In no small measure through Warhol’s ministrations, by the late sixties the turnaround time for co-opting an art that refused to be easily bought and sold was shortened considerably and art’s outliers from conceptual to Fluxus were rather quickly domesticated on the auction house floor. But for the most part, this form of buying-in was imposed over the work. There was generally nothing in the work save its conceptual richness that invited its conversion into commodity signature, and much by design—in its materials, subject matter, scale and concept—that sought to mitigate that prospect. But beginning with Warhol, and intensifying in recent decades, the ostensibly market-resistant art work increasingly sports the look and feel of high art—in its choice of materials, scale, density of conception, exquisite execution, rarity, and now, of course, price. Towards its eventual commodity status, it may say no, but it clearly means yes.

Paul Donald, <em>Companion</em>, 2007.

But Donald’s meticulous paper sculptures, like much new work, defies this model through a tendency towards both modesty and material flux. Until recently, the art of material transposition relied on the big makeover, defamiliarizing the known through recasting it, in some cases literally, in another (generally more “arty”) material. Think of Charles Ray’s Buick cast in plaster or Damien Hirst’s egregious skull done jeweler-like in diamonds and platinum. But artists like Donald take a humble material and create of it an equally humble work of art. While he may tease out of it its transformative potential, he doesn’t actually fundamentally transform it. Unlike the big gestures of his fellow artists invested in metamorphosis, this new courting of the literally transformed is precisely not about the stealthy deployment of high art’s materials and old school masteries, as familiar today as it was in Renaissance patronage contracts that specified the expanse of lapis lazuli and gold in an altar piece, that reassuring whiff of the market even when it seems most strenuously denied. After all, the pleasures of Ray’s or Hirst’s work are haunted by a hidden and rather distasteful moral, celebrating the artist’s triumph over materials, in an almost 19th century salute to the controlling intelligence’s ability to shape and manipulate brute matter in line with market imperatives. For all of their celebrated play between material states, the fact is that artist’s like Ray or Hirst never question the simple notion that a thing is either one thing or another, in one state or another. They may labor hugely to carry a thing from one material immanence to another, but once secured in its new form, that thing restabilizes and comes to rest—a shark in a tank is now a sculpture, and what made it a sculpture was, in the full and very traditional sense of the term, the sculptor’s “art.” It has the heft, the spectacle, the specialized labor, even the finish that “sculpture” requires.

But practioners of a more modest mode of art-making resist this hypocritical refusal of the transcendental muses while still living in Art’s house, on Art’s generous budget. Their new arte povera is, however, distinct from the old in not requiring the services of children, the mentally ill or any of art’s other beatified pariahs to work its claim. What’s changed is that artists like Donald are no longer trying to mingle and mate with the excluded margins to strengthen art’s genetic make-up. Rather, they understand art’s historical territory as a prison, and they look to escape. Of the categoricals, they are at best indifferent, with a tendency to drift.

Donald’s work has broadly embroidered upon similar themes for years. He has shown lovely large drawings in which wet color on a wet ground bleeds into the paper beyond the rigidly geometric armatures he’s drawn to “contain” them. He’s built wooden sculptures that drift into animation, seeming to skittle across the floor. And he’s constructed beautiful cartoony reliefs with bug eyes that the observer can spin on the wall like a roulette wheel. In each of these works, animation describes not just the look but the feel, imbuing the inanimate with a seeming exuberance that is but a projection of delight in the movement between states, in the freedom from the categorical and its insistent demands. Like good animated films, these works cross and recross the boundaries between serious and silly, art and entertainment, the rarified and the popular.

Further Reading