Luisa Caldwell Infinite Butterfly at FiveMyles

In Dialogue with artist Luisa Caldwell

Luisa Caldwell installing Curtain Call at the University of Iowa 2019, photo: Justin Torner

Brooklyn based artist Luisa Caldwell began to exhibit her candy wrapper work in 2002. She collects candy wrappers, from her daily walk on the city sidewalks or gets them from friends who send them to her from all over the world. Caldwell says she likes cleaning up the earth one wrapper at a time. Her current show at FIveMyles runs from September 18th through October 17th.

Tell me about yourself and what would you like to share about your overall art practice?

At an early age, I was lucky to be exposed via my mother first-hand to Italian language as well as Italian Renaissance art and architecture. I didn’t discover contemporary art until studying at the University of Iowa. Though I had by the age of 5, in a kindergarten classroom in Crenshaw Los Angeles, decided I wanted to be an artist.

My practice is multi-disciplinary, using different materials for different projects, and much experimentation in between, which admittedly often leads to dead ends. I have to be true to my nature though, and mine is curious about trying new ideas and materials. I guess it is learning by doing and/or failure. I work and draw on paper a lot, with a tendency towards pattern making and nature-based imagery. I make collages using fruit stickers of flower still lives. And this past pandemic year I embarked on a time-consuming bead mosaic series. I’ve worked with beads all my life, mostly in the craft/jewelry realm but am using them more and more in “fine art”. My installation work is different even still and is a collaboration between art and architecture, with a focus on reclaimed and found materials such as street smashed aluminum beverage cans or discarded candy wrappers. My practice consists of many practices!

I pinch the wrappers in the middle into a bow shape, tying them with thread into long streamers. I’ve also used the wrappers in other formats such as gluing them side by side to make large tapestry-like panels resembling stained glass with the medium’s ability to transfer light. Relating to the floral still lives I make with collected fruit stickers, I have cut up candy wrappers for the tiny pictures of fruit and flowers and composed tiny still lives of fruit baskets and stack of lemons like a traditional Italian ceramic.

Triple C, 2016, Humanities Gallery Long Island University Brooklyn Campus, photo: Alan Weiner

Tell me about the body of work featured at Five Myles. What is the genesis of the show?

For FiveMyles Plus/Space, a kind of indoor/outdoor space open and visible from the street, I am exhibiting a candy wrapper installation. I haven’t shown a large-scale wrapper installation in NYC since DUMBO Art Festival 2012. I am excited to present this work again. Though I did use the wrought iron fence at the front of my building for a virtual iteration for Art Prospect, a public art festival based in St. Petersburg, Russia. Living with the piece out my window and observing passerby reactions, I was reminded how popular this work is. It has always been a crowd pleaser and this particular version will be visible 24 hours a day through an open gate. Its simple double take response offers up delight, each wrapper wafts with every draft of air, metamorphosing into a dancing cellophane butterfly.

Going back decades, I cannot be sure exactly how I came to use candy wrappers as art material. Definitely one of the first I saved was a Felix Gonzales Torres blue wrapper, which I still have sandwiched in an old address book. I kept it because it was an extension of his artwork. I mean it is part of the art, therefore valuable, at least as a concept. I do not throw them away. Another influence was my first adult trip to Europe on my own and being sentimental about ticket stubs, museum stubs and other ephemera including tiny well designed European candy wrappers. I’d stick an especially beautiful one in my journal. Friends and family collect for me now. I periodically receive large envelopes of wrappers from friends all over the world. For me there is the belief in the anima of an object and in our material culture and links to other people’s lives as well.

In an apologia of the candy wrapper as an art material—because I was once asked why I would use such an unimportant whimsical thing—I will say as a byproduct of the sugar industry its implications are immense, everything from slavery and exploitation (human and environmental) to childhood obesity. Sugar is highly addictive for some people, including myself. I will often find a trail of wrappers on the sidewalk, for some it is hard to eat just one! The American rapper Phife Dawg, a member of the group A Tribe Called Quest, who died of complications from diabetes, said he couldn’t quit sugar. For him it was as addictive as any narcotic.

L Corridor, 2021, studio installation Brooklyn, photo: Alexa Hoyer

Tell me a bit about the process of making the work for this show.

Because I have been using candy wrappers and thread work for years, I have an abundance of already tied strands that I treat as viable material. The only time the work becomes a fixed piece is when it is sold, then that material is obviously no longer available. For instance, two editions of a 20ft x 8ft “curtain wall” shown at FIAC Paris in 2005 were sold to the Weisman Foundation at Pepperdine University in Southern California and to a private collection in Caracas.

In the beginning I was precious about a strand, each one having to be a continuous unbroken thread. That didn’t last long as it proved to be a nightmare when installing and strands tangled. Asking myself “why?”, I began to cut tangles apart and retie them, which allowed for a not-so-precious approach to artmaking, fitting better with the works essence of temporality anyway. I am not precious about this work, obsessive yes!

The material is then adaptable to site modification. It is possible to add a couple feet to existing strands if the ceiling is taller than the last installation site. I like the visual addition of an occasional, loose hanging thread or seen knot, it’s the history of the piece, like how a threadbare carpet can still be beautiful. This specific wrapper installation style is all about quantity and scale. One swallow is nice, but a murmuration of swallows really impresses. Yes, the viewer can and does focus on a particularly beautiful Polish or Italian wrapper, but the overall effect is in its quantity and how colorful it is even though it is much more air than mass. Kind of like a rainbow. Even I find the results dazzling and I am my worst critic.

On a practical level I like that a large piece can collapse down. For instance, a 24 foot tall by 8 ft diameter column, using about 10,000 wrappers I did for a group show at Smack Mellon fit into a large contractor size garbage bag! Also, it is super lightweight and travels well. I have been able to ship them at low cost for exhibitions worldwide.

Infinite Butterfly, a new candy wrapper and thread installation for Plus/Space at FiveMyles, photo: Ruby Lindsey

This is a site-specific installation. What can you share about the ways you are engaging with the space?

I would say it is site modified, in that each piece is unique to a space, bespoke so to speak. In the case of FiveMyles Plus/Space, the piece is centered in the room, a kind of monolith. It is a circular column, leaving a surrounding path. I am estimating approximately 8,000 wrappers. But I am trying something new. There is an overhanging metal grid that half blocks ceiling visibility, something strange happens because of it, causing me to perceive a peripheral infinite space above. I play with this illusion of expansiveness by lining the top of the piece, and the floor underneath it with reflective mylar to create a visually endless column. It’s an experiment.

Infinite Butterfly, a new candy wrapper and thread installation for Plus/Space at FiveMyles,
photo: Hanne Tierney

Luisa Caldwell Infinite Butterfly at FiveMyles Opening September 18 thru October 17 558 St Johns Place Brooklyn NY 11238,