Carol Barton’s retrospective, “The Paper Engineer” at Georgia Tech’s Robert C. Williams Paper Museum, showcases Barton’s books from 1983 to the present. Although the exhibit includes everything from how-to guides and architectural models to whimsical pop-ups, it manages to be both playful and well-composed. As with most career-spanning exhibits, I found myself lingering on certain pieces while only glossing over other sections.
The exhibit’s introductory work, Home Dreams, set a nice tone for the show. It was also one of my favorite pieces. A mixed media pop-up accordion book, Home Dreams lists ideal home attributes including a “tiny room for special pets … [a] two story spiral staircase … no stairs.” Although these qualities are attainable as singular desires, the entire list overwhelms the reader with hundreds of contradicting requests; overall, it constitutes a fantastical and naïve idea of what makes a perfect home.
Pop-ups of what I imagine are Barton’s dream homes occupy the accordion signatures. Neatly tucked within the book, almost like a picture stuck into a diary or journal, each home suggests a pedestal holding up an ideal of domesticity. The homes are decorated with simple blocks of color in pencil and paint. Though the designs are sparse, Barton sometimes includes landscaping and ornamental roofs. When I glanced across the room at her book of architectural towers (discussed below), it was apparent that these simple stylistic choices were indeed a decision and not merely for lack of skill.
While Barton features a number of binding styles throughout the exhibit, the tunnel books seem to be her personal favorites. Scattered throughout each phase of her work, the cavernous books cover a variety of topics.
Loom is the strongest of the tunnel books. A different Persian rug pattern covers each page, and a starry sky lines the inner tunnel. The layered effect of the patterns lends the book a weighty appearance that contradicts its status as a piece of paper. A photograph of a calm lake covers one side of the book’s outer tunnel, an open field the other; both are printed in a cyanotype blue. The photographs create a context that launches the book beyond a mere appreciation of fabrics into the realm of anthropology.
Five Luminous Towers is the pinnacle of the exhibit: it epitomizes the need for a museum that celebrates the art of paper. White towers pop out of this book to surmount it as beacons of light. Barton’s architectural competency and attention to detail result in models that are deceptively complex considering she uses only a single sheet of paper to create them. Poems about fortresses written by Barton and maps of Italy are scattered around the towers’ bases. From the text to the towers, this book’s every detail is perfection.
The second room of the exhibition features studies for several pages of two books: The Two Sided Intrigue and Beyond the Page. These larger scale mixed media works offer a more intriguing perspective into Barton’s process than her “Pocket Paper Engineer” series. While they stand as well alone as bound together in the books, they are obviously portions of a larger production. The blown-up studies appear like cinematic stills, further emphasizing the narrative quality of the completed books.
Throughout the Two Sided Intrigue, Barton depicts the same two characters. In each frame a male figure is shown watching a female, a composition that reminds me of John Berger’s interpretation of the male gaze in art. Berger, known widely for his Ways of Seeing text, states that while men look at women as objects, women watch themselves being looked at; in other words, women are always aware of being seen by a male spectator. Barton’s frequent reference to scenes of domesticity suggests the potential for a feminist critique of these scenarios.
Barton’s how-to guides and pop-up pamphlets held less appeal for me than the books. While I appreciate the artist’s efforts to educate the public on bookmaking, in an exhibit celebrating the art of paper,
I would have preferred more of Barton’s own feats in the field.
“The Paper Engineer” will remain on view at The Paper Museum through February 13.