Providence Journal


Mundane materials seen in stimulating ways

Cardboard toilet paper rolls, used tea filters, old newspapers, piles of shredded packing paper. Sounds like garbage. But for Eva Yeh, it's the raw material for her striking and unusual art.

Yeh has spent the past decade or so working with common, everyday paper products, exploring their shapes, surfaces and textures, finding beauty in stuff we toss in the trash without a second thought.

Her work has been shown widely in Europe, where she is based. Now it is being seen in this country for the first time at the University of Rhode Island, where 20 of her reliefs and free-standing sculptures are on view through September.

A gallery full of packing paper and tea filters may not sound very exciting, but what Yeh does with these mundane materials is pretty amazing. This is clever, imaginative art, well thought-through and meticulously executed.

Yeh has stuck hundreds of postage-stamp-size squares of sandpaper into a black styrofoam backing. Dark gray-green pieces fill the lower right-hand corner, giving way to tan and orange ones toward the top.

But it's the subtle transition from darks to lights, the way the swirl of color and curling edges seem to suggest movement, like leaves twirling in the wind. Look at it from the side and crisp, light-struck edges pop out. Look at it straight-on and you see a flowing field of colors.

Yeh, the daughter of a musician and mathematician, calls this piece Earth, because there is a sense of life poking up from the dark ground. Fire hangs nearby, a simple but stunning wall relief.

This time the black background is made of paper folded like a Japanese fan. In the creases -- at least the ones in the middle -- Yeh has inserted torn shreds of bright red paper.

You look at the piece head on and see just a hint of red. But walk to the right or left, and the "flames" grow in intensity.

Communication is made from old newspaper rolled up like pencils and pushed through a wire mesh, in the same way a hooked rug is made. The result is a large circle that looks a little like an old tree stump, but could just as well suggest a dense city of skyscrapers seen from the air.

Based in Germany
Yeh was born in China, studied in Paris and Nice, and about 25 years ago ended up settling in Germany, where she is still based.

An important one-person show three years ago in Germany led to a catalog that came to the attention of Judith Tolnick, who runs the URI gallery. The URI show heads for Lawrence University in Wisconsin in the fall.

Back in the 1960s, though, Yeh was working in oils and watercolors, along with traditional sculptural materials such as concrete, glass and metal. Then, about 10 years ago, she turned her attention to paper, recycled commercial products that she saves and that friends collect for her.

She will find bags of toilet paper rolls and tea filters on her doorstep. For the sandpaper used in Earth, Yeh made the rounds of woodworking shops near her home to find paper with just the right color and grit.

Sense of clarity
If there is a common thread to this show, besides the artist's love affiar with paper, it's a sense of clarity, of Yeh's ability to take an idea and boil it down until just the essence is left.

Pain is made from a series of cardboard poster tubes dangling from thin wires. Slits have been cut up their sides, and paper-wrapped wires, the kind used in gardening, ooze out of the cut like curious tendrils.

Not everything has the punch of a piece like Fire, though, where the interaction with the piece makes it come alive. An early work that looks like a large cracked-open egg, or maybe a geode, is pretty clunky. And a large wall hanging made of tiny hand-made booklets dangling from branches seems out of sync with the clean lines and cool hues of most of Yeh's art.

There are a few entries, too, that border on minimalist, like a rectangle made of twisted-up bits of gray paper glued on a black sheet of paper.

But in her best work, Yeh manages to totally transform the commonplace into an object that makes us think, stare and ponder.

She has filled a Plexiglas case with cardboard toilet paper rolls cut at angles and placed inside one another to form concentric circles. If you look at the piece from a distance, the tops form undulating patterns. As you come closer, the circular edges give off an increasing sense of energy.

Then there is a series of pieces that takes its cue from musical tempos. Allegros mixes red and blue paper cords in a pleasing dance; while Andante, one of the most arresting pieces in the show, packs more than 400 medical injection bottles into a Plexiglas box with back lighting. But the bottles have all been wrapped in tea filters that create delicate blades of brown that spiral out from the mouths, looking a little like dried flowers, or perhaps something a tad more erotic.

Eva Yeh's paper sculpture is at URI in the Main Gallery of the Fine Arts Center through Sept. 30. Hours are Tuesday through Friday noon to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 1 to 4 p.m. The show is part of Providence's annual Convergence Festival.