Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The medium that conquers inhibition

A work on paper can be a wondrous thing. From the spontaneous strokes of a preparatory drawing to the rawness of a woodblock print, art on paper has an arresting immediacy. The same can be said for works of paper—and not only arresting, but at times stupefyingly complex. About Paper, a recent show at Couturier Gallery in Los Angeles, captures these mesmerizing qualities. Who thought that humble paper could be molded and sculpted so eloquently, or that a sheet of paper could so precisely be cut by hand, with scissors no less? Perhaps you, if you were aware of paper cutting’s lofty reputation in Japan, Poland, and Mexico, or if you were fiercely dedicated to your pre-adolescent papier-mâché projects.

Scissor-cut paper, 13" diameter
Sometimes the diligence involved in art-making is too subtle to appreciate—but not here. The eleven artists represented in About Paper convey unmistakable dexterity. And if the medium is partly the message here, their work also, and no less importantly, underpins the poetic possibilities of paper. The material is more adaptable and more expressive than one might expect; and its versatility and affordability allow room for endless points of departure and experimentation. It conquers inhibition. (The Surrealists used it in their automatic drawings to channel their subconscious.) In About Paper, the medium’s creative potential adumbrates a variety of formats, ranging from two-dimensional to sculptural and conceptual works.

Cut paper, 27" x 36"
The papercuts start off the show with a bang. Lucrezia Bieler’s Nightingales... is so intricate it could pass as an ink drawing. When studied up close its hand-cut qualities come to light: littering a scene of reverie are imperfectly serrated cuts of foliage, proliferating from the hair of a reclining nude—a sort of Mother Nature. Hina Aoyama’s Papillon, another ode to nature, resembles the delicacy of a taxidermied butterfly, encased and pressed against glass. Cuban-American artist Elsa Mora offers a deeply psychological work in Paper Scissors. More than a self-conscious artwork, it is a surrealistic meditation on identity. Dismembered body parts float within a pair of scissors; branches that resemble nerve-endings or roots connect them. It suggests a nervous system comprised—inseparably?—of Mora’s own body and nerves and the tool that is so integral to her craft.

Handmade Kozo paper, persimmon juice, beeswax, 108" x 30"
Continuing the conceptual approach to paper is New Mexico artist Alison Keogh, who explores the physicality of the medium. Floating Pellicule, a grid of handmade paper squares colored with persimmon juice, materializes the process of papermaking. Delicate and diaphanous, the squares amount to a color gradient, transitioning from white to red. The triple stacks of handmade paper and clay slurry in her sculptural grouping Stratum(s) likewise suggest a transition, here between sculpture and ceramics. 

Cut paper, 21" x 26" framed
Pushing the boundaries of paper is Los Angeles-born Jeff Nishinaka, who sculpts and molds the material into beautifully wrought images.  His stylized portrait of Chairman Mao is composed of multiple layers that lend it a theatrical chiaroscuro effect. Sonia Romero also uses paper in unexpected ways. Muralist, printmaker, and daughter of Chicano artist Frank Romero, she crafts matrices out of paper, creating surfaces that are typically reserved for more durable materials like metal or wood. She is, in effect, a matrix artist as much as a print artist. Her Womans Torso and Mans Trunk, headless models tattooed with botanicals, dance with symmetry: the female is adorned with flowers and thorny rose vines, the male with a crow-studded tree whose trunk and branches extend the length of his torso. Romero’s work is not unlike the proliferating foliage in Bieler’s Nightingales... or the bifurcating nerve endings in Mora’s Paper Scissors.

Cut paper, 39" x 36"
It is to the show’s credit that this element of continuity doesn’t feel repetitive. A good art show, after all, reflects a balance of cohesion and variety. The astuteness and ingenuity of its organizers has insured that About Paper has, for all its seeming diversity, a rhythm formed from a distinct group of tropes. The preponderance of flora and fauna, for example, is by no means excessive. The lyricism of the works themselves, their subjects sitting in perfect rhythm with the uninhibited spirit of paper, sees to that. (Botanicals, birds, snakes, and critters are among the gallery’s many denizens.) Lorraine Bubar captures our wide, wild world with exotic handmade paper collected from her travels, overlapping them into fable-like scenes. Predators is a shocking work: what looks like a happy aquatic image verges on the sinister when rats and coiling snakes come into view. A similar dichotomy lurks in Japanese artist Haruka’s Goumannauso: elegant chrysanthemums, formed from paper cuts cascading in a dramatic vertical, are mind-blowing in their precision. Grappling with the astonishingly fine points of her technique will likely effect your belated discovery of a skull residing among the flowers.

So expertly rendered is the work here that it appears fragile and durable at once. Moreover, the combination of medium and subject creates psychological and aesthetic insights that, by the end of this remarkable exhibit, one may well come to believe could only —as surprising as it may sound—have been rendered in paper.

About Paper will be on view at Couturier Gallery through January 4, 2014.

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