Tory Fair reviewed by Stace Brandt

Tory Fair: Paperweight 

By Stace Brandt

     Upon entry to Paperweight, the latest exhibition at VERY gallery in Boston’s South End, one perceives an absence: four works on paper occupy a modest amount of wall space along with a sculptural installation on the ground that does not exceed knee height. The show’s palette only adds to the sparseness: grays, blacks, whites, and browns. Tory Fair, a Boston-based artist and Associate Professor of Sculpture at Brandeis University, is not enticing us. Her new work, even on first glance, is unpretentious and unselfconscious. The pieces Fair has made for Paperweight draw on memories from her own life and tap into folk nostalgia, blurring the line between the personal and universal. 

     For the past 25 years Fair has been developing her sensibilities as a sculptor and an artist. In 1991 she graduated Harvard with a B.A. in sculpture and religion and in 1997 she received an M.F.A in painting and printmaking from the Massachusetts College of Art. Between her degrees, she assisted in the Roden Crater project, an on-going, recondite venture in the Painted Desert region of Arizona directed by conceptual artist James Turrell. Turrell works with the perception of light and has constructed viewing stations inside the Roden Crater for experiencing celestial occurrences. Though far from finished, Turrell’s master plan includes 21 viewing stations and six tunnels within the crater. 

     Fair’s own work tends to revolve around the natural world, geology, and personal memory. These interests culminated in her 2015 show, Heap, displayed at Boston’s Proof gallery where Fair cast objects from her daily life and her past and piled them on the ground. Among the cairn-like, ashen mass, Fair’s grandmother’s camera, a mug, and a soccer ball acted as cornerstones conjuring up a space between the sensory and the ephemeral. 

     In Paperweight, household and found objects remain at the forefront of Fair’s work. A quilt-sized drawing entitled, “Paperweight (four corners)” is show’s largest work on paper. It has the hardiness and brownish hue of an animal hide splayed out as if preparing to be stretched onto a drum. It’s not unlike a giant map: a topography of trinkets and cast objects stuck to the surface and its edges curling up from the wall as if recently unfolded and refusing to flatten.  The “four corners” in the title may very well reference cartography (read: the four corners of the earth or the cardinal points), but more literally refer to the fieldstones embedded into the piece, one in each of the four corners. 

     The four stones anchor the piece both conceptually and formally acting as literal paperweights and introducing symmetry and balance to the otherwise entropic center. A roll of tape, a mirror frame, a cast rubber camera, and other objects form a rough circle. Fair considers her work to be a living organism which continually changes and evolves throughout her process. On “Paperweight (four corners)” there are scars left on the paper from where Fair removed affixed objects and sanded over their place. 

     This process of accumulation and excavation carries over to Fair’s sculptural installation “Campfire Heap” which is composed of four elements: “Campfire Stump” and “Campfire Log” (one, two, and three). To create the forms, Fair cast a downed Cyprus tree in her yard and loaded the mold with an aggregate of rubber, clay, plaster, wax, and foam. The piece feels like something between a sculpture, an archeological specimen, and a performance of a campsite. Walking around the campfire logs, one discovers tar-black casts of objects seemingly fossilized into the surface. A colony of warped corn, flowers, and crystals accumulate at the ends of the logs like a fungus. Though some of the objects are new, Fair repurposes and recontextualizes keepsakes from Heap.  Her son’s waffle and grandmother’s camera reappear. Heap takes on a new form and the campfire-heap synthesis becomes a miraculous and strange documentation of time.

     There is a certain tentativeness in approaching the campfire logs and stump. Perhaps it comes from the circular arrangement (not quite barring us off, not quite inviting us in) or the uncanny notion of time (new work that looks old that contains fragments of past work). One is not certain whether to tip toe around the periphery or boldly enter the circle and risk disrupting some unspoken code of conduct. Are we intruders or is it safe to adopt the space as our own? It is art, after all. On top of that, it feels like coming across an abandoned campsite where traces of life heighten our awareness of absence. 

     Two sculptures mounted side by side on the wall read as minimal compared to the previous works. From afar, “Paperweight (Field Stone)” and “Paperweight (Asphalt)” call out starkly like beacons: two dark ellipses in the center of whitish, rectangular sheets. Up close, there is humor and absurdity: Fair suspends a weighty field stone and piece of asphalt using rice paper and acrylic matte medium— an impossible gesture. Though considered sculptural drawings, the way they capture a climax, a coming to a head, or a decisive moment is almost photographic. It could be a baby crowning at birth or a volcanic eruption.

     The meaning of Paperweight lies within the word. Pejoratively, a paperweight can describe a tasteless or kitschy piece of art. Fair is self-aware: She knows the objects in her work hold little monetary value or significance to anyone but herself. Literally, a paperweight is an object that holds down what a breeze may otherwise scatter. It evokes a portrait of the everyday: a domestic interior, a desk, a window, a pen and paper. Fair has infused her work with tangible fragments of her life to act as portals into memory. Her work, perhaps, is not the story itself but the essence of a story. It’s the space where the story can be told.