“Everything in the cosmos exists to emerge as a Book” If Mallarmé were writing today, he might want to change that to Film. James Grashow worked for four years on “Corrugated Fountain, “ an installation of melancholy and ephemeral beauty. A lifelong woodcutter, he carved-and-pasted the work out of corrugated cardboard in anticipation of its eventual dissolution. In time, it will exist only on film as the protagonist, so to speak, of Olympia Stone’s documentary of its making: “The Cardboard Bernini.”
Grashow’s unassuming material betrays no hint of the wit and strength of his art. He coaxes astonishing grace from the humble stuff of shipping containers. His “Fountain” is a carnival of exquisitely crafted, fanciful references to iconic Renaissance monuments: Rome’s Trevi Fountain, the fountains of Neptune in Rome and Florence, and the long history of Western sea-god imagery that dates back to 2nd Century Roman mosaics. Here is Neptune, holding high his trident, in a chariot drawn by dolphins with fluted cardboard fins. Windblown mermen and maids, on horseback, trumpet his advance through layers of paper pulp waves. The urge to throw coins at them is irresistible.
A forty-year member of Allan Stone’s stable, Grashow stumbled onto the sight of his own earlier papier-mâché work disintegrating in the garden of Stone’s home. It had been returned from a 25-year stint at the Aldrich when the museum revamped itself some years ago. Stone’s overcrowded home had no room for it. It was left on the lawn where it decayed. Shocked, then touched, by the disintegration, Grashow committed himself to an improbable aim: “to make something eternal out of cardboard.” The absurdity of a fountain that rots in water presents itself as Grashow’s bleak comment on the human dilemma: “Ashes to ashes, mush to mush.” (Grashow’s burlesque of the ancient, solemn phrase “dust to dust” is telling. It uncovers the superficiality of the larger culture of disposability that informs his project.
He insists that the meaning of the work is in the doing, not the end result. “Process, I think, trumps everything.
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” In truth, it does not. But the stylish notion that it does masks contemporary reluctance to create for the ages. Grashow sees in process an analogy to mortality. But mortality is a condition, a predicament. (Only aging is a process.) Art made in the name of process cannot aspire beyond the moment.
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It can parody greatness—however sweetly—without achieving it. There is something to be said for committing high talent to durable material. Or, at least, protecting fragile means. In the end, art that mimics the pathos of our transiency by inviting wreckage is redundant. Any demolition site, land fill or cemetery already does the job.
When the exhibition closes, this glorious whimsy will be set outside where time, wind and weather will do their worst. Soon enough, the only art left will be stored in a film can or a digital archive. A shame.
James Grashow: Corrugated Fountain at Allan Stone Gallery, 113 E. 90 Street, 212.987.4997.
This review appeared first in CityArts, March 23, 2011.
© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey