Looking at All This

Looking at All This

by Ethan Andrews


“All This,” is an apt title for a show of work that ranges from rough cardboard assemblages

to jewel-like shadow boxes — one that incorporates cardboard and found scraps of paper

alongside expensive printmaking papers, carefully crafted frames and 20 shades of white. But

the variety of appearances is just evidence of Karen MacDonald’s larger concern. Here she

gives us a universe of infinite complexity, and asks us to surrender to it and be happy.


In several pieces MacDonald presents us with a scrap of paper that we might find under the

couch and suggests — sometimes literally — that we look at it.  The piece titled Keeper does this

most directly. There’s an accordioned strip of cardstock, mounted on edge, with the words “Yes

This” placed directly beneath as if to say, “No, really, I want you to look at this scrap of paper.”


As it turns out, this isn’t any trouble. The presentation is simple and handsome like the bent

strip of paper itself, and MacDonald has included a few other subtle visual elements so the thing

doesn’t feel insistent. Other pieces include the frayed edge of a page from a spiral notebook, a

scrap of linoleum, a rock, a piece of string. Like us they are flawed and beautiful and not long for

this earth. Unlike the moralizing of a memento mori — the skulls and flies in Renaissance

paintings — MacDonald’s reclaimed cast-off arrangements are optimistic little poems about

accepting things as they are.


If Keeper looks at one specimen of MacDonald's universe, the wall-sized array of pieces made

from corrugated cardboard give a hint at the wider view--the infinite.  As it turns out, the view

from above is no less joyful. These pieces are the pure, fearless expression, as though

MacDonald had written a self-randomizing formula for for fun with cardboard and a box cutter. 

Like chess matches seen at different stages of the game (of which, by one calculation, there

are substantially more unique games than electrons in the universe), the pieces are variations

on one another, but each as fresh as the next. Like living species, each seems to serve some

purpose in the scheme. It's easy to imagine them among the branches of a cladogram, those

family tree-like diagrams that show evolutionary relationships.


A show that makes a universe for itself could easily tempt an artist’s ego — the desire to

impress the viewer with an overwhelming volume of work. There is a lot of work in this show

and MacDonald clearly has the skills to do what she wants with her materials, but the power

of the work in All This comes from the balance of her very refined sense of craft with a willing-

ness to work with the natural disposition of things.  Cardboard is allowed to be cardboard;

a stone is a stone.  And while the scale of the show is grand, each piece has been executed on

an intimate scale. MacDonald isn’t God in her universe; she’s a wide-eyed player. It’s an

honest and generous expression of the human condition.