When they're filling its walls and floor space, most artists in the Coburn Gallery in Colorado College's Worner Center will adhere to a basic pattern. They'll set up their work in the square room so that audiences concentrate on one piece and move right or left to the next, without thinking too much about it.
Eric Saline (pictured below) changes all that. In his Coburn installation, Someplace to Go: Spatial Compositions by Eric Saline, a wooden staircase leads into a meditative zone, and paper banners make up the walls of a labyrinth.
"The concept of the exhibition," says Saline, "is to try to create opportunities for the viewer to question their sense of scale, to create spaces that aren't something people would normally encounter in the world."
Saline's installation jells perfectly with CC curator Jessica Hunter Larsen's show schedule, which has included the Architecture of Desire series in the neighboring I.D.E.A. Space gallery; Patrick Dougherty's natural sculptures on the corner of Cache la Poudre Street and Cascade Avenue; and even the aerial dance performances by Project Bandaloop that kicked off the Edith Kinney Gaylord Cornerstone Art Center's opening last fall. But Larsen says it's only a case of "happy synchronicity.
"Eric's piece ... uses ideas of architecture, of structure, of negotiating pathways of walls, of stairs, elevation ... to help us reconfigure our notions of space," she says, "rather than challenging architecture itself."
Saline, 30, enjoyed a nomadic upbringing and graduated from Colorado College in 2000 with a studio arts major. He started papermaking in graduate school at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and still uses the sheets he made then in current exhibitions, including Someplace to Go.
Saline shipped all the paper for this show from his studio in Sweden where he currently lives and teaches to the Springs. Of the 400 square yards, Saline made two-thirds of it himself.
Flimsy and dull as an everyday element, or lumpy and kitschy in art class, paper in Saline's hands moves beyond utilitarian to intensely beautiful. From the ceiling of the gallery, Saline installed sheets of blue paper in a billowing formation. The blue series has provided material for five previous exhibitions in four years. Saline uses Elmer's Glue to link hundreds of pieces into the large sheets, and after each show, carefully cuts them down and packs them up for the next.
Every swatch is unique; some draw from several generations of other paper series and materials to form a quilted pattern. Also, beyond dyeing, printing or painting his paper, Saline actually enhances its basic composition by adding natural fibers such as grasses, bark fibers and even mica from crumbling rocks.
"It's akin to an oil painter mixing oil paints, or a potter breaking down old pots and making new clay out of that," says Saline. "You can change the composition of a material that is your base."
Saline also works with commercial paper, from telephone books or paper grocery bags. Finer machine-made materials, such as metallic leaf and wax paper, add even more visual texture to his works.
He also employs an elaborate system of lighting that will respond to viewers as they move through the gallery. Motion sensors, timers and dimmers will shine light through the paper, showing its earthy components, then shine on it to showcase its vibrant colors.
Yet Saline won't place his paper on a pedestal.
"I'm not presenting it as a fine art print," he says. "I'm presenting it as a sculptural element."
His return to the architectural background of the show comes through in the "body" of his paper. Daisy McConnell, assistant to the curator and studio artist, explains that the fibers in wood-pulp paper line up symmetrically, enabling the paper to be bent and torn easily.
"Eastern-style paper is made with longer fibers that are typically beaten [and not cut] ... so they are actually flattened out, so the paper itself is almost transparent and very delicate-looking," she says. "But because the fibers are longer, they criss-cross in a more random pattern, [so] you'll have a harder time tearing it."
Toughness established, Saline invites guests to gently touch the paper and it is tempting to bring a tactile aspect to the show.
"Just don't breakdance on it," he says, joking.
From microscopic to macroscopic, the installation plays with senses of scale, begging viewers to question where and how they stand within their environment.
To further the theme, Saline created a trio of small, three-dimensional mock-ups of fantastical exhibits to accompany his installation. Each minute piece recalls an experience of Saline's from his four years living in Colorado, and stands in a shadowbox lined with mirrors, enabling the viewer to study it from all angles.
His excursions climbing in Garden of the Gods are reflected in a vibrant collection of brilliant red and yellow ridges, while an encounter with a lightning storm in the high country crystallizes in a collage of spikes and shiny arrows.
From the shadowbox scenes to the multileveled installation, each offers a new projection into a different world, one that harks not only to Saline's own extensive travels, but also each viewer's encounters with strange environments.
"The way you read artwork is going to change so much depending on where you're from, what kind of background you have, what language you speak," says Saline.
And with everyone's individual journey shaping the outlook, he's eager to hear the reactions from his audience.
"When you travel, you do tend to see things differently," says Larsen. "You have this mindset as a traveler, you're investigating spaces ... when you meet people, you're thinking about cultural distinctions, or looking at landscapes in a different way and making comparisons."