AS FINE AS VELVET Lorie Zimmer
Turning cardboard into velvet could be up there with the medieval belief in alchemy - that mixing together base metals could somehow transform them into valuable gold. Artist Jözef Sumichrast has been conquering cardboard wizardry for years. Using a process he painstakingly developed himself, Sumichrast’s cardboard becomes otherworldly and polished, into a substance he refers to as “plasters”. With layer upon layer of treated cardboard, Sumichrast translates his blueprint drawings into three- dimensional sculptures, fusing the abstract with figurative. The resulting sculptures have weight, betraying their cardboard origin, and in fact, appearing very much as if they are covered with a layer of velvet.
Using layer upon layer of industrial grade cardboard, Sumichrast has created his own language of compressed volume that toes the line between two-dimensional and three-dimensional. The artist treats the extensive layers of cardboard sourced from building supply stores with glue and laminate, which transforms its physical properties into a dense and glossy material that can be carved like wood. “Some sculptors work in clay, wood, stone or metal,” he says. “To create an entirely new look; I have developed an entirely new process. I work with dense forms of thin industrial cardboards. I saturate them with water-soluble glue and laminate them. By using a flat two-dimensional material, I can capture what I see in my two-dimensional drawings. The laminated layers of cardboard are cut to the desired shape and then bent. The simple act of bending something that is flat or two-dimensional transforms it into a three dimensional form. My bent cardboard forms are refined and covered with an automotive bondo. The bonded forms are then further refined as the sculpture continues. I developed this process so that I would be able to work two-dimensional and three-dimensionally simultaneously.”
ONCE THESE PIECES of are adhered together, bent and glossed, the real magic begins. The transformation of cardboard to velvet complete with the introduction of an electric sander. The laminated blocks are first carved away into figures lifted from Sumichrast’s drawings: bulbous faces, elongated bodies, elegant horses, and rabbits. Then, with the finishing of a sander, the compressed cardboard surfaces are left with a lush surface, which looks soft to the touch with a rich texture. “Because of my lamination and glue saturation process my cardboard is very durable.” Sumichrast explains. “The glue soaks into the cardboard and turns it into a plastic-like material. There are numerous staples and screws in the cardboard during my clamping process. Cardboard may be thought of as a humble medium, but when I sand the surface of my sculptures I think of it as velvet.
Automotive coating, layers of polyurethane, water-soluble glue, and varnish also elevate cardboard’s properties by extending its life substantially. Untreated the material is durable, but with Sumichrast’s coating the pieces can last for hundreds of years if not longer, able to withstand water damage, sun bleaching and other elemental issues that can plague artwork. With this durability and his treatment of the surface, he has created an incredibly original medium for his body of work.
THE VELVETEEN PROCESS IS TRULY transformative. Sumichrast’s sculptures look like polished wood, rather than layer upon layer of cardboard. But unlike wood, the cardboard conglomeration he has created maintains its lightweight properties, allowing his massive pieces to be easily hung and transported. Working in a lightweight material like cardboard also allows Sumichrast to communicate his leap between two-and three-dimensionality with more ease. His figures are at once both flat and full. The figure in Backstroke Illusion is a mesh of dimensions, almost flowing from line to soft and full curve, back into hard line again. His series of horses are no different from one angle they are robust, the animal’s musculature firm and flexed. But turning the sculpture reveals a paper thin waist, a tail only a few sheets of cardboard thick, or a bent flattened ear that skews the viewer’s perspective and requires considering the sculpture form all over again.
THIS INTERPLAY BETWEEN FLAT AND CURVE is accentuated and heightened by Sumichrast’s reciprocation of the material itself, from flat cardboard to a more lux, finer material, in both material and form, the artist communicates the duality he’s after, the interchange between drawing and sculpture.
Until recently, Sumichrast thought he was alone in his plight of using and manipulating cardboard in his body of dimensional-twisting works. This unawareness helped to create his unique combination of process and progress to communicate his dance dimensionally. “I painted for many years before becoming a sculptor. Some of my thought process has carried over from that two-dimensional world. I have met another sculptor who works in cardboard. Until this book, I wasn’t even aware that there were other artists working in cardboard.”