Gallery 121 in the Leu Center for Visual Art through December 8
WORDS Megan Kelley
They are tesseract worlds, transmitted flat and yet expanding into life and action: Paper Dolls by Rorshak— the world-building artist known by day as Rory White, photographer—pulls together large-scale photographs of the artist’s elaborate and dedicated miniature sets, their landscapes wandered by epic characters disguised as tiny paper dolls.
Though the photographs themselves are singular images, the detail of their construction enhances this feeling of expansiveness. The works feel like the covers of comic books, their striding figures and infinite spaces telling immediate tales with the recognizable posture of a longstanding (if hidden) origin story. Part of this is due to White’s extensive construction process, world-building in its most direct form. “I have big ideas, expressed in an economy of scale.”
A “quick” idea is still a week-long endeavor. An entire day is devoted to the photographing and styling of the model, capturing as many variants in pose and prose as possible. Another day is spent on processing the images, preparing them to be made into paper dolls. The images often go through transitions and visual transformations through hand-done alterations of cutting, taping, wiping, scratching—another day or two— rather than Photoshop.
“It’s a process of 3D collage but done in real time,” with meticulous cutouts and fabricated additions whose final forms unfold in a final burst of set preparation, problem-solving, and photographing. White builds all the sets by hand—folded paper, broken stones, model-railroad paint, plant clippings, cinnamon sticks, distressed fabric, all teased across as much as fifteen feet of space—while incorporating age-old techniques of perspective, optical illusion, lighting alterations, and just the right insertions of blur.
“It’s all transitions and trickery. I watched old stop-motion animations—the Claymation, the old Christmas specials—and I looked at how they did it: sugar crystals to show where the paddle of a boat stirs up the oxygen in the water, potato flakes for snow.” His YouTube videos showing his process explain his choices, the material conversations he improves and challenges. Even the smallest moments—a flake of snow on a background bench, brand-new pants distressed before a shoot, the exact casting of eyes—become objects for magnification.
In his quest for just the right moment, White reexamines even the printed work through this intensive revision process. “I loved the [first iteration of] Phoenix of Detroit, but she wasn’t at her full power yet; her flames needed more heat. So I took the print of the image I had, and I set it on fire. I captured this big, powerful burn.” The landscape of the image twists with fire, large flames lapping at the edges in a way that engulfs the flattened world. White grins. “I almost set my camera on fire, but this? This was her.”
White’s adaptability in moving between production roles, and his willingness to revisit until the image is exactly right, create a consistent voice. “I cycle through and back again, constantly adjusting and asking.” This process and consistency carry over into his other creative expressions, which revisit themes and the cinematic expression of set-building. Looping GIFs of work reveal new sides to their stories; his music, at times, dips its toes into that well of inspiration and tracks that influence throughout his sound. Within the exhibit, Lonely Island Caldera hangs with a pair of headphones, playing the only record of songs written as a performance piece in the studio. “[These songs] are best listened to in the audience of the image,” a paper- doll portrait of the artist, in a starry landscape, alone, “not shared with friends or danced to,” but simply listening to “night music for lost people.”
The works, too, cycle again and again into each other. Many of White’s characters seem to inhabit the same universe, their paths crossing each other’s trails somewhere along an unspecified timeline. “The Durian Man, and the Phoenix, for example,” White connects the two with a gesture, “I think are headed towards each other, are meant for each other.” Even when inhabiting similar spaces—are the philosophers, on exile from the floating sanctuary of The Celestial Farmer Princess, a footnote in her story of growth? Or is she, a Circe for Odysseus, only one of many encounters along a longer journey? They seem at once part of a deeper narrative, and yet, simultaneously, headliners in their own episodes, stand-alone issues in a tale of crossover universe, their paper corners projecting a world much larger than we know.
Paper Dolls is on view through December 8 at Gallery 121 in the Leu Center for Visual Art, located at 1919 Belmont Boulevard on the Belmont University campus. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturdays 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Sundays from 1 to 7 p.m. For more information, please visit www.belmont.edu. See more of Rory White’s work at www.rorshak.com.