Language casts a shadow in Stephen Doyle’s paper sculptures

Stephen Doyle’s vision unites words and images in unforgettable ways. The design firm of which he is a principal, Doyle Partners in New York, creates acclaimed identities and all means of conveying them (and he always gets the colors right). He’s also recognized for his visual contributions to the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. Here he talks about another artistic pursuit: creating astonishing paper sculptures.

Q What motivates you to do this work?

I make these things as an escape from the world of problem-solving. I think of them more along the lines of problem-making. I am reluctant to explain them or rationalize them. Bart Crosby’s joke is that designers can go without food and water for nine days, but can’t get past 15 minutes without a rationalization. I’d hate to commoditize these things by “explaining” them; they are the only things I create without a rationale.

Q How did you start doing this work?

I studied painting, sculpture and design at Cooper Union. I’ve always liked making things that are, let’s say, ridiculously detailed. The first paper sculpture I did, around 2001, was The Professor’s House, by Willa Cather, where I took out each page and cut out every line, and glued each line to the next one and made a sculpture that is cubic — except I was using lines of text instead of pieces of wood or metal or whatever.

The idea was to make fun of hypertext on a computer — how a line will lead from here to there, thereby changing the context of every other line. I had intended it as a parody, but it actually had some serious weight as a visual idea. That’s when the exploration really started.

Q Is this purely personal work, or is some of it done on assignment?

Sometimes it’s commissioned, which is ironic, because as I said, I want to ask questions instead of being expected to provide answers. Some people saw the work and began to ask for it … like Wired magazine — I did the cover of the March issue, which was the dollar image.

Q Why work with paper and books?

Books are where ideas come from. The book is such a great form. Before doing these works, I was making concrete casts of books. What interested me was, if you take all the information out, does the form still have any power?

Somewhere along the line I started wondering, well, what does happen when you take the ideas out? So, I started taking out the binding and the pages and setting the words free. And I’ve been working from there.

Q Some of these are books and letters transformed into objects. And some of them are objects transformed into letters. Why?

Remember, metaphor means to carry something from one place to another. That ties into your question. I used to think I was interested in typography, but I’m not. I’m actually interested in language, in the power of words.

If words have physical form — if language casts a shadow — how does that change the way you relate to it? That question is at the crux of what I’m after. Sometimes language becomes an object or a structure, and sometimes an object becomes language.

Q Many of the pieces look fragile. What happens to them?

Some were exhibited in Chicago and then later at the Art Directors Club in New York. With the larger pieces, I could see they were becoming unwieldy. Then I went to an architecture exhibit and realized how beautiful the models are and how they relate to the landscape. I began to think of the book as a landscape or landform from which the sculpture could emerge. This is the more recent work — still fragile, but more manageable.

The only structural support is that the paper is folded — that gives them the rigidity to stand up. Machiavelli is a good example. There’s no armature involved.

The tank is an MI-A1, which was employed in the invasion of Iraq during the Bush administration. There’s a quote in The Discourses by Machiavelli, the book I used, where he says, “Those who deceive are always able to find those who are willing to be deceived.” It’s a great quote because it puts the focus on the deceivees.

The forgeries [in the image below] are wood carvings, painted to look like familiar desktop things. But they are not those things. They are forgeries!

Q What do you gain from doing this work?

These things are what they are, and they either resonate or they don’t. In the other work I do, I have to make sure it resonates. This is a separate world. It’s nice when I get commissioned to do one of these, because I mostly get left alone. I’m just building my own little world out of language, to see what happens.

See the full spectrum of Doyle Partners work here.

Books/images, from top: The Trial, by Franz Kafka; The Trouble With Geniuses; The Professor’s House, by Willa Cather; Dollar, Money magazine, March 2010; Man’s Fate, by André Malraux; Interpret, The New York Times; The Discourses, by Niccolo Machiavelli; Forgeries

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Comments (6)

  1. Posted by Laura Shore on 04.9.10 at 8:35 pm

    I fell in love with these sculptures when I first saw them. So glad you’re continuing to make them. Thanks for sharing!

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