A Cardboard Life

The New Haven International Film Festival is on, but I stayed fairly local.  Lots of compilations of shorts, packages from D.C., Texas, New York, and Connecticut, some good, some not.

The film that blew me away was the feature-length documentary called “The Cardboard Bernini.”  Connecticut artist Jimmy Grashow constructed a full-scale recreation of the Four Rivers Fountain by Bernini (above).  Except Grashow’s version is made out of cardboard.  Originally, he wanted to sneak the work into the piazza and leave it there.  This was not to be, but the story is remarkable nonetheless.

He started working in this throwaway material as a boy, more interested in the box than any gift it contained.  I’m reminded of the many hours of hilarity my brother and I got from rolling around in the back yard inside large boxes left over from refrigerator and TV deliveries–providing so much more pleasure than the objects themselves.

So I was predisposed to like this guy.  I liked his art, too.  He did a series of 15 foot high, caricatured figures scattered in space to walk among.  While his series of 100 monkeys was considered “cute,” he was commenting on the impermanence and futility of human life.  Emptiness was the theme of the anthropomorphic buildings in “Soft City.”

These serious themes weave through his career, culminating in “The Cardboard Bernini.”  On the surface, the work is a bravura of scissors, glue, razored edges, and adze-formed curvilinear shapes.  Plus Grashow invests the recreation with his philosophy.  His vision: to make something heroic out of something no one wants, then allow it to be destroyed.  He knew he was not going to pull a Bernini feat.  Bernini–the artist who could breathe life into marble.  Grashow’s intent was different–to fill life with the knowledge of death.

Unlike marble, cardboard is perceived as worthless, and the artist says it “is grateful to be rescued from the trash.”  His intent was to rescue the material, work it, then leave the finished piece out in the elements so that it would dissolve.  Life is impermanent.  Our bodies are fragile and temporal.  So, of course, is art.

One critic commented that Grashow allows his works to be destroyed due to being disparaged by his gallerist in New York Allan Stone.  Stone left some of Granshow’s work in the alley, discarded.  Hurt and humiliated by Stone’s apparent rejection, according to the critic, the artist recreates the experience over and over in his work.  Grashow agreed.

But he reflects that more is going on as well.  The fountain is Grashow’s self-portrait in cardboard–all bluster on the outside, and at its best, revealing of the inside.  The natural process of creation includes destruction, just as in life.  For Grashow, three years of work and a museum show at the Taubman Art Museum would necessarily culminate in an outdoor exhibit at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT, and its ultimate destruction.

Grashow said he sees beauty in decay.  The disintegration process also confronts our terror of mortality.  The fountain became his vehicle, his grand statement about the impermanence of our finite vessel, our body.

At both museums, visitors could toss a wish into the fountain.  Not a coin, the wishes were written on paper, and those longings, too, would dissolve with time.

Watching the disintegration of the piece over the course of several weeks, sped up on film, was moving, unsettling, sad, and actually painful, seeing the form de-form.  Three years of work was washed away in one deluge.

The Aldrich and Grashow had a funeral for the remains, as it transitioned into a dumpster, its coffin.  Popping the cork on champagne, Grashow said the closing event was like attending his own funeral.  “It looks perfect,” he said, gazing at the remains of his art in the dumpster.