Art that sticks with you: Jerry Mischak's on a roll with works in duct tape

By Linda J. P. Mahdesian

Like most artists, Jerry Mischak is obsessed with something. Picasso had his cubism, Van Gogh his light, O'Keefe her flowers and Ansel Adams his mountains. Mischak has duct tape.

"It all started when I was in college," says the artist, who also teaches in the visual arts department. "My parents would send me these care packages wrapped in layers of duct tape - I had to chisel my way into them!" Mischak got his B.F.A. in painting from RISD and his M.F.A. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1980. He's been teaching at Brown since 1990.

His obsession with duct tape grew after his father's death in 1990. Mischak began taping his collections of mail-order catalogs a few months after that. As he began wrapping the catalogs, Mischak created sculptures out of them, using layers of tape, then carving shapes into the sculpture, exposing the paper innards. "Indirectly, it has something to do with my father's passing, maybe that's part of why I do this. But I think if I knew what I was getting out of
this, I'd stop doing it," he says.

This compulsion to collect and make taped art included using bits of broken tile, porcelain and pottery, pieces of furniture, gadgets and toys. He expanded his color palette and began using duct tape in hues of red, yellow, teal, blue, brown and white. "I get most of my tape from Ocean State Job Lot - whatever's on sale," says the practical artist. Instead of catalogs, he started wrapping small wooden boxes, furniture legs and bits of foam rubber.

In one recent show in New York City, which took place in a vacant office building, he piled a file cabinet and swivel chair on top of an office desk and wrapped it, with the help of friends and 150 rolls of tape, over the course of three days. "One of the people helping said it sounded like a symphony, with all the pulling and ripping noises - we should make a video," he says. The effort paid off - Mischak's unusual sculpture caught the eye of a reporter and photographer from The New York Times and a large photo of his work appeared nationwide the next day. "That was a tremendous break for me, even though they screwed up my name," he says. The Times had his name as Joe Mischlak.

The office desk-chair-cabinet sculpture proved too big to get out of the gallery, so Mischak and friends cut through the tape and peeled back the multicolored skin. Then they folded it and put it in the trunk of his car. "It was actually like skinning a deer," he says, as he admires the "hide" hanging on his studio wall in the basement of the List Art Center. This accidental oversizing has evolved into an epiphany for Mischak. "I really like it this way," running his hand over the "carcass" like a proud hunter. "It has a funny, sensuous part here, like lava - a kind of oozing - that wasn't the initial intention."

"But maybe this is becoming my process of doing a painting - maybe the process is covering some three-dimensional objects with the intention of taking it apart. It's a sculpture, but only for that intermediate stage - it's a whole new way of arriving at a painting," he says.

Whether they're sculptures or paintings, these brightly colored pieces stick with you. At first glance, they look simple, yet the layers of meaning -pardon the pun - begin to sink in as they're lingered over. The man-made tape becomes almost organic, animalike - like skin or hide. These static layers take on a dynamism, hiding something that's trying to emerge from underneath, yet exposing something that transcends what's underneath.

This uncovering-by-covering, exposing-by-hiding interplay infuses each work. There's the birdlike sculpture made of nothing but tape and three table legs. There are the two towerlike sculptures of reds, yellows and blues that could be dinosaur or giraffe necks or from a different angle, stalagmites rising from the floor of a Technicolor cave.

The exhilaration for Mischak is both the process and the result. "The result is what carries me through the process - both have equal importance. I'm aiming at a final product, and the process is inherent in the material. Tape is made to do something, to be active, it's born to be used."