IF THE POWER of art lies in the transformation of reality, then no medium more fully embodies radical metamorphosis than papier-mâché. To create beauty from the layering of torn newsprint bathed in a glue of flour and tap water is to align yourself with childhood, domesticity, ancient cultures, protest and trash. It is a salvage or rescue mission, finding a use for the lowliest of products — yesterday’s news. In an age rife with the sleek and the minimal, papier-mâché (“chewed paper” in French), has less-than-mythic associations: It is homey and sloppy, redolent of kindergarten and the corner store. Like clay, papier-mâché is infinitely moldable, but instead of coming straight from the earth, a noble mix of raw minerals, it has lived another life entirely, from tree to pulp to industrial printing press to breakfast table to garbage bin to art, before emerging entirely unrecognizable in sculptural form.
First used by the Chinese around 200 B.C., not long after they learned how to make paper, the technique has been employed by myriad cultures throughout the centuries to fashion decorative objects — mirror cases, snuff boxes, warrior helmets, ceremonial masks, anatomical models and Catholic statuary. With its arrival in Europe from Asia in the 17th century, it carried the scent not of glue or flour but of exoticism. The objects were often “japanned” — covered with glossy black coating, decorated with gold and mother-of-pearl. Paradoxically strong and durable despite its lightness, papier-mâché became an industry; by the mid-1800s, at least 30 English manufacturers were making decorative and useful objects and furniture from it, including tables, chairs and canopy bed frames, though the pieces eventually became too kitschy for even the embellishment-mad Victorians and fell out of fashion.
But in the mid-20th century, papier-mâché re-emerged — as art. In the humble medium’s alliance with everyday life, Pop artists found the perfect rebuke to the swagger of bronze, marble and steel, which dominated sculpture at the time. Claes Oldenburg used it to mock the macho subtext of space age dominance with “‘Empire’ (‘Papa’) Ray Gun” (1959), his bulbous, flimsy sculpture of a ray gun that seems about as threatening as a blow dryer. It was the ideal material as well for the droopy, organic abstractions of the German-born American artist Eva Hesse — easy to stretch into a dangling or lumpy shape to be covered in sinister black paint. In 1975, Red Grooms and his wife and collaborator, Mimi Gross — along with 21 assistants — used it to create one of their most famous works, the alternative universe “Ruckus Manhattan,” a boisterous 10,000-square-foot replica of the borough. Influenced by the politically radical Bread and Puppet Theater collective, founded by Peter Schumann on the Lower East Side in the 1960s (the company would share fresh-made loaves and homemade aioli with their audiences), a young Kiki Smith made papier-mâché sculptures such as “Hard Soft Bodies” (1992), which consists of two female torsos hanging, like ghostly husks, against the wall. Her work illuminated how much paper is like skin, at once frail and robust, susceptible to puncture and able to weather the years. The act of using papier-mâché itself can be read as a pantomime of caring for such bodies: bandaging the skinned knee, wrapping the corpse.
Elisa Lendvay, 43, who lives and works in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., combines the material with steel, bamboo, rubber and wire mesh to create objects that range from spindly to blobby. She tints the glue (some artists use methyl cellulose instead of flour, which can develop mold or attract insects if not stored properly), with gray pigment, then coats armatures and forms to achieve a surface that resembles dirt, soot or concrete. Hung on the wall, the pieces challenge the division between painting and sculpture. The highly textured constructions of Valerie Wilcox, a Los Angeles-based artist, 60, resemble what the midcentury French-German surrealist Jean Arp might have produced had he taken up origami. Papier-mâché, she said, “gives a handmade sense of imperfection to the work and allows the quirks and anomalies arising from the construction to be revealed.”
For others, it is also a vivid medium in which to depict decay and decomposition. The Brooklyn-based Valerie Hegarty, 51, whose work explores the process of ruin, has used papier-mâché in installations that depict crows pecking apart 19th-century-style still lifes. The Glasgow-based Cathy Wilkes, 52, sculpts tableaus of vulnerable, impoverished-seeming, full-size papier-mâché figures, often children, unpainted and ghostly, in forlorn domestic scenes. They are human shapes without substance, layers covering up layers, at once hollowed-out and lifelike. The Austrian sculptor Franz West, who died in 2012 and was known for his large works of plaster or papier-mâché that began with found objects like cardboard boxes and wound up as elaborate abstracts, also used the material to evoke a subtle melancholy.