Rick Paul

Rick Paul’s “Construction III” in the Contemporary Arts Center’s three-part “Constructions” series is titled Kepler’s Dreams Come True. But it looks more like a contemporary version of the Heavenly Jerusalem than a commentary on Renaissance astronomical theory, and it is intended to evoke multiple interpretations.

Kepler’s solids were simply a starting point, according to the artist. Actually the initial impetus for the piece was a gallery crowned by a skylit dome, next to the gallery where the construction was exhibited. Johannes Kepler’s forms were incorporated a bit later, along with architectural motifs; all were used by Paul to generate further images. The piece is a hard-edged, pristine, almost white, three-dimensional composite of a variety of architectural forms and geometric solids—temples, domes, towers, a tent, circles, ellipses, squares, and pentagons, touching and growing out of one another at some points, unconnected at others.

Because the domical, pedimented, and towering shapes are pressed together in not totally intelligible ways, like the heavenly cityscapes in Byzantine mosaics, and because they are almost colorless and apparently weightless, the whole seems ethereal. The scale is almost architectural, but not quite. The recurring stairways are two-thirds the size of normal ones—big enough to be seen as steps, but too small and entirely too insubstantial to serve as them. They are “paved” with barely opaque nylon curtaining.

The staircases and the walls of the structures hover between transparency and translucency. Images are barely discernible through them. They also tilt and turn just enough to call their stability ever so delicately into question. The construction contains contradictory cues, so it resists exact interpretation. A Pisa-like tower seems complete and weightless, but it is surrounded by scaffolding and tied down by heavy sandbags. A Roman-temple form at the top of a tall podium seems eternal from one point of view, and appears to be a very temporary pup tent precariously supported on a great curved horn from another. A domed room—a tempietto and/or an observatory—can be entered through a spiral passageway, but the nylon staircase inside ascends with such fragility that only disembodied souls could climb it.

This world is constructed with the most mundane of materials—nylon curtain fabric and Gatorfoam, a type of foam-filled sign board. Rough wood is used for the scaffolding, canvas duck for the sandbags, nylon cord for the tent ties. Nuts and bolts are allowed to show, as are industrial staples, but most of the components are assembled with glue. The object appears neutral—neither man- nor machine-made; it just seems to be there. The lighting works the same seeming magic, contributing to the colorlessness and the weightlessness, and allowing the solids to remain on the edge of opacity.

This work moves in a different direction from that of the earlier exhibitions in the series. Armajani’s Newstand (sic) (Artforum, March1981) was constructed like a building, used like a building. and looked like a building; Dennis Oppenheim’s Life Support System For a Premature By-product (From a Long Distance) was put together like a machine, worked (or failed to work) like a machine, and looked like a big weird machine, though it was meant to be a metaphor for the processing (making) of ideas. Paul’s construction is both architectural and metaphorical, but in different senses than the other works were. It is less specific, more composite, less referential and more existential (in several senses).

Although all three constructions were built for the space, and they all pretty much filled the gallery, none were exactly site-specific. The imagery for Kepler’s Dreams . . . was generated by the architecture of the adjacent domical Rosenthal Gallery. Paul kept the dome, added a leaning tower and a rectangular temple/tent, and went on from there, building on more and more parts, building in more and more possible meanings—Kepler, stairways to the stars, the heavenly see—until he had created a place that was all of these things and none of them.

The parts, which are themselves composite images, have composite meanings. The temple/tent for example, is Solomon’s tent, a Roman temple, and a contemporary tent. The observatory/tempietto, whch has a ghostly old one-armed school chair under the dome at the top of the staircase, is a place in which to observe the heavens and from which to observe earthly activity.

Kepler’s Dreams . . . is an object in which the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts: the whole is the sum of its parts. The parts maintain their integrities, while they merge to make a whole. And, as a whole, the construction has a presence so strong that visitors to the exhibition are troubled by—even argumentative about—its temporariness.

Jayne Merkel