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.