Art Review

Breaking down the beauty of Styrofoam

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / March 28, 2008

PROVIDENCE - Oh, Styrofoam! We love how it insulates and protects. We hate how it won't biodegrade. If you're an artist sculpting Styrofoam, you're using a material fraught with societal ambivalence. Not to mention workplace hazards: Sculptors may expose themselves to toxic vapors when using heat on Styrofoam. But by golly, it's lightweight and easy to shape.

Contemporary art curator Judith Tannenbaum was prompted to organize "Styrofoam," at the RISD Museum of Art, after she saw a Styrofoam installation by Dutch sculptor Folkert de Jong at last year's Armory Show in New York. In Tannenbaum's catalog essay, de Jong says he uses the material for two reasons: "For its immoral content and because of its tantalizing sweetness."

And tantalizing "Styrofoam" is. A small exhibit with fewer than 20 works by 10 artists, the show packs a lot into a little - political content, minimalist beauty, graphic narrative, and exquisite craftsmanship. It spotlights a broad range of artists, from the daddy of conceptual art, Sol LeWitt, to fresh contemporary faces such as de Jong.

Part of de Jong's Armory Show installation, which featured life-size sculptures of Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln, is on view here as "The Piper." Here we have Lincoln, our national hero, as a garish, green-faced zombie with blue teeth.

His red eyes appear to roll up in his head, as if he's drug-addled or entranced. He wears a red kilt and carries pink bagpipes. With its gaudy, splashed-on colors, the piece makes a wonderful mix of dark Northern European Expressionism, kitsch, and scathing political commentary.

LeWitt's two crisp installations, "Black Styrofoam on White Wall" and "White Styrofoam on Black Wall" greet the viewer inside the museum's entry. LeWitt, who died last year, often worked by sending installation instructions to a site and having it made there. In this case, his estate issued the directions, and RISD students broke sheets of Styrofoam apart and mounted the shards on two walls.

From a distance, the results resemble a shattered marble floor. These monumental and imposing pieces loom, yet up close you can see the bubbly Styrofoam texture, and they become more approachable, even welcoming.

Polystyrene foam was first manufactured in the 1930s, and Dow Chemical Company trademarked the name Styrofoam, which tends to be used as ubiquitously as Kleenex. For all its toxicity, Styrofoam has a wonderful accessibility. Several artists here have built careers on their use of everyday materials. Tom Friedman has used soap, spaghetti, and bubblegum in his art. His untitled Styrofoam sculpture marries austere minimalism with whimsy: It's a 40-inch cube of sky blue, with rounded corners. Blue powder dusts the floor. It's like a shaved-down sugar cube. A bee, also crafted from blue Styrofoam, hovers at the end of a wire attached to the cube's top, as if ready to land and taste the sweetness.

Shirley Tse and Tony Feher each build simple, modular sculptures from Styrofoam bricks. Tse's "Do Cinderblocks Dream of Being Styrofoam?" features pink units shaped like concrete blocks but featherweight, feminine, and inscribed with patterned designs. Feher built his cylindrical "Blue Tower" from bricks another artist used to prop up his work. Both sculptors salvage the banal to create provocative art.

Just looking at them, you wouldn't know Bruce Pearson's jazzy, mosaic-like paintings were made from Styrofoam. Pearson draws over sheets of the material and slices into it with a hot wire, making psychedelic patterns of crevices, pockets, and gullies that he fills with bright paint. He loops text into and out of the design; titles such as "Who's to Say That a Shoe Is Not a Piece of Sculpture," swiped from a New York Times Styles section headline, clue you into the text embedded in the painting.

Heide Fasnacht puts form to the explosively transient, such as building demolitions and sneezes. She made "Exploding Airplane" in 2000; here's an instance in which history - 9/11 - has altered the way we read a work of art. It hangs high in the air over de Jong's piece. Each in its own way addresses America's fall from grace, ironically embodied in Styrofoam. Fasnacht shaped the plane's nose, tail, and wings from Styrofoam; urethane foam, which bursts from a can, forms the billowing smoke that erupts through the air.

Other artists use this intrinsically modern material to echo ancient history. B. Wurtz's close-up sepia-toned photos make ordinary packing materials look like sun-bleached ancient ruins. Steve Keister uses packaging to cast resin, which he paints to look like Mesoamerican relics, finding a weird geometric confluence between the two.

Like Friedman, Richard Tuttle's trademark is using humble materials. His "Lonesome Cowboy Styrofoam" pieces were made with Styrofoam he found in the attic of an old adobe farmhouse in New Mexico; he cut and painted it to resemble pottery shards and arrowheads.

These leaps from ancient to modern may be poetic, but they're also pointed: Hundreds of years from now, archeologists of the future may be digging up chunks of Styrofoam and puzzling over their meaning to us.


At: The Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, through July 20. 401-454-6500,

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