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Paul Rousso at Lanoue Fine Art

by Sam Nickerson

December 05, 2015
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Paul Rousso at Lanoue Fine Art Paul Rousso deals in ephemera and creating nostalgia from heirlooms.

Only, Rousso's work is not a typical heirloom. It's usually trash – discarded candy wrappers from days gone by, newspapers that become artifacts a day later – or other bits of an analog culture that is quickly disappearing into the past.

It's ink and paper. But Rousso's work is anything but flat.

Documenting the end of the era of Gutenburg, Rousso's brand of pop art involves giant scans of these paper items – stamps, newspapers, candy wrappers, comic book covers – and “paints” them into acrylic sculpture.

This process involves some wrinkling and crumpling, so that an old Butterfinger wrapper appears just as it would had it been tossed into the city street decades ago, or newspapers perch on the wall in the same way they may have sat, discarded, on a cafe table, with once neatly folded pages appearing rifled through and windblown.

If the subject matter of Rousso's works seem passe, it's perhaps because they are meant to be.

Which elements of our physical world will be the last to go digital?

“The last paper and ink to go away will likely be our paper currency,” Rousso said in a statement. Indeed, the dollar bill could be the most influential piece of paper and ink the world has ever seen. Yet even now, debit cards and Bitcoin have rendered it a vestigial piece of the economy, much like the penny.

And perhaps that is appropriate – Rousso does not make any statement about the justice of the dollar bill's persistence – but in the disappearance, so also would disappear the moment of elation in finding a $20 on the ground, or the feeling of a rumpled and forgotten fiver in your freshly-laundered pants pocket. The everyday confrontation with the physical world Rousso so longingly and playfully eulogizes.

Rousso literally offers up that sensation with “A Well Worn Five Grand,” in which a large $5,000 dollar bill on the ground practically begs to be picked up and put into a wallet.

Rousso's first solo show at Lanoue Gallery stands as a museum for the newest members of the millenial generation, and a mausoleum for the flat piece of paper.

But there is also more than just commemoration at work here.

Paul Rousso at Lanoue Fine Art

Twice, Rousso takes a painting from a master “flat” painter, and turns it into an object. It's a reversal of a tendency through the 20th century identified by Rousso, whereby subjects on canvas began to be placed more and more on the same two-dimensional plane.

This is the case in “Degas: Ballet Dancers on the Stage” (58 x 45x 6”), in which a Degas painting is literally turned into an object, with texture and depth. But also the subjects of the figurative painting have become disrupted and objectified. Does this make them then more abstract? Or more representative of the figures they represent?

Rousso also gives the same treatment to a John Singer Sargent piece, Simplon Pass: Reading.

While these works differ from the more 21st century Pop Art style Rousso is known for, their scale and placement ask the viewer to look more at these objects. The paintings, now given “flat depth,” may be seen as original and not merely copies of famous paintings. But in their rumpling, there is also a note on the devaluation of the concept of “the original,” in a world of 3D printing and Photoshop. And what becomes of art criticism then, when the viewer is confronted with mere copies? In Rousso's case, maybe we crumple it up and toss it aside.

In “The Late Show” B-movie posters appear torn from the art house wall, arranged like some Boris Karloff kaleidoscope made of styrene. For some, it will evoke childhoods of sneaking downstairs late at night to watch campy vampire movies. The lateness, though, may simply refer to the late stages of our paper world.

It's these types of questions that Rousso is able to plant in the readers head by curating pop culture in such enlarged size. Rousso, who spent years working in advertising before his 25-year art career really took off, teases out details for viewers to seek and examine. In this way, Rousso's 20-work show creates aesthetic historians out of its viewers.

It's also a reminder that disposing of candy wrappers and other ephemera is not a new phenomenon. The packaging may have changed, but as “Ten Cent Butter Finger” or “Opsicle” illustrate, we've been casting aside these items throughout the founding of our modern society. In Opsicle in particular, viewers are forced to cast a more exploratory eye over a wrapper that was hardly an afterthought before, as they are compelled to search out the missing 'P' or parse out the fine print disrupted by the works folding.

Paul Rousso

Southern-born Rousso, who takes influence from the absurdities of Dr. Seuss' world and the pulp of Roy Lichtenstein, preserves a disposable culture. He takes genre for a ride in the aptly named “Pop Art.” Taking the lowest of the low brow advertising material – lollipop wrappers in a rainbow of colors – Rousso creates a chaotic abstraction not unlike the works of Abstract Expressionism Pop Art was responding to in the 1950's. The end result is chaotic, overbearing sample of Rousso's “Maximumism.”

From a writer's perspective, the newspaper works, such as “New York Times: Week Ahead,” are the most troubling. The viewer is asked to confront a dying medium as it would be in its natural habitat, preserved much like a piece of posed taxidermy, and read the text of the arts section as it peaks from the ripples and scrunched bits of “paper.” Rousso's use of the art pages in general beg for countless hypotheses about the awareness of the work, or of Rousso when it comes to what he does for a living.

As we see from a headline on the page, it is “The only partner he really trusts.”

Some of the other newspaper works, such as “The WSJ: 7-9-15” show how quickly news becomes old, and static paper becomes trash. The work was created in time for the show's September opening, yet the story surrounding Harper Lee's never-meant-to-be-published “Go Set A Watchman” already seems forgotten.

Rousso's show is fun and open, and for many, it's a nice trip down memory lane. But it would be a shame to leave the narrative there. Leaving his museum within the confines of the gallery would be a way to forget and flatten the underpinnings of what who we are and how we got here, and perhaps more importantly, to borrow from the language of Paul Gauguin, where we're going.

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