I thought (wrongly it turns out) that it would be the contemporary works at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art’s exhibit The Shape of Things: Paper Traditions and Transformations that would prove the most interesting works on display. After all, look at this one, front and center on most of the promotional materials for the show:
That’s Dots Front Misfire by Gina Osterloh, from her Shooting Blanks series. There’s the rippling cascade of the colored paper, the kneeling figure. Has it been brought low by the unrelenting torrent of color, cocooned? Faceless, we can’t rely on any expression for cues. There is a contrast here between the illusion of movement in the wallpaper of streamers and the immobile posture of the figure, its helpless state and the brightness of the palette. If it is a cocoon, then perhaps it’s merely been captured in a transitory state, a frozen moment of the process of becoming (check out the stills from her Blank Athleticism series for further mysteries, wrapped in enigmas and covered in confetti).
Contemporary paper art is indeed an important component of the show. It demonstrates that many of the techniques featured in The Shape of Things are enduring ones. There was such a rich variety of traditions on display that I was unfamiliar with though that I found myself gravitating towards works that filled in the gaping hole in my knowledge of Asian paper craft. Whereas in the West the introduction of paper led to its almost exclusive use for documentation, in the East there was a dizzying array of uses: everything from religious paraphernalia, fireworks, utensils, furnishings, and even clothing.
3 Korean paper boxes in a display case for example are representatives of hanji. Paper made from the bark of the mulberry tree, hanji can be woven like reeds into containers or floor mats or layered and glued together: strong enough material to construct a wardrobe or cabinet. A varnish called sichil made from persimmons, rice glue and oil adds that slight glisten to the surface of the containers. There is also a felting process, joomchi, that can produce clothing (all this from the excellent accompanying signage).
Like spiderwebs gingerly untethered and framed, a series of papercuts from the collection of Jo Lonam are evidence of what must be a painstakingly exacting art, that of jian zhi, a chinese craft whose earliest known examples were extracted from tombs of the Southern and Northern Dynasties period. The liveliness derived from the multitude of curves in a piece in red paper of a bird singing perched upon a flowering branch made it one of my favorites. Any Buddhist would appreciate, I think, that both the excised paper and the incised are displayed: it makes no difference. Our eyes fill in the absence or make solid the vacancy: they are one and the same. The piece is dated 1988, demonstrating the longevity of the art, which as you follow the mounted works around the wall, multiply in complexity to mind-boggling degrees. One of two women has so many delicate cuts to the screen on its background that its a testament to the skill of the artist that it doesn’t simply go to pieces at a touch. The lines that define the eyebrows, eyes, nose and lips of the women, as well as those that delineate the patterns on their robes, are no more than the width of a thick piece of thread.
Also here is the inevitable origami, in a mounted collection of insects by Robert J. Lang that would make any entomologist look twice. Flying walking sticks and katydids, silverfish and beetles with antennae that spread out to form a wide “V.”
The works of Jennifer Falck Linssen accompany an explication of katagami, stenciled patterns applied to fabric to dye decorative designs. By the time I reach Gene Apellido’s festive lanterns, modern twists on the traditional Phillipine parol, I realize that the exhibit has pulled me back into the present. The show does a convincing job of proving that the past is inextricably entwined with the work of artists in the here and now. The contemporary art definitely deserves a fresh look, so I’m going to have to make a return trip. Feeling a little like De Niro’s character in the movie Brazil, mummified in paper, I call it a day.