UVA's Brooks Museum resurrected through cardboard

 A collaboration between The Cardboard Company and New York artist Tom Burckhardt, “The Brooks Natural History Museum C. 1900: A Creative Interpretation,” opened at Ruffin Gallery on February 24. The installation is a whimsical re-imagination of UVA’s defunct natural history museum, which occupied Brooks Hall from 1877 through the 1940s, constructed of brown cardboard (60 percent recycled), black paint, and the creativity of the collaborators. Burckhardt, the 2011-12 visiting artist chosen by the student-run UVA Arts Board, made the show’s centerpiece, a very sympathetic mammoth being led by Henry Ward, the natural history entrepreneur whose company made the original plaster and fur version for the Brooks Natural History Museum.

New York artist Tom Burckhardt’s collaboration with The Cardboard Company, “The Brooks Natural History Museum C.1900: A Creative Interpretation,” at Ruffin Hall. (Photo by Cara Gilroy)

The show is right up my alley. Bursting with energy, it’s imaginative, original, and just plain fun. I loved the handmade quality, which is fresh and authentic. Upon entering Ruffin Hall, you are greeted by The Cardboard Company’s version of Brooks Hall’s façade spilling out of the gallery space that’s marvelously re-created in extreme perspective.

You feel like you’re in a natural history museum, with a touch of funhouse thrown in. There are maps and dioramas, display tables with the intricate wrought iron legs faithfully re-created. The mammoth centerpiece communicates the humor inherent in the show. On one of Ward’s shoulders sits Darwin and on the other, P.T. Barnum, a reference to the particular brand of science that was mixed with a heavy dose of showmanship to create Brooks Hall. The fuzzy science of the original museum underscored the spirit of the project. The purpose was never to reproduce a historically accurate recreation. Rather it was to discover and create new and unexpected narratives.

In this “natural history” museum, a zebra Pegasus is perfectly acceptable. There’s a magnificent ostrich, fabulous birds, a chimp, a wonderful ocean scene, a terrific goat, and an animated grizzly bear, caught in mid-roar. I was captivated by the individual components, yet the power of the entire piece is much more than the sum of its parts. Mostly, it looks like it was a gas to make, a suspicion that was confirmed by a student who said: “It was a blast.”
Megan Marlatt, this year’s Arts Board faculty advisor, first suggested using Brooks Hall as a canvas: “At once specific to the local University community and universally understood, the Brooks Natural History Museum was a perfect vehicle to construct a communal art project with the students. Both academic and artistic, it provides a rich and endless supply of visual information and inspiration to create from.”

Burckhardt liked the idea of using an authoritative model that tried to explain the whole world by cropping it and framing it to fit within the confines of its walls. The approach is reminiscent of the work of conceptual artist, Fred Wilson, whose work draws attention to the biases of museums and how they shape the interpretation of historical truth and artistic value.

Burckhardt, who had done a similar project at Williams College in 2010 on a smaller scale, made several visits to UVA to guide the members of The Cardboard Company —studio art students Bridget Bailey, Hannah Barefoot, Marie Bergeron, Susannah Cadwalader, David Cook, Carmen Diaz, Shiry Guirguis, Margaret King, Brendan Morgan, Agnes Pyrchia, Cherith Vaughan, an additional 30 UVA sculpture students and community volunteers—through the project. The week leading up to the show was intense. Burckhardt was in residence, and, as the opening loomed, students worked feverishly to make enough stuff to fill up the space. One participant likened the project to a “kind of black hole sucking everyone who encountered it, in.”

Known primarily as a painter, Burckhardt grew up smack dab in the middle of the New York art scene, the son of photographer and filmmaker, Rudy Burckhardt and painter, Yvonne Jacquette. Renowned for his photographs of legendary 20th century American artists taken for Art News’ “Paints a Picture” series, Burckhardt’s father counted a number of famous artists as close friends, including de Kooning and Red Grooms, with whom he collaborated on various projects. The Burckhardts imparted a strong artistic work ethic in their son, and beginning in high school, Burckhardt began working as Grooms’ studio assistant, mostly fabricating sculptural items. He continued to work for him for 22 years, and Grooms was a powerful influence on Burckhardt, in attitude more than style, inspiring him, in particular, with his enormous creative energy.

Burckhardt turned to cardboard as he was preparing for a 2005 show. Painting had begun to feel stale and he “had gotten a little peeved at the politeness of painting and fulfilling some expectations I imagined.” He wanted to break out of his funk and get back to the momentum he’d experienced as a young artist and which he’d so admired in Grooms. Having used cardboard to make some giant tools for a benefit party, he had developed an affinity for it. Quick and satisfying, there’s no sense of preciousness to the medium.

“If a piece doesn’t work, you can chuck it and start again,” he said. Burckhardt also likes the idea of using an ordinary material and repurposing it, and cardboard, in particular, has an obstinacy he admires: “It wants to be flat, I like the gentle fight it gives you forming it into something.”

The first fruit of his efforts was “Full-Stop,” an entire artist’s studio made out of cardboard and black paint that is both painting and sculpture. Playful and irreverent, “Full-Stop” traces its lineage back to Grooms’ work, but has a distinct psychological gravity that is all Burckhardt’s. At its center is an easel with blank canvas, representing “the existential moment of the artist alone in the studio about to create.” The title of the piece is brilliant, connoting the positive outcome that stopping and shifting direction can produce. “Full-Stop” is both a tribute to Burckhardt’s father, who had died a few years before, and with its distinctly retro look, to the generation of artists he recorded in his series of photographs.

After his foray into cardboard, Burckhardt did reinvest in painting, albeit with a twist. In his next series, “Slump” he used cardboard to form his “canvases” and included paint cans from the studio. His tussle with painting continues in his most recent work (currently on view at the UVA Art Museum), where he has employed unconventional materials and unusual visual ploys that not only keep the work fresh, but force what he calls a “slow read,” with the goal of deepening engagement with his work.

Burckhardt was an excellent choice to be the UVA Arts Board visiting artist and an inspirational mentor to the studio art students. He’s a serious artist who views play and fun as central to his work. He’s also full of energy, very dedicated, and constantly challenging himself. He’s confident enough to be irreverent, questioning sacred cows like history, museums, and art itself. That attitude is not only healthy, but vital to artistic growth. With “The Brooks Natural History Museum C. 1900: A Creative Interpretation,” Burckhardt shows us (and most important, his students) that there’s more to creativity than just skill; it requires determination, imagination and a certain amount of guts.

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