“Cardboard-Plus, 1977–1980,” created by artist Diane Simpson debuted on Tuesday, Jan. 28 in the Zilkha Gallery. In the exhibit, spectators walk around neutral-colored sculptures, which compliment the gallery’s atmosphere. These cardboard sculptures represent an important transition in the Chicago-based artist’s work from a two-dimensional practice rooted in drawing and painting into sculpture and installation-based art. By using cardboard as the basis for her sculptures, Simpson found a pragmatic way to create easily transportable works.
“I had no sculpture background whatsoever,” Simpson told The Argus. “I bought a jigsaw and used a knife-edged blade, and that was all the tools I needed. I wanted to be able to move them easily, so I made them into flat planes, individual pieces that I interlocked. I could take them apart and transfer them easily from my dining room—that served as my workshop—to school.”
Simpson’s undergraduate art training was in drawing and painting. While studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago between 1975 and 1978, Simpson concentrated on creating drawings, many of which experiment with axonometric projection, in which a drawn object is rotated axially away from the picture plane and maintains the same scale of measurement along all of its axes. In contrast to drawings done in one-point perspective, axonometric projections do not appear to recede into the background but rather preserve their subject’s proportions throughout the drawing. Simpson’s transition to sculpture enabled her to transfer the “illusionistic spatial system of the drawing” to actual space after one of her advisors, Ted Halkin, recommended she take her drawings “off the wall,” giving them a three-dimensional space to unfold in.
“I won’t begin a sculpture unless I feel the drawing is very strong,” Simpson said. “The drawing also tells me a lot about how to construct the sculpture.”
Simpson’s series plays with the idea of depth and perspective as an illusionistic tool by using the cardboard’s flat surfaces as a plane for crayon and pencil drawings on many of the sculptures. The effect of this technique is fascinating: the areas of the sculpture that are three-dimensional fold into flatness, while those areas that are flat seem to three-dimensionally unfold into space.
When asked about the larger picture of her body of work, Simpson spoke of independent pieces aesthetically linked together more because of the short time period during which they were created, rather than because of a deeper intention. Indeed, Simpson is more attracted to an object’s formal qualities than to a larger idea or belief system. According to the artist, the installations do not intentionally interact with each other; each sculpture is thought of as independent, and the exhibit invites one to reflect on the various shapes and illusions of volume.
“I think they are independent pieces,” Simpson said. “I was looking at various industrial and architectural objects and forms. The shapes of my sculptures were related to the made object, they are not related to nature.”
Simpson’s later work, however, was inspired by specific references from Japanese architecture, instruments, and furniture. Still creating portable and pragmatic sculptures, Simpson was interested in the process of abstraction of very specific images and forms—and how these forms could unfold into space.
“After this group of work, I started to use very specific source subjects and source imagery,” Simpson said. “I ended up being interested in the clothing form, and I was using very specific images as a source to begin with. The drawing phase was very important in terms of taking that initial source image and through the drawing, changing it to become something uniquely my own.”
Simpson’s unique work invites us to contemplate the relationship between flatness and volume, and how the boundaries between the two are sometimes a matter of illusion.
Cardboard-Plus is on display in the Zilkha Gallery through through Sunday, March 1, 2020.
Gallery hours are Tuesday and Wednesday, 12 p.m.–5 p.m.; Thursday, 12 p.m.–7 p.m.; and Friday through Sunday, 12 p.m.–5pm.
Claire Femano can be reached at email@example.com.