by Julia Couzens
Ann Gale | The Wedding Party, 7 pieces, 2009 | Found cardboard, staples, polyurethane
The Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke once said of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, “His art was not built upon a great idea, but upon a minute, conscientious realization, upon the attainable, upon a craft.” So is the work of California artist Ann Weber.
Beyond Material, on view at the University Library Art Gallery at California State University, Sacramento, is a handsomely curated survey of Weber’s cardboard constructions made between 2004 and 2015. Her single-minded application of this ordinary and ubiquitous material turns what is made to be thrown away into imposing totemic and evocative entities. The show demonstrates just how far assiduous engrossment can take you.
Weber was originally a potter, making a living throwing cups and plates on a potter’s wheel for high-end East Coast retail. Dissatisfied and driven, she returned to Oakland, where she was mentored by noted ceramic sculptor Viola Frey. The monumental scale and simplicity of Frey’s figurative forms remain evident in Weber’s work. But making large-scale ceramic sculpture was physically and economically difficult because Weber was living and working in a second-floor walk-up. Assessing her situation with an eye for opportunity, a heap of cardboard moving boxes soon turned into fodder for the work she’s been making the past 25 years.
Like arte povera artists preceding her, Weber eschews the traditional sculpture materials of metal, stone and wood. Weber forms her work by systematically stapling together cardboard strips about 2 inches wide cut from boxes she has collected from her neighborhood Trader Joe’s. Taking the boxes as they come, Weber exploits their ready-made properties of industrial color, labeling and the hollows of air vents and handholds to create richly textured surfaces. Her workmanlike deployment of methods and materials used in craft is a timely challenge to current debates about art and craft. Until recently, utilitarian objects such as ceramic vessels and ornamental objects drawn from outsider sources have been excluded from the history of contemporary aesthetics.
Her low-tech medium prompts the question of Third World artists’ and craft-workers’ impact on contemporary art. Like the bottle-cap textiles of Ghanian sculptor El Anatsui, Weber’s cardboard sculptures elevate what’s normally found in alleys to objects of grandeur, tenderness and puzzlement. Her biomorphic work is both figurative and abstract, evoking fencing masks, tribal objects, fossilized seedpods from the Mesozoic era and whimsical, through-the-looking-glass chess scenarios.
The Wedding Party (2009) is a grouping of figurative forms evoking German-French sculptor Jean Arp arranged as if posing for the obligatory wedding portrait. Stripped down to the essence of gesture, without ornament or detail, the white reductive figures suggest the narrative of a proud and hopeful couple standing with witnesses and gifts. But Weber pays careful attention to the placement of her work. She flips meaning by calculating the objects’ positions in space and their relationships to the viewer and each other. If seen at an oblique angle, the piece appears to be a satisfying, if random grouping of abstract, biomorphic forms. Seen head on, social relationships come into focus.
A student of art history, Weber reflects upon art of the past that has moved her. Homage is a theme threaded throughout this exhibition. After Ellsworth (Yellow 5) and After Ellsworth (Blue), both 2014, are wall-mounted bas-relief sculptures paying tribute to the minimal abstractions of 20th century painter Ellsworth Kelly. After Bernini, Charity and After Bernini, Rio de la Plata, both 2013, honor the great Baroque sculptor, painter, and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Weber’s bulging, nested forms reference Bernini’s decorative architectural interventions. For the Love of Frank Lloyd Wright (2012) is a grouping of three goofy forms standing up to 12 feet high. Evoking a plunger, an upright pestle and a sort of bulbous, unusable rolling pin, the work suggests a fanciful homage to larger-than-life implements or tools of a giant’s trade.
The earliest work in the show, made between 2004 and 2007, is a series of small, square cardboard panels titled Both. As the title suggests, the work functions as both painting and sculpture. The scale is curiously moving, offering intimacies similar to an artist’s private sketchbook. Some panels consist of a simple sheet of corrugated cardboard stapled to a frame – in itself an homage to the linear delicacy of Agnes Martin’s minimal paintings. Others sprout emerging forms, the tentative first probing of language, or like haiku, a moment of considered attention and respect for the properties of a humble material.