sense of being an article of value, precious as being fastidious or affected, precious in the sense of being fragile and delicate, and for all Carl's prolificacy, precious for being rare. It is also precious in that it makes claims (and claims, including my own, are made for it) to be of substantial intellectual or otherwise non-material worth. At each stage in the definition of preciousness, Carl engages us with critical argument, contrasting the relative values of the found cardboard box with that of the finished sculpture, and the fastidiousness of his construction with the irony of his conception.

The preciosity of Carl's sculpture begs for curatorship. The material weakness of cardboard attracts preservation efforts. Etymologically the art curator is a physician, "curator" from Latin curare (to cure). Cardboard is paper, and recalls the archival book fetish. Sculpture (of metal, stone, wood, et al) often preserves itself without curatorial assistance, hence its conventional memorial function, and hence the convention that conservators are more often trained in the preservation of drawings, photographs, prints, paintings and the like.

Somewhat anomalous or contradictory within the context of Carl's (cardboard) oeuvre, empty orchestra (1995-199714) is a set of hand-carved stone pieces, begun in Beijing during his second year-long residency in China at the Central Academy of Fine Art. Small and hard, made from relatively precious materials, this is post-studio art. Peripatetic until only recently, Carl has developed a sense of domestic place in which psychological security is found in signs of transience, transportable commonplace commodities that function nostalgically as memories of another place, their arrangement a home; the cardboard box a home.

empty orchestra is the English language translation of Karaoke.15 The sculptural ensemble consists of a microphone, a videocassette, a Walkman, a Discman, a CD (this carved from jade, resembling a bi disc16), a cell phone, a camera, etc. During this same period in Beijing, the first of Carl's take-outs, marble carvings of Styrofoam takeout restaurant lunch containers, was also produced. This and empty orchestra are Carl's summative homage to the century-long modernist campaign to replicate the twilight aura of the museum artifact: the neo-Neolithic that is 20th century sculpture.

Carl's sinophilia, his nearly impenetrable titular references to East Asian culture, provide an ideational if obscure provenance of a sort. Orientalism has a long history in Western Art, a consequence of the attractiveness that another culture can possess when viewed from the distance of one's own.17 The titles of Carl's works hold our gaze, the sculpture apparently redolent with meaning. Then the textual mist clears, and there is a cardboard box.

Carl's more recent "cardboard" sculptures are made from Coroplast, a type of corrugated plastic, itself a replica of cardboard in more enduring substance. Original Six (1998) consists of six large polychromatic Coroplast representations of disposable cigarette lighters arranged in a semicircle around a representation of the Stanley Cup (an ice hockey trophy, recalling a slightly earlier work, A Trophy (for Tom Dean) (1997)). The title refers to the six original teams of the National Hockey League; the colors of the lighters derived from (or coincident with) the team colors. Disposable cigarette lighters are one of the last vestiges of communal property. My own disposable lighters often disappeared, but I soon learned that they would always reincarnate, perhaps with color changed, but never empty of fuel. Historically, communalism disembodied the object through sharing, giving some form of movement or life to otherwise inert objects. This same transparency of the object is achieved in consumerism through planned obsolescence, display, purchase, and disposal. Carl's moving social sculptures are a consequence of a somewhat surreal juxtaposition, a collision of the objet trouvé shared by consumerism and communalism.

I think that my notion of 'public art' might reside. the common.
James Carl18

redemption (1993, Vancouver) was a metal sculpture made from salvaged aluminum beer cans glued together to form a cruciform block. (It recalled an earlier piece Spring Collection (1991), a full size copy of an Inuit igloo (snow house) made from discarded antifreeze bottles.) Carl towed this cruciform juggernaut around Vancouver while collecting cans that were returned to be recycled at the conclusion of the exhibition. It was a subtle chiding at the conceits of Vancouver's redemptive ecologic politic, and a dispute with the ironically static conventions of sculpture as movement.

Russian Constructivist Naum Gabo's Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) (1920), a shaft of motorized vibrating metal, was a prototype for the development of sculpture as movement and material disembodiment. By the 1930s Bauhaus professor Lazlo Moholy-Nagy understood that the history of sculpture was a development from carving through modeling to linear construction, and thence to sculpture as movement. But kinetic art failed as an art movement. It never really went anywhere and its restricted motions became another form of sculptural stasis.

There is an essential contradiction between Sculpture and movement, a statue is something that stands, and the word itself comes from the same Latin root as the word 'static'…
-Herbert Read19

By the 1960s, Carl Andre's minimal history of 20th century sculpture (from sculpture as form, to sculpture as structure, to sculpture as place,20) although structured similarly to that of Moholy-Nagy, is actually a vision of the historical sculptural body in a deathly ruin, decomposing to the skeletal (structure) and then to the memorial (place) and by now, through the work of persons like the late Gordon Matta-Clarke, transformed into a ghostly, transparently moving social body, resolving Herbert Read's contradiction.

Carl's work attempts to keep pace with the vast sublime scale of the consumer economy. As an example of the moving transparency of the social object, consider the catalogue and magazine rack that has been expanded into a library at the Contemporary Art Gallery21. It is a facade that grows only incrementally with the procession of proprietary and other exhibitions. Contrast this sedate, archival pace with the rapid turnover of the popular magazine stand, the monthly, weekly, even daily replacement of text, the quick flickering quasi-pixilation of the architectural facade of consumerism.

Carl's Whitewalls (1998-ongoing) is a pile of constructed Coroplast tires, each different, but each based on a standard pattern. It was begun in New York in 1998 with various portions of the pile exhibited in Canada, the US and Europe. The largest portion is now in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario.22 It is intended that the production continue indefinitely. The folded Coroplast construction technique produces a faceted appearance that evokes gems, jewelry, and currency, as well as the pixilation of the digitized visual environment. Whitewalls evokes the ring coins of China, and also recalls Gerald Ferguson's One Million Pennies,23 a similarly sculptural study of the social economics of art production. Like Ferguson's low brazen mound of coppers, Whitewalls is piled like an untouchable24 treasure hoard around which coils the pale, white walls of the institutional örm, whether Smaug,25 or AGO. Whitewalls is a questioning sculptural indictment of both artistic profligacy and the attendant institutional avarice.

fountain (1997), was Carl's first officially sanctioned and boldly complicit public work. It consisted of nine vending machines, each fronted by a backlit photograph, placed side by side in a semi-circle, making up a panoramic photomontage of Niagara Falls, that cliche image of the sublime. Fountain is a Duchampian26 titular reference to the managed sculpture garden (a folly of a sort) in relationship to the artificially managed flow of the spectacle of Niagara Falls.

fountain is a monument to obeyance; it dispenses observance; and through its complicity and compliance, attaches itself to the site and to the world.
James Carl27

The two-dimensional faceted appearance of so much of Carl's sculpture, a consequence of the folding or the wrapping of a flat sheet (recalling the construction of a cardboard box), is also a formal characteristic of ancient Chinese sculpture. Carl's Coroplast sculpture Dynasty (2000) was exhibited at Mercer Union as an edition of five. Each is a replica of a modern rice cooker, a form derived from an ancient Chinese prototype, but one that did not enter North American culture until the late 20tn century. The form is that of a ting, a tripedal bronze vessel that evolved (from various pre-bronze age ceramic prototypes) during the Shang period of Chinese prehistory (17th century BCE through to the 3rd century BCE). While the title, Dynasty, in combination with the five exhibited replicas is perhaps an allusion to the Five Dynasties period of Chinese history, it also may be a reference to the fivefold "blending" function of the ting. Carl's work is the latest type in the form development of the ting, and yet a critical parody of that same historical development.

The ting has three legs and two ears. It is a precious vessel used for blending the five savours.28

The two-dimensionality of Carl's work (three-dimensional sculpture as a succession of facades) has the characteristics of skeumorphic form. The skeumorphic is a form of three-dimensional representation normally utilizing a two-dimensional transition medium, usually a drawing of some sort. In architecture, this is a drawing of a façade. Carl's latest work, concession, installed in late 2002 at the Art Gallery of Ontario, is in fact an architectural façade.

An often-cited example of skeumorphic form is the marble Doric Temple, with numerous of its non-functional forms (for example, the triglyphs and guttae of the frieze) having as their prototypes the functional timber forms of its once contemporary and now lost Ancient Greek domestic architecture. As a more recent example, consider how in the 20th century, the development of a plastics technology, the vanishing supply of increasingly valuable hardwoods and the economic rise of a consumer class, all contributed to the production of wood veneer: thin sheets glued over cheap softwood furniture in imitation of solid hardwood (and the solid values of the upper classes that could afford it).

Sculpture historian Nicholas Penny29 divides sculpture historically into two broad categories: a public art made for a social group (usually sacred images) and that made for individual persons. In the former, the sculpture was concealed by a façade of coloured paint or gilding, to make the sculpture seem more lifelike or materially more valuable. In the first category are the monumental chryselephantine statues of Ancient Greece and the gigantic polychrome Buddhist statuary of Gandharan, Afghanistan that were derived from them. In the second category are the subtle types of rarity that appealed to the connoisseur, patinas on metal, natural colors of exotic wood, or bare clay with traces of the artist's hand. As religious institutions were once the fabricators of the sculptural supra-scale, so now similarly authoritative institutions (including, but not limited to, multi-national corporations) own the gigantic scale that surrounds one as the "gilded" façade of the built architectural and media environments. The electronic media is a contemporary, near equivalent to sculpture, once made for a group of worshippers. The term "three-dimensional" or "3-D" is now commonly used to refer less to sculpture and the actual experience of binocular vision, than to the virtual monocular illusion of three dimensions as represented on a computer screen. The ubiquity of computer imaging now engages Carl, as once did the ubiquity of the cardboard box.30

My work has shifted from [ …the street trash of consumer culture to the cerebral compost of… ] popular intelligence.
James Carl31

accommodation (2002), is an image that is the result of a 4 by 8 foot sheet of grained plywood digitally photographed, then proportionately "stretched" by means of a computer program to fill a wall, printed on 8.5 by 11 inch paper sheets and glued to the architectural surface, just as if it was tile work. A subtle grid is visible over the wood grain pattern as a consequence of the computer printing process. Like cardboard construction, it is relatively easy for one to identify with the process of production. This is work that can be sent via email, stretched and printed on site according to local specifications. accommodation was exhibited at Mercer Union, Toronto, in September 2002, as one drawing stretched (and inverted) to fit two convergent walls.

The flowing hallucinatory clouds of simulacra that make up wood grain patterns are conventionally sure signs for an apparently natural rhythm. As if a cloudy Song Dynasty landscape painting, wood grain can seem to form images like that of the paradisiacal Xianshan or Penglai.32 But wood grain patterns are really nothing more than the distortion of the circularity of the annular growth rings of a tree formed by angled saw-cuts through a log. The turbulent plywood grain patterns of Carl's accommodation are like anamorphic representations of concentricity, maps of his eccentric transformative orbits, as if plots for future sculptural landscapes.

Robin Peck


  1. Nicholas Penny, The Materials of Sculpture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.1993. p. 270 back

  2. Exhibition at grunt gallery, Vancouver, 1993. See George Bataille's fearful intuitions of Catholic architecture in Denis Hollier, "The Architectural Metaphor," Against Architectureback

  3. The Writings of Georges Bataille (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989) 14-56. back

  4. "No matter that the art does not sell [...] lecture fees and airplane tickets will be generated, and if enough critical writing is produced [... an] Arts grants will be forthcoming." Victor Burgin, The End of M Theory: Criticism and Postmodernity. (London: Macmillan, 1986), 34. back

  5. On the covert modernism of Rachel Whiteread, see Tom Lubbock, "The Shape of Things Gone," Modern Painters, Autumn 1997, 34-37. back

  6. See Robin Peck, "Scattered Across the Floor," C Magazine, February-April1999, 8-13. back

  7. Both cardboard and the cardboard box are late 19th century American inventions. In 1871 Albert Jones of New York added a liner to both sides of a corrugated paper to produce cardboard. Robert Gair, another American, invented the folding corrugated cardboard box in 1890. back

  8. "... a solid brown-ness that [is] most secure." T.H. White, The Once and Future King (London: Collins, 1958), 28 back

  9. Oswald Spengler, "Gold Background," "Studio-Brown and Patina," The Decline of the West, Vol. 1 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928; Oxford University Press, 1991), 130-134. back

  10. "The Whiteness of the Whale," Moby Dick (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1851). pp. 189-197. back

  11. Walter Pater. Chapter II, "White Nights," Marius The Epicurean, His Sensations and Ideas (London: Macmillan and Co., 1903), 13. back

  12. "For some reason I have always hated plaster, the quintessential art-school material." Carl Andre, "Robert Smithson: He Always Reminded Us Of The Questions We Ought To Have Asked Ourselves," Arts Magazine, May 1978, 102. back

  13. Eloi, the pacific, vegetarian and non-technical surface dwellers in H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (London: William Heinemann, 1895), as opposed to the cannibalistic and mechanically inclined Morloch who dwell beneath them. back

  14. Exhibited at the Art Gallery of Calgary, February 2003. back

  15. A hybrid language neologism, "kara..." meaning empty, "... oke," an abbreviation of o-ke-su­ to-ra (orchestra). Karaoke is the popular contemporary custom during which a person stands in front of a crowd (most often in a bar) with a microphone and sings along to a pre-recorded popular tune visually displayed on a projected video screen. back

  16. The bi or pi, a perforated disc of jade from the Chinese Neolithic, is generally described as a ritual object, a symbol of heaven. It possibly originated as some portion of an astronomical instrument. Bi is also a contemporary Chinese slang term for a vagina. Consider this in relationship to Carl's pairing of it with a pink stone microphone. back

  17. "Purity is a consequence of distance." Aidas Bariekis, in conversation with the writer, New York 2000. back

  18. Note to the writer, 2002. back

  19. Herbert Read. The Art of Sculpture: The A.W. Mellon Lectures on the Fine Arts for 1954. New York: Bollingen Seriesxxxv33, Pantheon. 1961. p. 88. back

  20. Diane Waldman, Carl Andre New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1970. p. 6. back

  21. The Abraham Rogatnick Library. back

  22. See Jessica Bradley, "On James Carl and Building a Public Collection," Canadian Art, Vol. 18, No. 4, Winter 2001. back

  23. Installation, Glenbow Museum, Calgary,Alberta, 1979. back

  24. "Viewer manipulation, including touching the individual works, should be strictly discouraged." James Carl, unpublished text, instructions to exhibitors of Whitewalls. back

  25. The fictional treasure-guarding dragon of J.R.R. Tolkein's quasi Anglo-Saxon saga, The Hobbit London: George Allen and Unwin, 1936. back

  26. Marcel Duchamp's most famous readymade, fountain, was a urinal purchased from Molt Works and submitted to (and rejected from) the Society Of Independent Artists' 1917 New York Exhibition, under the name Richard Mutt. back

  27. Rina Greer, Ed., Toronto: Toronto Sculpture Garden, 1998. p. 118. back

  28. From the Ancient Chinese dictionary Shouwen by Hsu Shen, quoted in Kao Jen-Chun, "The Evolving Shape of the Ting," Pearls of the Middle Kingdom, A Selection of Articles from the National Palace Museum Monthly of Chinese Art. Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China: National Palace Museum, 1993. Pp.20-29. back

  29. Nicholas Penny, The Materials of Sculpture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, 1993. back

  30. The first "computer art" that I recall seeing was a work produced in 1971 at NSCAD by Halifax artist Ken Porter titled "A" Box, a computer program for the construction of a cardboard box. back

  31. Artist's Statement, Galerie Clark, Montreal, 1998. back

  32. The mountain home and the island home, respectively, of the Taoist Immortals. back