Michael Velliquette on his "aesthetic of abundance"

We visit the Madison-based artist at his studio, where he's currently between shows and working on new commissions.
 

Works in progress in Velliquette's studio.

Works in progress in Velliquette's studio.

Michael Velliquette's intricate cut-paper artwork treads the border of collage and sculpture. Some of the Madison-based artist and UW-Madison faculty associate's works are highly abstract and some take on familiar shapes (masks, snakes, flowers, goofy human figures), but they all balance highly detailed textures with almost violently cheerful color schemes.

Many of Velliquette's pieces aren't necessarily full-on sculpture but don't quite want to be restrained to two dimensions, either. A recently concluded show at Marzen on Atwood Avenue featured set of four Velliquette works called "Hypnotic Serpents." They're framed works that hang on a wall, but the snakes they depict twist and coil around themselves in dazzling complexity, and their scales—each one a little piece of cut paper—give the 2-D snakes a distinct 3-D lift.

Velliquette also uses paper cutouts to more comic effect in his project Lovey Town, a miniature gallery that exists mostly on the Internet. Lovey Town's online "shows" consist of miniature versions of works by an array of artists—instead of just showing the works themselves in a digital gallery, these shows depict them actually hanging on miniature "walls," and surrounded by paper cutouts of the artists and their friends in playful poses that gently poke fun at gallery openings. "It gives me an excuse to meet a lot of other people," Velliquette says of Lovey Town. "In the arts, if you have an excuse to create an opportunity for someone, then it's much easier to talk to that person if you don't know them.... Even something as super-ridiculous as Lovey Town, which is this foam-core box, literally, if I want to meet an artist, I can use this excuse to contact them." Lovey Town has been doing some "traveling" exhibitions lately, with Velliquette shipping his cutouts to friends in Chicago and Berlin.

As far as Madison is concerned, Velliquette is currently between shows, though he is at work on new stuff in his studio in downtown Madison. This Thursday, he's also giving a talk at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's Under The Influence series. Admission to that is admittedly a bit steep ($35 for MMOCA members, $40 for non-members—it's a fundraiser for a museum with free admission, remember), but it will feature Velliquette discussing MMOCA's ongoing show of new acquisitions, Taking Their Place, then leading a workshop in which visitors can create self-portraits using cut-paper techniques. I recently visited Velliquette at his studio, where he talked with me about where his current projects are taking him, the MMOCA event, and how his work tries to deliberately overpower the viewer.

Tone Madison: What can people expect from the talk you're giving at MMOCA? Has there been anything in particular that jumped out at you in the Taking Their Place show?

Michael Velliquette: I have a couple of perspectives that I will touch on. I plan to speak a bit about the broader theme of the show—acquisition. I think this is a great moment to reflect on how MMOCA seeks to distinguish itself through the works that it acquires. And I am interested in ways that this collection reflects the museum’s mission, its Midwestern locale, and its relationship to artists living and working in Madison.

In terms of specific artworks in the show, I plan to speak about a handful of pieces I have selected purely by intuition and quick emotional response. The exhibition’s framework categorizes the collection into succinct themes and suggests we consider a dialogue amongst the works around those themes. I am interested in work that refuses to consent to this program—ones that stand wholly in their own sphere, defy typecast, and aren’t particularly “neighborly."

Tone Madison: I'm mostly used to seeing paper sculptures from you. There's one in that hallway between MMOCA and the Overture Center. How did you end up coming to that approach, especially the kinds of colors you use?

Michael Velliquette: Yeah, all colors. [Laughs] The sculptures, that particular work has been in motion for probably 15 or 20 years, since I first started making art. My impulse for making things has always been for more visual information that the viewer has to kind of manage or filter to get to whatever the essence of that thing is, or that they need to just sort of saturate in the amount of optical energy of having so much information, combined in shapes and multiple colors. Probably about 12 years ago, I was doing these really large, immersive mixed-media installations, and paper was always a component in them. Over the course of a couple years and settling into a smaller studio and doing more kind of focused wall pieces, not such installation-based stuff, I just started using paper as studies for some pieces, and then paper just became the primary material.

There's always been a kind of impulse in my work to think of art-making as a ritualistic process that sort of ties me to a kind of history of people who are artists and who make things for culture, whether they're for some sort of ritual form or some other kind of cohesive culture-building exercise. The things that I make that end up looking like that sculpture are this effort to put things into my kind of immediate surroundings that draw people to them and make them feel kind of connected to this process of making or this experience of making.

Tone Madison: So you're almost deliberately aiming to overpower people a bit, but with the hope that they'll somehow find their way through it?

Michael Velliquette: Yeah. They're sort of purposely optically generous, or sometimes I talk about them having an aesthetic of abundance, because I want people to feel this great wealth of information, but information via very kind of primary experiences, with just their eyes and color and form. It's not like they're reading information, but they're just getting a lot of this intense optical stimulation. Often what happens with my work at first is that people are just like, "How is that possibly made?" They don't quite understand what they're looking at. The intention is that the amount of time it would take to produce an object of that intricacy—even though my works aren't that ridiculously intricate, but some of them have a lot of detail to them—that the amount of time it would take to do that doesn't quite register, and so it creates this kind of mystery about how it could be made, or what it even is.

What I'm hoping happens is that over the course of an extended amount of time looking at it, they realize it's paper. And usually when you inspect my work closer, you can see how it's made. There's no mystery in its construction, necessarily. There's no hidden joints or anything like that. Everything's just kind of glued and layered on top of everything else, and so I'm sort of hoping that the craft of the object reveals itself, and people start to understand the process, and that it becomes a very literal object and not so much a symbolic object. Then if they want to see it again as whatever kind of alien thing it is, they have to use their own imaginations to see it as that thing. It becomes this kind of collaboration with the viewer.

Tone Madison: It's interesting to think of an artist as kind of inviting the audience to really pick something apart. I usually assume that artists are averse to people analyzing things too much on that level.

Michael Velliquette: I mean, artists want their work to look good. This stuff [the new, smaller paper works in progress in his studio; see header image above], I have to go through to kind of fix a lot of little details. These are just studies right now. I'm not sure if they're finished works or not. I've been doing this really big piece this past year, a commission for this elementary school in Brooklyn, and that's been what's been taking up all of my time this past year. I haven't actually been in this studio very heavily for almost a year. Since August is when I've been back in here during the week, probably about a total of 15 or 20 hours a week, and I just have to try to get things cooking again. My work's kind of in a fallow period right now. I'm not quite sure. I'm just letting it go, letting it regenerate. A lot of what I'm doing now is just very loose, broad strokes to just sort of see what is gonna be next.

Tone Madison: What was the piece at the school in New York like?

Michael Velliquette: It's an abstract cityscape that's informed by the Manhattan skyline. It's in Ridgewood, which is sort of Brooklyn or sort of Queens—no one ever seems to be able to tell me. You can see the skyline from the school. It's a brand-new elementary school. It reads at first like a skyline, but it's a series of these abstract towers that could be a skyline or could be a series of robots standing next to each other, or could be a series of sentries guarding something. They're sort of anthropomorphic. They draw from architecture from a lot of different cultures and periods—they're ambiguous, they look like Buddhist stupas, or they would look like a skyscraper, or they might look like a pagoda of some sort. They're not specific to any one culture, but they have a lot of patterning on them and a lot of bright colors, and they have a lot of geometric abstraction. They could look like block building that kids could put together if they had a set of really cool geometric abstract blocks.

Tone Madison: Did the setting and the fact that it'll be mostly kids experiencing it impact how you approached the work?

Michael Velliquette: [Children] are sort of my best viewers, my best audience for my work, in anything I make, so it's really a dream because I love making work for kids. One of the parts of the proposal was to sort of talk about the way that it could be used as a learning tool to talk about shapes and color relationships and the way things fit together.

Tone Madison: What's happening with these smaller new pieces in the studio?

Michael Velliquette: Yeah. When I got back to the studio in August, I was just kind of taking an inventory of everything that I had. All the paint, all the paper. This whole place needed a really intense cleaning. As I was going through, I just kind of kept stacking up all of my paper stock, and for the first couple weeks of August was just painting all of these different—I usually use this heavyweight watercolor paper. That's kind of my standard for the last couple of years. But then I also have this kind of cheap sketchbook paper or copy paper, or just paper weights of all kinds that are crude, and I have this huge stack of it. The first part of it was just using up all the paints that I had, too.

I was just working really loosely and letting the raw material take shape. In the past I would tend to paint things solid colors, but this stuff, just to see how far I could stretch the paint, or if I was mixing it, just to see kind of different effects that could come from not judging what happened with it. So then, for some reason, when I sat down to start working with them, I had a whole series of sheets of paper that were just sort of this 8.5" by 11", and so when I started laying them out, I was just gonna play around with some abstract collages and see what started coming together, and for some reason these flower shapes started coming together. And it kind of makes sense. They're these new things growing. I've done flowers before, but I usually put more detail into them. So they're slowly getting more detailed as they go along, but yeah, right now I'm just trying to kind of not be too critical of what's happening with them. I'm just trying to settle into a committed series with these. There will be 20 in the series altogether.

Tone Madison: What about the new commissions you're working on?

Michael Velliquette: I have two big projects happening in the spring. One is at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee. A lot of college galleries have these spaces that have been appropriated for the gallery space that didn't start as the gallery necessarily. This gallery I think at one time was the cafeteria. So you have this beautiful parquet floor, and it has these gallery walls that go up about eight feet that are carpeted. That's a pretty standard move for a lot of university galleries, carpeted walls, they don't have to repair them. When I went there to see the space, they had this really beautiful stained glass of Saint Francis. I was making these loose collages, so the proposal was to go in and just basically cover all the walls with collage, and so that's basically what I'm doing. I'm painting all of these rolls of paper in 108 or 112 different colors and surface treatments, and in January I'm doing a weeklong installation where I'm going to bring all the paper and just work in the gallery for like a week and just cut and pin and glue these abstract collages over all of the walls.

The other project is a piece I'm working on for the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan. They have an exhibition coming up in March called Supernatural, and I think it's Wisconsin artists whose works deal in magical realism. There's a tradition in Wisconsin of that. So they're commissioning this big portal that I'm going to make. It's going to be this mixed-media sculpture that's just going to hug the entrance to the gallery, and it will be double-sided. It's going to be sort of this magical portal that people walk through to get into the space, and it will be made with a lot of different mixed-media material—some paper, some foam, some mirror.

Tone Madison: You mentioned that you did a lot of installation work earlier in your career. So with these recent commissions, do you think you're feeling drawn back to that?

Michael Velliquette: Yeah, I mean this is definitely sort of a gesture in that direction. I love working in spaces. I trained as an installation artist. I'm always thinking about spaces when I'm installing works, definitely, but I think a lot of my fixation on space and installations was funneled into my paper work when I started doing it, because it had so much information in it. It was trying to kind of effect this immersive experience in the viewer, from a two-dimensional approach, that I was used to getting in the installation works.