Life Embossed: Inhabiting Michael Velliquette’s Kaleidoscopic Vision

Exhibition essay by Ramzi Fawaz, 2024

“Gold. The rich color of sunshine, honey, pollen, and precious metal. A hue that invokes ideas of wealth, vitality, suppleness, and radiance. Such are the qualities of Michael Velliquette’s dazzling new series of three-dimensional paper works, a collection of monochromatic square canvases that explode with thousands of ornately hand-cut shapes—eyes, flowers, tear drops, mandalas, human silhouettes and outstretched hands—all rendered in stunning, flowing waves of gold. “The I in Sight” is an apt title for this collection, whose various entries recurrently reveal the paradox of seeing or witnessing: a primary sensory mode of apprehending the world shared by billions of living creatures that is also indelibly marked by the unique, idiosyncratic singularity of every “I / eye” that looks.”

This paradox is captured in the simplicity of seemingly universal, iconic forms, marked by thousands of meticulously executed cuts, punctures, and carvings implemented by the artists’ skilled hand. In the first entry to the series, “Field of Vision,” numerous almond shaped eyes, flowers, and small mandalas repeat across the expanse of an open square canvas with no set pattern; each is crafted out of multiple layers of vibrant golden paper laminated into three dimensional, or heavily embossed, forms. These forms are frequently punctured with holes of varying sizes, some cleanly cut others textured with incredibly tiny slices that add texture and shading. Thus, every iconic form is marked by complete individuality, demanding that we recognize particularity and distinction even in what appears as a singular ocean of golden shapes. The field of vision, Velliquette reminds us, is always vast, multi-dimensional, and filled with recurrent forms, but none are ever quite the same, nor witnessed identically by any given eye.

The work evokes a very queer sort of enchantment: an intentionally playful, even naïve joy in beautiful, intricate things reminiscent of a queer camp sensibility, combined with a deadly serious attention to detail, precision, and structural integrity. The feeling of being lost in an enchanted land of beautiful, lush forms is offset by the reminder that all of these forms are marked by the cut: the cut shapes but also deforms, dazzles but harms, makes distinct but also forever changes that which it slices. For Velliquette then, the cutting gesture is both a necessary decision to act upon the world one sees, but it always comes with the potential to disturb, harm, and permanently alter everything it touches. The embossed eyes that recurrently appear everywhere in the series remind us that each of our own vehicles for seeing are marked by personal histories, literally shot through with our idiosyncratic lifeworlds, which both give us unique insight but can also limit our view.

No lesson could be more apt for our times, a moment when we collectively have greater access to visual mediums documenting global violence, atrocity, and immiseration—on cell phones, televisions, and computer screens—yet frequently seem to see radically different things in those haunting images. Velliquette’s enchanted visual landscapes offer a timely intervention into our viewing habits, drawing our attention to those elements of worldly experience that seem innocent, easily comprehensible, even childlike, but reminding us of their three-dimensionality. The series literally underscores fact that life is always embossed: multi-layered, shaded by complexity, and requiring us to view everything from multiple angles.

This fact is hauntingly captured in a number of pieces that depict the outline of human silhouettes or outstretched hands reaching out to one another across the expanse of a canvas. These include “Averting Gaze,” in which three pockmarked hands reach out toward one another amidst a landscape of tear drops; “Seeing Stars,” which depicts a human silhouette looking up at an astonishing array of three-dimensional golden shapes while a single tear drop rolls down its nose; and “Visual Gravity,” where four silhouettes respectively line the edges of the canvas all mesmerized by a flower-like mandala at the center. All of these pieces depicts iconic human forms riddled with tiny circular holes that at a glance could look like tiny stars in the sky, pockmarks, or freckles. Up close, however, they increasingly resembled scars, invoking the idea of gunshot or shrapnel wounds puncturing the skin. In the wake of watching horrific footage from the ongoing violence in Ukraine and Gaza, I couldn’t help but read these figures as attempts to honor and register our collective woundedness and the necessity of both seeing one another and reaching out to touch, to speak, to commune across our mutual experiences of trauma and injury.

To render the marks of such histories in the radiant light of gold is to value and uplift the necessity of paying attention to detail in our interactions with others and the material world we share. In both his titles and the content of this work, Velliquette asks us not to avert our gaze from the world’s rich complexity; to be willing to see stars amid tears and absorb their epic beauty; to expand our field of vision beyond our limited frame; and to see multiplicously through many different eyes. That fact that that artist himself could see so much, so widely, so intricately, in a single color, lends hope to the possibility that we too might train our vision to approximate his kaleidoscopic sight.

Ramzi Fawaz is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Song I Came to Sing

Exhibition essay by Kate Mothes, 2022

To be self-aware is also to self-inquire; to try to understand our surroundings and how we fit within them. Through architecture, language, art, and spirituality, humans have always sought to answer an eternal question: Who am I? Creative expressions and beliefs precede us in some form since time immemorial, and inform us about who we are and who came before. We commit to paper the ideas we wish to pass on, and we build temples, monuments, and memorials in stone to events and lives in an attempt to make permanent what is by nature ephemeral. We anticipate that these things will outlast us; what we build also immortalizes us.

In using an innately delicate everyday material, Michael Velliquette’s paper sculptures convey strength, intent, and durability in which temporality and perpetuity coexist. The visual experience of these works is of a sense of confident robustness, even grandiosity, yet it is underscored by the knowledge that they are lightweight and prone to damage, highlighting a unique duality. Velliquette challenges the unassuming nature of paper by creating pieces that appear dimensional, elaborate, and timeless, yet we know the material they are made from is susceptible to exposure to moisture, sunlight, fire, or the smallest pressure or fold, and requires conscious observation and care.

Few developments in human history have had as great an impact on culture and learning as the invention of paper in the early second century in China. When properly conserved, paper can last indefinitely, yet like any organic matter left exposed to the elements, it will disintegrate and disappear over time. It can be mass-produced, made by hand, and recycled; it can be manipulated, dyed, cut, woven, or bound in myriad ways. Its tensile strength, depending on the strength of its individual fibers, determines how much stress it can withstand. Paper possesses a quality of immediacy in its function to be used for some purpose, then often discarded.

Velliquette’s process of making these works could be considered a meditative exercise, in a sense, as the sculpture comes together bit by bit, utilizing a range of simple tools. Through a meticulous and intuitive process of measuring, cutting, and assembling pieces of colored paper into complex structures and geometric systems, a simple material is imbued with the power to transfix. Art becomes a place where the present and permanence intersect. Some motifs seem almost elemental in their use across time, cultures, and geography.

Reminiscent of Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas, the square works are symmetrical and elaborate in their detail. Traditionally, these mandalas are meticulously drawn and filled in with colored sand over several weeks, then ritually dismantled. The sand is then returned to the land, typically near moving water, representing a sense of impermanence and connection with the earth that the material and we are all a part of.

The circular shapes within these compositions also bring to mind the monumental Aztec Sun Stone, a carved megalith 12 feet in diameter dating to the 15th century, featuring the deity Tonatuih in the middle, holding a human heart in each hand, and depicting two kinds of calendars. Although its actual use is debated, it predicts solar eclipses and may have been used as a stage for public ritual, and would have been one way that the culture sought to understand their place in the universe. 1

In the process of making his works, Velliquette is able to respond to each one as it grows by adding or removing compartments, building higher, inventing patterns, and experimenting with new methods. Various cuts, nicks, and punches shape the edges of individual pieces, which are applied one by one. Some patterns and shapes, such as scalloped edges or pointed triangles, may initially develop in one piece and flourish in the next. Different colors and textures of paper, including his recent interest in working with metallic surfaces in particular, interact with the light in unique ways.

The presence of the artist’s hand is integral to these works, a reminder of the malleability of the material, its capacity to appear more resilient than it is, and that only through human intervention could an object look this way. When viewed straight on, Velliquette’s square pieces may seem flat and solid, but move around them and they will appear to rise from the surface in fortress-like structures. In contrast to the delicate sand drawings, perfect in their handmade imperfections, a fortress is designed to be perceived as powerful and unassailable – not very human at all. Somewhere between ephemerality and the everlasting – neither sand nor stone – is the paradoxical nature of paper in that it can be both.

The geometric symmetries of the taller tower sculptures may evoke associations with familiar sacred structures such as temples or cathedrals, built toward the heavens as a way of seeking knowledge and showing reverence through sheer feats of engineering. On a much smaller scale, these sculptures capture a sense of wonder in their minute detail and labyrinthine layers. They also possess a mechanical quality, like clockwork or an elaborate lock, as if they are constantly both revolving and evolving. Velliquette’s most recent sculptures have an even more machine-like quality, as if they are spring-loaded and thrumming with inner energy. There is a sense that if one were to place their hand and turn a dial to a specific degree, it would set in motion a metallic chain reaction to eventually reveal something incredible inside.

Curiosity and imagination are interconnected in human experience. Each sculpture encourages one to explore it and invokes a sense of adventure, like an elaborate maze in which there are always new details to discover. Ultimately, the greatest pleasure is this sense of fascination and wonder in every detail, highlighting the experience of the moment; the vulnerability of the present.

Kate Mothes is an independent curator and writer. She earned her Bachelors in Art History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Masters in the History of Art, Theory and Display from Edinburgh College of Art at the University of Edinburgh.She currently splits her time mainly between Scotland and Wisconsin.

Stage Sets for the Soul

Catalog essay by Wendy Weil Atwell, 2020

The ornate, fantastical paper sculptures by Michael Velliquette are dream buildings come to life, pathways of the mind rendered into space. Monochromatic, and created on the scale of a maquette, his sculptures, with their stacked circular and square platforms, domes and other stupa-like constructions, reference sacred architecture, specifically ancient Buddhist temples such as Borobudur, a 9th century temple in Indonesia, built to embody the process of enlightenment. They range from 12 x 12” to 25 x 25” square and stand anywhere between 6” to 18” high. The artist’s ingenuity as well as his time and labor are readily visible and so, despite their small scale, the sculptures possess a grandness or expansiveness that supersedes their sizes.

Working with only rough sketches, Velliquette finds a way to build his sculptures as he goes along, “like making a puzzle without directions.”[i] Leaving no flat surfaces and not one spot unembellished, even in the spaces invisible to the viewer, Velliquette spends anywhere from 300 to 500 hours to make each one. He cuts around 5000 pieces of paper that he rolls, stacks and glues together, using a variety of techniques including book art; the ancient art of Chinese quilling; and the Japanese folding and cutting technique, Kirigami. Set inside plexi cases and exhibited at eye level—either on flat or lectern-like shelves, or vertically on the wall—the sculptures invite the viewer's eye to travel over and through their detailed spaces and to get lost inside their labyrinthine paths.

Velliquette culls his titles from varied sources including mystical poets and meditation teachers. Using found phrases such as (Untitled 4) Now heavens river drowns its banks, and floods of joy have run abroad; (Untitled 5) Watch the stars and see yourself running with them; and (Untitled 7) When awareness encounters eternity it creates time, he points towards the ineffable.[ii] The sculptures’ purely decorative, non-narrative style recalls the geometric splendor of the Alhambra, and suggests aniconism, rules in religious traditions, such as Judaism and Islamism, in which artistic representation of God and other divine beings must remain non-representational because they believe the essence of God is awe-inspiring and infinite.

The Buddhist temple references endow Velliquette’s sculptures with architectural qualities that affect the viewer’s spatial relationship to them. It is less the body than the mind, or perhaps even the spirit, that gets pulled inside their worlds. Their presence feels vague and transcendent, despite the very real, very labor intensive artistic work of their composition.

This may be due to their restrained color palettes. Each of Velliquette’s sculptures is only made from one paper and one color, ranging from white, grey, pale blue, to colors with Buddhist references like gold, dark red and royal blue. The use of only one color underscores the details of the cut paper work and highlights the formal composition. The forms’ anonymity transcends the particular and this blankness exists in opposition the exuberant cut paper details, creating a static nature that holds the time the artist put into them like a well or a reflecting pool, a plentiful resource to dip into.

The sculptures’ contemplative qualities transcend time’s linear barriers. Even before the global pandemic, Velliquette began to use his studio and his art as a refuge from the 2016 election’s toxic political climate, with its reversals on personal freedoms and hate campaigns. “I see these structures embodying the equanimity I felt was missing from my pre-meditation life, and definitely in the current political landscape. And I also hope it’s a refuge for viewers, to be able to get close and imagine themselves in these spaces and similarly feel calm and grounded,” said Velliquette.[iii] Each of the many round forms that he incorporates into his sculptures implies movement, but this is motion on a larger scale. There is the inevitable connotation of the dharma wheel: time spinning, the cycle of life, what Margaret Atwood refers to when she says, “The wheel of fortune rotates, fickle as the moon. Soon those who were down will move upward. And vice versa, of course.”[iv]

It’s easy to get lost in these paper sculpture’s details, zooming in, but zooming out, these works touch on the mythical. They echo storied buildings from the past or the imaginary sites of fairy tales and fables: the labyrinth of Greek mythology; the Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino; and the Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges. Like Daedalus, Velliquette creates a trap, not for the Minotaur but time itself. In meditative practice, the labyrinth serves as a place to get lost inside, only to realize there is nowhere to go; you have already arrived at the place you are seeking. It brings an epiphany that suggests it is just on the other side of knowing, like a Zen slap of awakening, a thunderclap, tripping in a dream or a koan.

Velliquette maintains a mindfulness meditation practice and his works are manifested out of this process. Using his intuition and concentration, he builds up the forms that often involve repetitive tasks such as cutting the same shape 1000 times. This state of waking meditation creates a sense of distance and allows him to observe how his mind works.

The more I have been able over the years to recognize when my mind is just caught up in itself and see what is happening the sooner I’m able to get back to a sense [of] equanimity, balance, ease….Making the paper sculptures are a way [to] induce a similar mind state in my studio work, meaning a pleasant mind, that feels balanced and calm. I think the sense of order, balance, [and] repetition in the sculptures just mirror that mind state. And lately, if I want to think more broadly about it, I think they might represent a sort of non-dual state of being, or gesture towards the state of ‘awareness being aware of awareness.’[v]

Built from a combination of intuition, concentration and skill, Velliquette’s sculptures contain a nearly infinite amount of creative riffs. He works in that hazy, distant, nearly unobtainable zone that offers access to the transcendent. “When I’m making art and really into it, I disappear into the work. It's not me and the work, it's just this state of ‘knowing/being the work.’ I often say that I keep making art because it's the only time feel like I am truly who I am, meaning my sense of self slips away”—which makes his sculptures mandalas in their own right.[vi] They are monuments to his will and focus; the internal process that rendered them possible makes them beautiful space holders for a streamlined mental energy, extending from the open horizons of a clear mind. The wheel is always turning, time is always passing, and objects of contemplation offer the chance for stillness and clarity within this flow, to hold us in this suspension. Hence the sense that they exist out of time, crystalline. This space feels like a distant memory, a mirage-like city on a distant hill; it is a memory, we realize, not of a place but a state of being.

[i] Michael Velliquette in discussion with Wendy Weil Atwell, May 19, 2020.

[ii] Taken from the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, Marcus Aurelius, and the meditation teacher Rupert Spira, respectively.

[iii] Michael Velliquette, Email message to Wendy Weil Atwell, July 7, 2020.

[iv] Margaret Atwood, The Testaments (New York: Doubleday, 2019), 211.

[v] Velliquette, Email message to Atwell, June 30, 2020.

[vi] Velliquette, Email message to Atwell, June 30, 2020.

Wendy Weil Atwell is a writer living in San Antonio, Texas. She received her MA in Art History and Criticism from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2002. She writes literary nonfiction and reviews of art for various visual arts publications, both online and in print, including Gulf Stream Magazine, Art Lies, GlassTire, Rivard Report and …might be good. Atwell is the author of The River Spectacular, published in 2010.

Structures of Suffering // Objects of Rapture

Catalog essay by Anthony Lovenheim Irwin, 2020

Metaphor, simile, analysis. These stupid human tricks rob objects of their elaborate material integrities. In the quixotic quest for meaning, critics unravel art into linear logics of lifeless logos.

It is scary to take in a body of work without the protective armor of metaphor. To allow the thousand-cornered reality of matter to exist as its raison d’etre. The false division between name and form that orients so much casual experience of the world is blurred by the intricacies in Michael Velliquette’s recent work. Texture triumphs over text when paper completes its chrysalis. Manuscripts only mediate illumination when fully flowered and laid bare. Here contour runs circles around folded uniformity. Deep shadows shade caverns of monochrome where rolled and scored ornaments stand sentinel. Light tumbles through gauzy mazes before gently throwing itself back into the air.

Spend some time with the empty spaces that light creates. Let your mind occupy a point someplace suspended between these paper forms and spaces that surrounds them. Try to focus on only the edge of light as it caresses your favorite fold. Now look past the edge and blur your eyes. Don’t forget to breathe.

These are made slowly.

Very slowly.

Be slowly with them.

Now show off how slow you are in front of them. Make them envy your mastery over slowness. Boast your slowness pridefully, you’re in good company.

In their slowness these works do not point to anything. Instead, these fragile structures proudly proclaim: Thing itself is not empty. Ornament fills the void with its own material (anti)meaning.

These works disarm the weapons of the willfully obtuse.

Here is what happens when one allows themselves to be fully disarmed by them:

The beauty of Michael Velliquette’s work embarrasses me. These exquisite pieces entice me to do the unspeakable. The almost impossibilities of their forms, the intricacies of their details, their repetitive textured perfections—each and all cause me dark fantasies. I want to scrunch them up to hear how they cry out in their final moments of integrity. I want to run the fingers of both my hands over them again and again to feel their furloughs and flaps and flips. I want the resulting little helicopter sounds to massage my ears. I want to pick off an expertly folded nub and pop it in my mouth and chew on it like a Mentos™. I want to turn two entire pieces inside-out and wear them over my two arms like detached sleeves as I walk through a hallway like a zombie, or through a forest like a bigfoot. I want to set them on fire in an open pit and watch their smoky tendrils escape into the sky. I want to breathe in their burnt essence and let it build up as tar in my lungs until I am suffocated by this perverse indulgence and gasp my last breath of bliss. I want to grill mushrooms on the glowing embers. I want to eat those mushrooms.

I am sorry, Michael. But this is your own fault.

When we spoke, I asked Michael if he ever thought about letting anyone touch the pieces. If he ever thought about not displaying them under their plastic vitrines. At the time I asked from a place of pushing the pieces into another realm of display—thinking it would be meaningful somehow if they slowly were damaged by the elements, by gallery goers, by inadvertent touch and the fluctuations in humidity and light.

I now can admit that I was lying to myself. I asked the question because I simply wanted to be able to touch them for myself, right there and then. I don’t care if they change slowly—if they become a rumination on the gallery, or on time, or on the interactions between humans and materials. I only want to be able to engulf these pieces. To so fully and absolutely take in their every expression with my senses that it makes me long for another, undiscovered sense—something beyond touch, sight, hearing, taste, smell, and mind with which I could more fully consume them. I know that this would destroy them. They make it so that I simply don’t care.

I also asked Michael what was inside of the pieces. It’s less exciting than you would think. Foam, glue, a few pins.

I thought this was a deep question. It wasn’t. Really, it was selfish and self-centered. I asked because what I really wanted to be inside of them was me. I now know that my deepest desire was for Michael to answer “what’s inside of them? You!” And then he would wave his magic wand and I would be shrunken down and transported into one of the piece’s interiors. I would be Tom-Thumbed into my own private Lovey Town. Oh, to be a prisoner in the most magnificent jail from which I never would escape! “This looks like Superman’s fortress of solitude in here,” I would think to myself, “only better!” And then I would realize that I could fly, just like Superman, but I would never fly out of my beloved jail. I would never again see my family, friends, and mentors whom I love, nor my enemies whom I hate, nor my professional colleagues and acquaintances whom I like just fine. I would just stay living in there because I would be so intoxicated by the intricacy and rolling shadows and nooks and crannies and monochromatic rapture. I wouldn’t even think about anyone or anything else and eventually I would die, and my last words would be “thank you for this beautiful jail, Michael” and I would mean it sincerely and it wouldn’t be at all sarcastic.

And my little skeleton would be forever inside the piece that Michael had magically transported me into and the next time he showed it in a gallery and some smarty-pants asked him the question of what’s inside he would say “Well, it’s a funny story...”

Anthony Lovenheim Irwin is Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University. He thinks, talks, teaches, and writes about the social and ethical resonance of crafting, building, and construction. Dealing primarily with Buddhism in Thailand, his work focuses on the importance of craftspeople as central figures in the transmission and definition of religious traditions and communities. His research has received funding from the American Council of Learned Societies, The US Fulbright Program, and the Australian National Research Council. 

The How and the What

Exhibition essay by Sara Krajewski, 2013

Michael Velliquette’s recent works practically pop off the wall. Pushing against the edges of their square black frames, clownish smiley faces, reaching hands and pulsing orbs emanate elated, or poignant, or at times goofy, vibes. Colors and shapes excite the eye and pack an outsized wallop in each modestly scaled, 12-inch x 12-inch composition. Velliquette’s compositions are distinguished by abundant material meticulously assembled into idiosyncratic portraits, still lifes and landscapes. Yet something intangible in the works speaks to a more mysterious effect. What creates this surprising resonance that affects us on optical, physical and psychic levels?

Wassily Kandinsky, in his theoretical text Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), discusses this “what,” differentiating it from a more familiar “how.” The how is a material explanation or objective rational investigation. The what, however, connects to a deeper question about individual subjective experience. For Velliquette, the how involves process, medium and iconography — things that give the creative impulse a structured sensibility rooted in the real world of things and actions. The what is less tidy. It involves an inner necessity to make, a desire to connect personal experience with the universal human one. The what points to the spiritual.

Without a doubt, the two concepts intertwine. The spiritual can be considered through, and can even be found in, the material and the process. For instance, Velliquette correlates his labor-intensive approach of piecing together the myriad cut and colored forms to Buddhist mindfulness meditation. For him, the labor of art making is akin to breathing in and out, being in the moment in an equitable, non-judgmental mind state. His choice to work with paper is a conscious decision to utilize a humble, everyday material to open a view into imagined worlds. By foregrounding its texture, weight and form, Velliquette highlights its essential physical qualities and ephemerality. As organic matter it will eventual decay, a metaphor for the universe’s impermanence. Velliquette’s paper constructions form mandalas, totems and icons and, in doing so, reflect upon the importance of devotional objects that many spiritual practices share.

An artist may choose to represent aspects of spirituality in their work, but the work of art must operate on a different level to stimulate a response on a spiritual level. To attempt to describe the origin of this subjective experience, Kandinsky wrote about the internal drive in the artist and an internal harmony within an artwork. Kandinsky considered an artist to be a spiritual being whose inner need — a drive to express and give shape to a subjective impulse — led to unlimited freedom achieved by attending to the inner necessity of the art work. When a composition manifests its “inner need” — through the harmony of colors and relationship of forms to one another — it is elevated to a work of art. The work of art is not just an expression of the spirit, but a stimulus that stirs a spiritual experience in others.

The result upon the artist and the viewer is a sensation of vibration or excitement or heightened awareness in the spirit or soul, or the recesses of the brain that process emotion. Stimulating the eye with this ideal formation of colors and shape stirs an inner chord, creating an emotional response not unlike what happens when we hear music. This mysterious synesthesia we might experience with Velliquette’s work is curiously wondrous and difficult to describe. A formal analysis — solid geometric forms and dynamic lines moving across the planes of the composition come to life through the vibrant color schemes — falls flat by comparison. This resonance could very well be spiritual; it is certainly a cognitive moment based in a physical experience that leads to a feeling… but to analyze the cause and effect would ultimately bring us back to the how.

By contemplating the how and the what, we will inevitably get to the why. Apart from its intrinsic qualities of color and form, why does Velliquette’s art strike a chord in me, here, today? Is this work of its time or does it have a universal appeal? The abundance conveyed through simple means I find particularly revelatory given the clashing sensibilities of our day. While an insistent, high tech visual culture constantly allures, it ultimately leads to a poverty of aesthetic experience. Distractions increase, focus decreases. We are simply overwhelmed. The power to captivate the eye is the almost impossible achievement these works accomplish. This strong appeal stems from something inherent in humanity too – the desire to embellish and decorate, a love of ornament, or “razzle dazzle” as Velliquette describes it. In this regard, the work taps an essential human pursuit. Arising from an impulse that speaks across time and cultures, perhaps these colorful paper assemblages do resonate in the spirit. Our secular age needs moments of awe, wonder, mystery and fascination to remind us of the power of subjective feeling and letting go of our rational minds. Velliquette’s work evokes a sense of the ecstatic that feels particularly vital as an imaginative antidote to our addled times.

Sara Krajewski is the Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Portland Art Museum

Michael Velliquette: Outside the Frame and off the Wall

Catalog essay by Jennifer Jankauskas, 2011

Writer J. Michael Straczynski has said, “The point of mythology or myth is to point to the horizon and to point back to ourselves: This is who we are; this is where we came from; and this is where we're going.”[1] Michael Velliquette also explores this notion. With a keen attention to detail, precise cuts and a heightened color sensibility, Velliquette breathes life into mythological creatures and architectural forms that overflow with abundant emotion that reference the human condition. This is part of Velliquette’s generosity to his audience; his playful and joyous works of art originate in, and become, positive and affirming objects. In fact, Velliquette’s imagery derives from the artist’s desire to buoy people’s spirits during a period wherein the difficult economy and world conflicts impact everyday realities.

Velliquette’s use of paper, a mainstay of his artistic practice, underwent a transformation in 2009. During that summer, Velliquette was a resident in the Pottery Division of the Arts/Industry Program at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, WI. This unique program allows artists to work within the Kohler Co. factory and to utilize its resources. For Velliquette, working for the first time with vitreous china, this was a revelation. Feeling an immediate connection with the material, he linked this fine clay both to ancient earth and also, metaphorically, to a place deep within himself from which creativity originates. Creating freestanding sculptures alluding to the historical lineage of devotional figures made from clay, Velliquette’s ceramic work, like many of this other pieces, references devotional traditions while suggesting world mythologies and personal deities. The resulting series of ferociously friendly characters, Inner Beasts, became a turning point in his practice.

The working method used to create the works from Inner Beasts inspired Velliquette to bring some of the new techniques learned during his residency to his approach to paper allowing him the freedom to move both outside of the frame and off the wall while creating pieces that embody three-dimensions more fully. Playing with the physicality of paper, Velliquette began approaching it architecturally: building it up like clay and molding it from a raw state into a rigid form through wadding and shaping it into sculptural forms. With his wall-relief series Power Shapes, Velliquette concentrated on what he could evoke while working in this manner with only abstract forms and color. In Diamond (Intuition), 2009, Velliquette fabricates and layers concentric squares and circles of fringed paper that culminate into a single point, similar to the sacred mandalas of Hindu and Buddhist religions that he obliquely references. In this work, as seen in many traditional Hindu and Buddhist mandalas, Velliquette attaches four gates, one on each side and in the shape of a truncated “T”; at the center of each gate he layered circles—an echo of the center of the image. Despite the density of materials assembled by Velliquette, there is a lightness instilled into the form as thin streams of bright blue, green, and silver cut paper flow outward from the piece and loop back in; these streams activate the piece while linking the various layers to visually add depth. Such elements cause the eye to move through the brightly colored piece, jumping from one element to the next and enticing the viewer to enter into a mystical realm that evokes spirituality and ritual. Despite Velliquette’s use of exuberant color, Diamond (Intuition), along with the other works from this series function as a meditative act: for the artist, this manifests itself through the ritual and routine process of building the layers of cut and colored paper into a three-dimensional object; for the viewer, experiencing Velliquette’s intricate pieces may lead to quiet introspection. For both artist and viewer, the work alludes to the power resting within each of us to become one with ourselves.

The Power Shapes Series functions as a bridge between the artist’s earlier cut paper collage works and the ambitious and large-scale Power Tower (2009), Velliquette’s first completely sculptural cut paper piece. Velliquette has said that “As the paper works evolved I began to look for ways to move beyond the inherent flatness to achieve the same sense of submersion that had been such an important part of my previous installation work.”[2] In Power Tower he achieved exactly that. Created for the exhibition Slash: Paper under the Knife at the Museum of Art and Design, New York, this piece is an imposing nine and a half feet tall, six feet wide and two feet deep. Power Tower loosely resembles a highly ornamented and colorful Native American totem pole, yet the abstracted figures within are reminiscent of Polynesian cultures. Grounded on a ‘grass’ base scattered with flowers, butterflies and fallen fruit this tower is filled with a mix of abstract symbols and figurative elements. Identifiable among the paper flora and fauna are snakes, butterflies and abstracted faces. Multiple arms, festooned with paper chains and decorative fringes, extend upward from the central pole and the top radiates outward in a sunburst pattern. Like a totem pole, Velliquette imbues the sculpture with a narrative quality alluding to a wide range of stories such as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to Shaivite myths, yet it is the nature of the stories which highlights what Velliquette terms “a devotional sensibility,” that separates it from Native American totems. Instead this piece is rooted in objects such as stupas, alters, and lingams.[3]

Once again drawing inspiration from world mythologies, Velliquette’s Gugalanna from his Paper Gods series references the legendary Mesopotamian creature of the same name. Literally translated as the Bull of Heaven, Gugalanna was a Sumerian deity now best known as the astrological constellation Taurus. Velliquette’s version, a white bull festooned with brightly colored rings and flowers decorating the face, tongue and horns exudes a humor and playfulness generally not associated with its namesake. Instead, Velliquette creates an alternative portrait of the stubborn bull, highlighting the more jovial attributes of this character. Closely associated with the vitreous china Inner Beasts, this piece, along with others from this series, not only link to folklore but also to Velliquette’s personal invented deities, created to represent his emotions and states of mind while working through the creative process. Through these figurative works Velliquette has created a cast of characters that not only star in his own constructed mythology, but also, in essence, represent the truth of us laid bare: as humans we are creatures that are hopeful, vulnerable, yet fierce of heart. With this sculptural relief Velliquette explores both the familiar while mining deep into the subconscious and discovering the hidden other that we often disguise from ourselves.

For his next body of work, Velliquette transforms phrases to images by utilizing sigils, a system of adapting written language into nonrepresentational drawings and patterns. An ancient practice rooted in astrology and magic, it enjoyed a modern renaissance due to use and promotion by English artist Austin Osman Spare (1886 – 1956). Coming across this system through his research, Velliquette employs life affirming statements as a base for his designs. He thinks of them as ‘as symbolic runes”[4] and says, “I don’t consider my works magic, but sigils are an interesting strategy for making images. I want them to seem rich, unbelievably abundant.”[5] Similar in process to his earlier sculptural pieces, with a rich layering and building of cut paper, Velliquette takes the work to a new level by controlling the way he utilizes color. Previously, the artist chose colored card stock, now, in his recent work, he paints white Bristol paper with acrylic and powder graphite colors. This process lends a loose and organic aspect to Velliquette’s imagery and, by allowing the underlying white of the paper to intermittently show through his strokes of color, Velliquette adds another visual layer. These works are also a departure from the world mythologies that inform and relate to Velliquette’s preceding pieces. With Sigils, Velliquette selects idioms from self-help books or popular affirmative truisms that speak to the general betterment of the humanity and creates symbolic images representing each statement.[6] As such, Velliquette infuses each work with an optimism that acts as counterpoint to the various struggles in our current world.

For instance, Honored Soul (2010) resembles a decorated and triumphant warrior of some remote tribe. Yet, accompanying the fierce stature of this figure, there is an aspect of jubilation portrayed with brightly colored flower forms, layered circles, and fringed star shapes. Velliquette begins playing with less symmetrical forms in Propeller (2010) with its sweeping central curve—a serpentine tree branch covered with fringed paper leaves and arcing over an all seeing-eye. In Skin & Bones (2010) Velliquette begins to venture into another new direction. In this highly graphic black and white image, the artist distills his process into a study in tempered restraint. By stripping away the kaleidoscopic color of other works, Velliquette concentrates purely on form to create a majestic, almost otherworldly creature. This work also functions as a transition piece to Velliquette’s current imagery. Still utilizing sigils as a base, Velliquette is now mining anthropology less, turning instead to architecture as a reference point. In fact, these pieces are both more three-dimensional and abstract than ever before. In addition, by removing color in such work as Grey Guard (2010), the work becomes purely about structure. With this gray monochromatic piece Velliquette depicts two crossed daggers or arrows that pierce through a center circle. Aesthetically, this piece is non-representational; Velliquette uses a combination of layered shapes to create a sculpture that functions as an embodiment of the feelings he had while making the piece. Although dark in color, Grey Guard is not menacing nor is it memorial-like. Instead, like the earlier sigils, this piece operates as a positive affirmation. Similarly, Fuck a Duck (2010), another exploration into non-symmetrical forms, embraces emotion. Here, the work exudes joy and celebration through intense color and implied movement. Velliquette’s sculptural relief evokes a tribal warrior in the throes of a celebratory dance or perhaps it is part man and part animal, a mythological creature born of both the artist’s and viewer’s imaginations.

In fact, viewer participation is essential to the construction of Velliquette’s imagery. The artist has said that his works, “suggest a sort of homemade 3D cosmography. In these works, it is my intention that viewers will enter the composition and experience what [scholar and author] Angela Ndalianis describes as ‘co-extensive space’ a space that illusionistically connects with and infinitely extends from our own.”[7] Ultimately, it is in this in-between space, where artist intention and viewer perception mingle that transformation is possible. Velliquette’s sculptural work embodies this idea, taking the viewer through mythological realms and also to the deep, and perhaps uncharted, worlds within ourselves.

[1] J. Michael Straczynski, panel discussion, ”Science Fiction” at MIT on May 4, 1998;, accessed, January 28, 2011.

[2] Michael Velliquette, Artist Statement, in Slash: Paper under the Knife (New York: Museum of Art and Design) 2010 p. 248.

[3] Michael Velliquette, interview with Richie Budd, “The Opulent Exuberance of internal shadows,” Fort Worth contemporary Art Examiner, December 9th, 2009.

[4] Michael Velliquette quoted in Steve Bennett, “Michael Velliquette’s cut paper sculptures start with affirmations.” San Antonio Express News, April 18, 2010.

[5] Michael Velliquette quoted in Dan R. Goddard, ”Joey Fauerso & Michael Velliquette,” Glasstire Online Art Journal, April 2010

[6] Michael Velliquette in conversation with the author, January 13, 2011.

[7] Michael Velliquette, Artist a Day,, accessed January 11, 2010.

Jennifer Jankauskas is Curator of Art at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts

Another World
Catalog essay by Kate Green, 2011

You could easily become addicted to Michael Velliquette’s brightly colored paper collages. These reliefs, which the artist began producing in 2005, are painstakingly “built” from cut-out bits of cardstock. Depicting fanciful creatures and scenes, they have the mystery of ancient Mayan pictograms and the mesmerizing shock of their 21st century psychedelic palette. Because these intricately crafted objects are made at an intimate scale—at most they are four feet in height—it might be surprising to learn that the artist developed many of the symbols he continues to use today (disembodied hands and eyes, anonymous and androgynous human figures) more than five years ago in cacophonous, room-sized, mixed-media installations. Despite differences in scale and material, the distance from then to now is not as great as it might first appear. Though Velliquette’s early interactive worlds were physically entered and his recent paper piece are for our eyes only, both deploy colorful shapes, patterns, and textures to absorb the viewer into idiosyncratic, mythic lands where mountains can cry, rivers can be happy, and everything is alive and peacefully coexisting.

Of the several room-sized installations Velliquette made from 2003 through 2005, the most fully realized was produced while the artist was in residence at Artpace San Antonio in 2004. For The You in the I Velliquette transformed a white-walled gallery into a colorful, alternate universe replete with cardboard boulders, tinfoil streamers, flowers made out of construction paper, and other hanging and strewn elements composed from readily available craft material. The resulting project was wholly original, yet also in dialogue with other artworks from the past and present. Velliquette was selected for the residency by guest curator Larry Rinder, who at the time was fresh from organizing the 2002 Whitney Biennial. That show became known for embracing a do-it-yourself aesthetic (think of folk-like paintings by Margaret Kilgallan and hand-knit outfits by the performance collective Forcefield). The You in the I did not just rhyme with the handmade aesthetics of the moment, but also drew upon the artist’s interests in artwork from the 1960s, specifically works by Ed Kienholz and Paul Thek. Both of these artists excelled at assembling quotidian material into quirky tableaus that referenced human experience yet also what is beyond it (in one installation Kienholz fabricated an old lady with glass bottles and bird skulls; for a sculpture Thek made a life-like plaster cast of a hand but then “marbled” it with an unearthly florescent palette). Like these artists, Velliquette was interested in using the everyday to create something that could be transformative.

With The You in the I Velliquette succeeded in a big and immersive way. Viewers ducked through a small doorway in a cardboard wall and entered a playful and colorful world that was festooned wall-to-ceiling with various shapes and included sounds humming from every corner of the room. You could walk over candy-colored bridges, gaze at rivers made of plastic ribbons, try to identify strange buzzes and gurgles, examine the giant outline of a face protruded from a wall, make your way through mobiles of the cosmos, stare into giant rainbow-colored eyes, duck into a cardboard cave decorated with paper birds, or escape your troubles by lounging on a giant hand-shaped pillow.

Like Velliquette’s other early installations, The You in the I transported the viewer to a quirky parallel universe. Though it was much larger and more materially diverse than the artist’s recent collages, in spirit it was not so different. Velliquette used the familiar to draw the viewer into an exuberant world that burst with positive energy and peace. After visiting this artist’s fantastical land, you shouldn’t be surprised if you have a hard time returning to the humdrum sights and sounds of your own. 

Kate Green is the Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Oklahoma Contemporary. She holds an M.A. from the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, and a Ph.D. in Modern and Contemporary Art History from the University of Texas at Austin. She has taught art history courses at Trinity University and University of Texas at Austin, and her art criticism has been published recently in Artforum and Frieze.

Michael Velliquette in Pieces
Catalog essay by Michael Jay McClure, 2010

Writing on Michael Velliquette’s work necessitates a form that mirrors his production. Thus, the writing should possess a shape comprised of shards. The form should emerge as cumulative, decorative, and de-centered. The composition should, in fact, hint at the anti-compositional, the small bits of meditation and disruption that under-gird the formal “entirety.”

Velliquette makes dimensional card stock collages and segmented wooden sculptures. Of course, collage has a distinguished history of its own. Rooted in the vociferous political work of German Dada artists, collage combines cultural complaint, disjunction, and readymade images into compositions of shifting perspective.

This is and is not a helpful way into this work. Velliquette’s work is not flat, nor does he use readymade images. Instead, his compositions may be culturally relevant, but they are differently so: they evoke the pixilation of new media and a certain kindergarten naiveté. In fact, the paradoxes proliferate here. The work is ornamental and homespun, highly literate and rooted in popular culture. It echoes the pop-up book and Byzantine mosaics. Accordingly, his “pictures,” which threaten to dissolve into their base material, defy definitional absolutes. He unveils a rich optical terrain and, more exactly, a way of seeing.

While his piecemeal constructions shift tonally and in terms of scale, Velliquette consistently turns to the garden, the apocalypse, and the oceanic. Thus, in one room, we might see a full-scale bird portrait that recalls an Edenic paradise (and tiki huts) juxtaposed with a vast garden replete with snakes and bad portent. As the content shifts, so do the possibilities for this fractured way of seeing. In one instance, a pretty color palate and animal theme might remind us of ornamental divertissement. In another the Cinemascope scale and dark allegory might register as a work where the body is segmented violently and metonymically. Velliquette’s technique is elastic; it can register and reconfigure a broad range of images. The shattering effects of the technique, however, allow for a re-encounter with the mythical and the allegorical.

Such a move—to use a technical rule as a mode for seeing—has been stalwart in the history of art after 1965. One thinks of Yves Klein and his charge to paint everything blue, or of Chuck Close and his pitiless, exacting portraits that fit every human into the same painterly format. Similarly, Velliquette’s technique allows us to see certain things about his subjects while obfuscating other qualities. For instance, a small piece of cut card stock is visually like a snake’s scale, a bloody hand reaching out of the ocean, or the petal of a flower (all of which Velliquette has portrayed). At the same time, the picture’s subject may be the obsessive process of seeing in this manner, no matter what “big picture” emerges. The technique is equally as visible as the thing portrayed. The question becomes this: should we regard the picture or how it is constituted?

I contend we should look at both, and at their complicated conflation. Indeed, Velliquette combines talismanic images with a process that is equally ritual bound. Then, there is a remarkable cogency here. The content of the image reflects their form and the form changes the content. In fact the collapse of form and content animates the work. The apocalyptic, the mythic, and the decorative are spoken through a method that embraces, by turns, compulsion, ritual, and the fanciful.

In the end, it is the fragility of Velliquette’s work that lingers with the viewer, or at least with this one. Although one knows that these pictures are fixed, they seem infinitely vulnerable, as if a gentle wind could undo them. Only rarely does the complicated come together to form a picture. That an artist has come up with a method for pursuing such elusive moments is rarer still. Like a mirage standing between hope and evaporation, Michael Velliquette has given us something to see.

Michael Jay McClure

Art historian & adorable-at-large