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Pushing Envelopes 

by Sheri Boggs

The first thing you noticed was the delicacy. The works in Bradd Skubinna's first show at Lorinda Knight two years ago had an astonishing weightlessness to them, and from across the room it was hard to tell what you were looking at beyond intricate and beautiful abstract geometric compositions. Drawing closer, you'd realize that an enormous piece, well over seven feet high, was made of nothing more than hundreds of curled strips of paper, or that a translucent quilt-like construction was actually composed of pieces cut from grocery bags.

The works in Skubinna's new show take the ideas and techniques explored in the previous exhibit to a new level. Now, in addition to even more complicated curled paper and plastic bag works, there are insets of plastic pop bottle rings, five-tiered sculptural pieces utilizing foam packing peanuts and strawberry containers, and even Spirograph-precise wall pieces made from various colors and widths of plastic straw cross-sections.

"I think I've always been interested in very mundane materials, things you just find around," says Skubinna, whose living room (in a house he shares with his wife, Eva Silverstone) has been taken over by his plastic, paper and twist-tie inventions. "It's just an innate response to seeing things around me that spark something in terms of 'Can that be turned into something else?' "

Seeing the possibilities inherent in the kinds of things most of us just throw away -- or, with any luck, toss in the recycling bin -- is a relatively new direction for Skubinna. The born-and-raised-in-Spokane artist had certain deeply entrenched ideas about what constitutes art, even as an art student at EWU and as a practicing artist in Seattle. It wasn't until his graduate work at the School for the Visual Arts in New York that he began to work loose from his prior artistic constraints.

"Growing up in Spokane, everything I learned about art was through the art magazines. So all the stuff I liked was this sort of big, minimalist, serious-looking stuff," he says. "I got it into my head that that's what I wanted my art to look like -- art with a capital 'A.' But I think I worked myself into a dead end doing this kind of minimalist work. I realized I wasn't having as much fun anymore."

Skubinna discovered this new way of working in both graduate school and after graduation in his Brooklyn studio. He was still living in New York, in fact, when Lorinda Knight (who'd been trying to get him to do a show in Spokane since his Seattle days) contacted him again.

"I think Eva had to talk me into doing it," he says. "It just seemed like too much of a hassle to do a show in Spokane, trying to ship these things across the country, and I knew I wasn't going to sell anything, anyway. I'm glad I did it though -- it was a lot of fun."

Skubinna did sell some pieces and was encouraged to consider Spokane when some teaching opportunities opened up. He and Silverstone relocated here a little over a year ago, and he's already had an installation -- albeit a largely anonymous one -- in the windows of the old Hamer's downtown. His large panel of old envelopes, some with blue "security" interiors, some with translucent windows, generated considerable conversation from passers-by. While some might see "just a bunch of old envelopes," Skubinna points out that art lies just as much in the process of seeing a familiar material in a new context. His big curled paper wall piece for the show at Lorinda Knight has a section made out of the announcement cards for his last show, and he's recycled some of his older drawings in the work as well. Plastic straws, cut into tiny pieces and painstakingly glued together, suddenly take on the evanescent qualities of the shapes one makes with bubble bath suds. Even strawberry containers and plastic veggie trays suddenly seem like architectural fittings or vessels without their usual edible contents inside.

"I think that's one of the main things about the value of art for me, the fact that somebody thought about doing this," he says. "Allowing oneself to do something that might seem kind of pointless is a great, liberating thing."

Publication date: 03/06/03

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