Rock, Paper, Scissors

by Dana Kopel

June 18, 2017

Tasked with writing about public art I don’t like—and really, who likes most public art? what public does it serve?—I am instead going to write about a work of public art I do like, or one that I am at least taken with. My affection for this work, Rock Paper Scissors (2011), by Kevin Box and Warren Cullar, exists only at a distance. I live over a thousand miles from Omaha, and know the work only through a couple of pixelated photographs of it taken on the grounds of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where it’s installed. I’m not familiar with the work of either artist, whose collaboration corresponds to the work’s individual components. But I’m drawn to its simple, almost cartoonish aesthetic and the way it combines the familiar and the incongruous. 

Kevin Box, Warren Cullar,  Rock, Paper, Scissors , 2011, Bronze, 9' x 4' x 4'  Photo: Nicole Lindquist

Kevin Box, Warren Cullar, Rock, Paper, Scissors, 2011, Bronze, 9' x 4' x 4' 
Photo: Nicole Lindquist

Instead of the corny figurative pieces, feel-good narratives, or twee metal abstraction of a lot of public art in Omaha and throughout the country, Rock Paper Scissors is representational in a straightforward, vaguely funny way. More importantly, it’s not trying to do anything: to make a case for humanity’s redeeming qualities, perhaps, or to express the dynamism of a world in flux. Not that it’s an especially formalist work—it’s just there. This is what I’m drawn to in the work, its refusal to accede to the imperative optimism characteristic of its genre, especially outside of major art centers. It’s a simple bronze sculpture, painted in naturalistic grayscale: a big, round gray rock, with a horizontal crack revealing a bunch of smaller stones, supports an oversized white, sculpted sheet of paper with a crinkled top; a big pair of scissors hovers above the paper, cutting into it slightly. The common game—in which two players attempt to produce the hand signal that beats their opponent’s—is rendered literal and simultaneous; it’s an act of balance as much as of decision-making and play.
Rock-paper-scissors is a zero-sum game: each winning gesture guarantees a loss for its opponent. Rock crushes scissors, scissors cut paper, paper covers rock. The sculpture presents this circular logic abruptly, all at once. Its rendering of everyday objects and spirit of play recalls Roy Lichtenstein’s public sculptures or even, vaguely, the punning conceptualism of Marcel Broodthaers, but at the same time, the work doesn’t seem to hint at any coded meanings or art historical references. (The little stones peeking out of a crack in the rock are the work’s only gesture toward meanings that are layered or not immediately apparent.) Instead, Rock Paper Scissors acts as a sort of compromise between two players, and two artists, and maybe also between the conflicting demands—significance and accessibility—of public art.