Most successful artists have developed a distinctive style, a way of interpreting the world that is instantly recognizable as theirs. For Seattle artist Scott Fife, it’s the material he uses that sets his work apart. His powerful, larger-than-life portrait heads of famous people are created entirely of multiple layers of carved and laminated cardboard. An assortment of his celebrity heads, including likenesses of John Wayne and Bruce Lee, are currently on view in Pioneer Square. Joining us to discuss these fiberboard sculptures is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
I’m sure that the work of Scott Fife adds something pertinent to our endless conversation about the celebrated icons of mass culture and their images, but for me…. it’s about the cardboard.
Fife has spent an the last several decades discovering the possibilities of glued, shaped, and painted fiberboard, a material whose expressive potential he is nearly alone in exploiting. The current work, highly crafted and skillful, is less obviously virtuosic than earlier pieces like the astonishing "Blue Sink with Bar Soap" from 1989, or an equally impressive still life with a hatchet, alarm clock, rug, and burnt log from the same period. Both of these works are entirely composed of shaped and painted cardboard, deftly modeled and colored to exactly simulate the look of fabric, wood, metal, porcelain, and broken glass. At least in photographs (I have not seen the originals), the illusion is nearly complete. In other works, Fife created lifelike cardboard armchairs, dressers, even skeletons.
Having mastered the transformation of cardboard into nearly everything else, Fife has wisely turned, in recent years, to the more artistically interesting properties inherent in the cardboard itself, its color, texture, inner structure, and mundane associations. The key feature of cardboard as a material is, besides its ubiquity, its inconsequence. Unlike paper, wood, glass, or cloth, cardboard isn’t valued as an end product, but simply a means to an end, a way to contain and transport much of what we purchase and consume; in other words, mere packaging.
From that point of view, Fife’s decision to use raw cardboard for his portraits of icons of modern culture is particularly apt. It suggests that they are both ubiquitous and disposable, containers for our imaginings as much as individuals in their own right, and brought into existence by the same industrial-strength machinery that cranks out the daily avalanche of boxes for all the other products of modern capitalism - our computers, cameras, televisions, food, and furniture. Both pop stars and consumables have, in the end, a limited shelf life.
In the current exhibit, Fife’s subjects are all from the movies: Bruce Lee, Jane Russell, John Wayne, Billy The Kid, and a werewolf named Wer Wulf. What else do these people share in common, besides Hollywood? A dramatic tension between their off-screen and on-screen personas, for one; each of them so inhabits their mythic role in our minds that where their real self ends and their created self begins is quite unknowable, and perhaps besides the point.
Fife leaves his portrait heads purposely unfinished, their rough surfaces displaying all the means of their construction, with gaping voids visible through the many gaps in their cardboard skins. Fife wants us to experience both the vivid presences of the individuals themselves (more on that later), while being aware of the artificiality of the means of that construction. Fife exposes the inner corrugations of the cardboard wherever it is appropriate, particularly for features like bushy eyebrows, hair, bristles, and the edge of animal lips. He also uses as a major graphic element both the screw fasteners with which the pieces are assembled, as well as the honey-colored rivulets of wood glue, its twisting trails visible nearly everywhere like the tracks of blood, or tears. Further adding to the traces of the artist’s hand are the many places where he’s included seemingly random notations in pencil or pen; mostly red scribbles, but here and there fragments of words or calculations. Last but not least there’s the complicated, jigsaw puzzle of the cardboard itself, applied in a byzantine assortment of strips, crescents, triangles, patches, and ridges, the struggle to create recognizable form made tangible, the process interrupted before completion.
I’m all for it. Fife makes paperboard crackle with intelligent energy, and the heads are terrific simply as exciting objects, a brilliant updating – same color, even - of the Roman portrait bust.
I’m less enamored of Fife’s people as people. I’ll admit to being a tough sell when it comes to the artistic portrayal of celebrities, as determined (and annoying) an obsession in the art world as in the culture at large. I’m not sure what Fife adds that’s new to the discussion; for me, how he says it is far more interesting than what he’s saying.
The best of the current crop of portrayals is the giant bust of John Wayne, glowering at us under his Stetson as we walk in the gallery door (the positioning of the various characters has been carefully thought out). Fife has managed to capture both the quintessential image of Wayne, the Western bully, as well as to suggest more than a little trouble behind that rugged façade; he’s chosen an expression that is as much inward as it is outwards. The ultimate Tough Guy seems to be thinking about something deeply disturbing, something he’s not sure about dominating in his usual fashion, and his mouth is dropped open in an almost vulnerable way. Jane, Bruce, Billy, and the wolf seem more embedded in their customary guises, less transformed by the process – though their portrayals do have their moments, especially the bravura cardboard versions of their hair.
Fife is at his best when he sidesteps the superstars and their baggage. This is particularly the case with the monumental portrait of his dog now in the collection of the Tacoma Art Museum, where Fife, freed up from shouldering the burden of mass culture, marries an offbeat subject with an offbeat material and achieves cardboard doggy nirvana.