Artist Michael Velliquette creates minutely detailed installations constructed from thousands of cut pieces of paper, each textured and layered over the next.
When an exhibition closes, though, these large, painstakingly made artworks may not have another home. Some could be lost, documented only in photos Velliquette, an associate faculty member in the University of Wisconsin-Madison art department, has taken himself.
So Velliquette decided to create another piece of art.
“What We Are Looking For is What is Looking,” a big, colorful art book released this summer, is a visual record of all the work Velliquette has made in the past five years. It’s a follow up to his 2011 art book, “Lairs of the Unconscious,” both created with San Antonio designer Eli Miller.
“Many of the projects in that book were site specific or temporary,” Velliquette said. “They no longer exist. This is a tangible copy of work that I’ve made.
“I always think about what I could grab out of my studio if it was on fire that would have some record of what I’ve done,” Velliquette added. “Now I have these two books.”
For art lovers in Madison, Velliquette’s work should be easy to identify, with its bright colors and grinning faces. Textures in his paintings and sculpture often reflect patterns found in nature — scales on a fish or a serpent, bark on a tree, fur and features.
“The work over the past five years has been exploratory in nature, reactive to exhibitions and opportunities that have come to me,” Velliquette said. “It’s specific to exhibition spaces ... eclectic and diverse in terms of medium and materials.”
“What We Are Looking For is What is Looking” reflects that range, with detailed documentation of the artist’s sculpted hands, eyes and alien spaceships. “Flower Friends,” a series from 2015, looks as vivid as a child’s paper mobile. “To Kindle a Light” turns those colors into drapes of clothing on dummies.
Velliquette has lived in Madison for more than a decade, and he shows work almost constantly.
In summer 2014, he created “Happy Heads” with the help of children and families at the Madison Children’s Museum. Grinning from the Hamilton Street side of the downtown museum, Velliquette’s paper faces were inspired by feathers, leaves and fur.
He created work with poet Amy Quan Barry as part of Spatula & Barcode’s performance art Triennial project, was featured in the 2010 Triennial at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
Velliquette even launched a whimsical virtual gallery called Lovey Town, in which he assembled works and cutouts of friends and artists in a growing online exhibition.
More recently, last summer, Gallery Marzen on Atwood Avenue featured Velliquette and local artist Rhea Ewing in a show called “Many Lives to Wonder.”
Madison Magazine arts editor Katie Vaughn wrote at the time that Velliquette’s “abstracted flowers, suns or other forms seem to dance or swirl across the page, or furry-headed creatures stick their tongues out ... His collages not only seem to have a specific energy; they also appear to convey their own language.”
Velliquette went in a distinctly geometric direction in 2015. Working for months with a public school in Queens, New York, he made “Sparkle Vision City” using laser-cut, high-density foam, sign enamels (paint) and reflective surfaces made from mirrored acrylic.
Velliquette described it as a “big sculptural process” that changed how he had been working until that time.
“It took me totally out of the studio work I was doing, which was detailed cut paper work,” Velliquette said. “When I came back to working with paper about a year ago, it was, in a way, brand new to me.
“It was really alien. Whatever I’d had with it was gone.”
Because of that feeling of distance, Velliquette decided to call his next major exhibition “Beginner’s Mind.” It opens at Tory Folliard Gallery in Milwaukee on Sept. 15 and runs through Oct. 14.
The name, Velliquette said, “dovetails with this idea of knowing something really well, but trying to come at it with an unknowing ... with a fresh eye, or a fresh sense and openness.
“The new works are these really dimensional taper sculptures that reference three-dimensional mandalas.”
He’s developed a new series of techniques, building more sculptural forms with paper and abandoning the colors that have been a hallmark of his previous work. “What We Are Looking For is What is Looking” is a rainbow of hues, abundant and exciting, “visual generosity.”
His more recent work is “all monochromatic,” Velliquette said, and he wonders whether color had become a distraction or a crutch.
“The new works are still dense and ornamented and detailed, but color just seemed to not work in the same way,” Velliquette said. “It’s a more sober look at this work and at the climate of the world right now.
“Is there a way I can draw viewers into an experience of my work that is still engaging but doesn’t use bright color as a carrot?”