TULSA, OK — They were clean. They were simple. Sticker books were self-contained worlds until lifting the point of a tiny star required the help of a babysitter’s press-on nail. The range of choice could be vast, especially if you decided not to use the stickers in the book’s waxy pages and instead applied them to surfaces that took the adhesive and kept it forever (there were no take-backs when the neon rainbow unicorn found its place stuck to the kitchen table). When you peeled a sticker meant for the outside, the stakes changed. And so did the world, little by little, as symbols became icons in a material world before social media.
It would be a stretch to say we ’80s kids were being creative with the sticker books, which prepared us more for managing assets (or making a Spotify playlist) than inventing anything. At best they were an introduction to collecting. Julie Alpert magnifies that personal act and the readymade materials of semi-homemade craft kits in Sticker Book, her solo exhibition at Ahha Tulsa. Her towering symbols waver when low stakes give way to something more consequential, like placing those symbols in context with the wider world.
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Flat, cookie-cutter shapes and effusive patterns represent what the artist describes as “universal themes of the human experience like her 1980s suburban girlhood.” This assumption of a common design language of comfort beyond her Maryland upbringing seems to acknowledge commercial trends at the time, the most ubiquitous being the Lisa Frank empire of school supplies and sticker books. But Alpert doesn’t allude to this beyond the premise, favoring instead an anonymous playground largesse no longer surprising to gallery goers in an age of immersive installation art. The artist seems nostalgic for broad strokes even as she uses them to decorate the 4,000-square-foot space of Ahha’s main gallery.
The show succeeds in locating simple childlike longings and offering clever solutions. A 25-feet-wide array of friendship bracelets made of jigsaw-cut plywood floats inches away from the wall. Called, simply, “Friendship Bracelets Installation” (2022), the wavy circles appear flung and suspended in the air, overlapping as they would on a busy craft table, but seen by the viewer as if from below this constellation. All the colors and patterns of a set of bracelets are deliciously visible at once. This convening of hard material and soft motion generates an undeniable energy marked by the absence of anything like the embroidery floss that made these keepsakes so fragile and intentional.
That stiff absence of a sense of touch, even more than scale, is the central trick of Sticker Book. The ephemera represented is kept distant from the viewer due to Alpert’s choice of materials like medium-density fiberboard or shadowboxes guarding paper collages. Alpert limits herself to shapes and patterns when suggesting high-key theatrics. A serious craftsperson, she remains loyal to this elemental approach while reaching for intergenerational connections, especially in the large dioramas whose drippy curtain lines nod reservedly to the comeback of ’90s slime. White hashtag symbols appear in overhead garlands to seal the connection. They didn’t have to.
Important clues to the lineage of installation art in which Alpert lands are everywhere in Sticker Book. The outlines of fringed paper collages evoke generic, clip-art style renderings of Totem pole masks so directly, I immediately Googled the relationship of Lisa Frank to Native American art traditions as soon as I got to my car. Surely I would be the last to know of some obvious connection. It turns out Frank bought handmade pottery and jewelry from Native American artists, marked up the prices, and sold it on break from the University of Arizona during a formative time, she told Foundations magazine in a rare 2015 interview, which was reprinted by Refinery29.
With titles like “Test Print Leggings” (2020) and “Mmmm Grape Jelly” (2020), it’s clear that Alpert’s collages belong to this small world at Ahha that claims its beginning in the mid-1980s. But the shared nostalgia on which Sticker Book’s premise of engagement is built meets Alpert’s consistent design interests to inspire some questions. If the artist understands how porous we are to common visual associations, what is the purpose of paying tribute to them without specific cultural and commercial context? Where is the end of collecting and the beginning of art? Sticker Book’s vagueness is a study in the mechanisms of creating sensory distance, but its nostalgia for limits clashes with the artist’s palpable desire to connect.
Sticker Book continues at Ahha Tulsa (101 East Archer Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma) through November 20. The show was curated by the artist.