Paper is as much a part of sacred memories as family vacations and first dates. We formed our first letters across the light blue lines of primary school wide-ruled notebook paper. We cut into soft-yet-crisp construction paper for our first art projects. We carefully selected shade and paper texture for our wedding invitations.
For many designers, including Albany, New York-based artist Ken Ragsdale, the love of constructing with paper doesn’t fade with time.
Ragsdale references his “childhood narratives and its metaphorical relationship with that of the growth of America as a nation” through theatrically lit paper constructions and large scale installations.
We visited with him last week to discuss his work.
What is the inspiration for your work? Did you always work with paper?
I have been using paper to construct images for about 10 years, a comparatively recent direction for me. The content of the work I make has always been centered on the idea and processes of memory, both personal and as a social / collective kind of thing. For years the images manifested themselves as paintings, but this new way seemed so much more effective and true to the themes and narratives I am interested in talking about.
Describe the qualities of paper you choose for your constructions.
I use Strathmore 400 series Bristol. Aside from the fact that it is affordable (very important!), it has a remarkable range of ability to absorb and/or reflect light, and to contain and enhance the colors that I put on it from the gelled lamps I use in the studio. It is also stiff and rigid when I need it to be, soft and fluid when I don’t. It scores and folds easily without having a tendency to fall apart, and is structurally stable through a range of temperatures and humidity.
At Mohawk, we talk about the importance of taking pride in the details. Can you describe how attention to detail plays a role in your work?
I try to be true to my memory of a particular event, and not to any specifics that might be researched and ‘proven’ through an outside reference. True to those things that I still somehow remember about where it took place and the corollary objects that act as triggers for the memory. Because these triggers should be effectively universal as well, the idea of detail is more relevant to shape and form than small structural moments.
Where a door handle on a van is placed is far less important than that every viewer should recognize the van as a van of a certain age and quality and not, say, a breadbox. That being said, I do take care to make sure that the proportions of things have the appearance of being correct, that edges and surfaces reflect their requisite qualities.
Can you share why you don’t show small models, and why you choose to light white paper for your photographs as opposed to using colored papers?
Of all the things that I want my work to convey, the most important would be that the images are temporary containers of ideas, memories and narratives; not only mine, but those of the viewer as well.
I want the material to have a certain inert quality, to have the ability to reflect the color and atmosphere, without having too strong an internal force to create a personality that might overwhelm the light projections.
For me colored paper would be too much about being colored paper. The models on their own have far too much connection to things that are small and toy-like and clever; too specific to have the potential for interpretation I require from the images.
How do you negotiate between appearing incredibly realistic and allowing the construction and material to be visible? Can you talk about what feelings you are trying to create by this relationship of illusion versus reality?
I like to think that every part of an image, every aspect of its process and construction, is an important part of its content. When the evidence of the process of the making is revealed, it speaks to all of the interests and to the history of the maker. For me, I like technical drawing, model making, architectural rendering, etc. I have a history of doing those types of things. So then it’s personal. It speaks to how my mind works. Also, by leaving the drawing on the surface, by adding bits of painting or whatever, it takes away from the viewer any chance that they might believe that the image came from looking at something directly. I don’t intend for the images to be seen as real, but as filtered reflections of real.
Can you tell me more about the evolution process from your photographs to the large scale installations? What do you hope to convey differently with large installations compared to photographs?
I began the large constructions in 2007. The first was commissioned by the Albany International Airport Arts and Culture Program as a site-specific installation. It was really a huge transition for me. I had been thinking all along that the models I was making were just a mechanism for the production of the images. Props, in a word. Now I had to think sculpturally. The installations are an outgrowth of the smaller models, in that they reference the qualities of their manufacture, but in addition they have a presence of their own which the viewer can physically encounter. They are simpler in form, but more compactly complex in their content.
Ken Ragsdale’s work is currently on view at the Portland International Airport in Oregon and at The Russell Sage Labs on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Ragsdale recently collaborated with Michael Oatman on a multi-disciplinary project, an homage to “The Armory Show” of 1913, at Opalka Gallery in Albany, New York. Ragsdale holds an MFA from the University at Albany and is a Lecturer at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.