Archive for the 'Cut Paper' Category

Didn’t You Get The Memo?

I try to adhere pretty strictly to a self-imposed rule that I only post on exhibits I’ve actually attended. I feel I owe it to you, Dear Reader, to actually make the effort to visit a show if I’m going to urge you to do the same (some kind of Marxist theory of art appreciation no doubt). I’ve broken it once, when I was too sick to see a show that I’d been looking forward to, and now extenuating circumstances have again forced my hand. You see, the clock is ticking on a certain exhibit at SFMOMA and it turns out you’re the artist on this one. Not sure if you were aware.
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The 1000 Journals Project appears to be a straggler in the museum’s hit or miss The Art of Participation series, which reached dizzying highs with its inclusion of Janet Cardiff’s The Telephone Call but fared less well with some of the online exhibits accessible via terminals in the galleries. This one looks like a lot of fun though: starting out as blank journals, the books have been passed from hand to hand and crisscrossed the globe. On their many stops, additions have been added bit by bit, meaning that whether you’re intending to observe or add your own ideas there’s going to be plenty of inspiration on hand.
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The hope of course is that you’ll contribute, so the museum is providing material in just such an eventuality. If you, like me, are still kicking yourself for not getting in line to take part in The Gift, now’s your chance to get even with all those satisfied go-getters. It also seems perfect for those eager to participate but for whom the thought of, say, reenacting a scene from Life Boat on camera makes you want to curl up into a fetal ball.

A word of warning, 1000 Journals has their own dedicated website, but my attempts to visit prompted a Google advisory warning of potential malware like Trojan programs lurking in the background. I’m not going to link to it here: use your own discretion and note that it’s linked on the SFMOMA page. Oh, and congrats on your first show, but get crackin’: 1000 Journals closes on April 5th.

Paper Trail

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:
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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. paper2The 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.”
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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.

Bird, Interrupted

Whereas museum dioramas are labored over in an attempt to resuscitate the husks of the animals enshrined within, I have always been drawn to their outright artificiality. I love the contrast of the carefully constructed foregrounds, perhaps with sprigs and shoots of long grass sprouting from the sand and the two dimensional backdrop, lavishly painted but never quite matching the sculptured floor. Birds may wheel and turn in the mural but they are somehow both lesser and greater approximations of their cousins, the latter puffed up with sawdust, feathers dusty and off-color, frozen in mid-step with one too reflective bit of colored glass or glossy paint for an eye that is looking nowhere.
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Accordingly, it was Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of American Museum of Natural History exhibits that really captured my attention when they appeared last year at the de Young. All the elements are there: the barely concealed seam where two dimensional and three dimensional meet, identifiable but fuzzy, like the terminator between night and day; the abundance of activity in the painted background, as if to compensate for the lifelessness of the models, despite them being remnants of living, breathing creatures. There was an extra layer of artifice apparent in works like Earliest Human Relatives, where the subjects are humanity’s distant ancestors and so their representation is a painstaking approximation. While works like this are likely constructs of wire mesh, plastic, wax and paint, with touches of real hair for verisimilitude, they somehow prove a better artifice of life than many works stitched together from skinned carcasses.

bird21So inevitably, Root Division’s recent show Historiographie, found me gravitating toward Dana Hemenway’s memorial, tribute and unabashed cashing in on a species eradicated from the Earth in the early Twentieth Century. Inspired by Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon who died on September 1st, 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens, Hemenway has recreated her in paper-mâché, and set her on a small shelf surrounded by historical photographs and cut paper works. bird3Much like how the hominids in the Natural History diorama seem to display more life than the results of taxidermy, Hemenway’s Martha wrings more animation out of the subtle inquisitive tilt of the neck than all the stiff spread-winged examples visible in Sugimoto’s Hyena-Jackal-Vulture. With two dots for eyes and a broad smile indicating the beak, the sculpture is full of charm, right down to the twisted wires used to construct the little salad fork feet.

The fact that such smile-inducing details hold a powerful sway over us is not lost on Hemenway. Just a foot or two away are shelves with her handcrafted cell phone charms and postcards, dedicated to both Martha and the exigencies of commerce. It’s a clever reminder that museum gift shops are counting on junior to be so charmed by that zebra on the sand paper savannah that he’ll want to pick up a stuffed animal at the gift shop on the way out. bird4Capitalism gives an odd edge to the tribute. It drove museums and zoos to seek more and better specimens, even as the unrelenting juggernaut of progress turned the world into a place unable to sustain animals in their natural habitats. Capitalism of course doesn’t need the species that inspired it to still be extant in order to produce cell phone charms. The Passenger Pigeon is a unique case with an interesting story, especially since it’s one that I had largely confused with the Carrier Pigeon. Excommunicated by the Roman Catholic bishop of Quebec (!), it was indeed a victim of deforestation, but also also used to supply food for American slaves and servants in the 18th Century due to its abundance and therefore cheapness. To some extent they were eaten out of existence. Wikipedia quotes a telling section of a report filed for the Ohio State Legislature, which in 1857 saw a bill submitted for the bird’s protection:

The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.

Hemenway’s Martha captures some of the qualities that Nina Katchadourian wryly examines in her work The Continuum of Cute. The charge of both works is the way they embrace the human tendency to impose qualities and value upon nature without losing sight of the horrible undertones of our process of selection and dismissal. Indeed they seem to suggest that the incorporation of the brand, the exploitation of our automatic emotional response, might be the inevitable mercenary marketing response needed to see that whole species do not share Martha’s fate. While I find the artificial an inexhaustible source of fascination, Hemenway’s piece After the Last Passenger Pigeon is a bitter reminder that the species and many others are gone for good, and it is all the more biting that it is done with a smile.

Fever to Tell

The exhibition of work from the recipients of the 2008 Murphy and Cadogan Fellowships in the Fine Arts has come and gone, but I arrived in time to snap some pics before it vanished. The show filled the small gallery in the War Memorial Veterans Building on Van Ness, a venue that housed Meat Show a few years back. I seem to have no knack for hitting the performance pieces. I missed the functioning hot dog stand at Meat Show, and this time around I wasn’t able to attend any of the performance/discussions held on Anthony Marcellini’s stage installation called A Grass Mound (With Kind Regards to Utopia). That said, Meat Show still remains one of my all-time favorite SF gallery experiences and I have a feeling that the pieces on display at Immediate Future will linger in my mind for some time to come.

Annie Vought’s Scatter, 2007 presented words pinned like lepidopterist specimens to the wall.

All by its lonesome to the extreme right you can find “hope.”

I came back to this piece a few times while wandering through the exhibit. Untitled (plane), 2008 captures the fragility behind many of the things in the modern world in which we have a misplaced feeling of security. There is more to it than the simple jitters of travelers or the world’s collective memory of a horrifying attack. With the price of oil skyrocketing and the world tottering on the brink of economic meltdown, the idea of air travel as leisure activity is less than secure. The image itself is a springboard for any number of conceptual shifts that are occurring as we reevaluate the legacies of industrialization and First World economic hegemony. Claire Jackel’s paper sculpture is simple and haunting in its delicateness.

The more jaded might find this one rather frivolous, but I kind of adore this love letter synechdoche-style. Including furry paens to My Dad, David Crosby, My Muse, and My first true love, collectively Gina Tuzzi’s Beards of Paradise have a kind of Burger King crown charm to them. Peter the Great and other misopogons need not apply.

Dollar Heroes, 2008 are the result of a unique barter system that Elisheva Biernoff set up whereby the responses of those who received her art paid back inspiration in turn. The initial set of hand painted images represented someone the artist respected. As she passed them off a day at a time to people she admired for “their small acts of heroism or common decency,” the recipients offered up their own figure to be represented on a replacement.

The piece is accompanied by a record of the transactions, with descriptions like “May 20, 2008. Ned and Michael were playing a banjo and guitar in Café Trieste. I gave Ned the Gregory Pincus dollar. His hero was Samuel Gompers, American labor union leader.” The hand painting over the mass produced, the act of giving away what is deemed something of fixed value, the exchange of stories: all the elements add up to an exercise in rewriting human experience over the bureaucratic and systematized.

A great unwritten chapter in Art History is that of the exhibit in the tiny, dark, booth-like alcove of a museum or gallery. Even arcades forced those in search of private entertainment to indulge in it while bumping shoulders with the rest of the hoi polloi. But seclusion is the name of the game if you want to endure a few minutes of Paul McCarthy’s Clown Torture. Tucked away around a corner near storage is April Grayson’s looping video Another Word for Family, 2007. The short film is an exploration of the filmmaker’s hometown in Mississippi. Personal stories relate how the experience of racism seared the lives of residents. One woman describes the memory of burning crosses on the front lawn. Another attempts to reconcile his memories of an idyllic childhood with the fact that people from other parts of the country view his state with unconcealed scorn.

Jeff Ray’s Heterotopia: Sauna with video and sound installation, 2008 took me back to another Paul McCarthy exhibit, wherein I found myself dressed like a reindeer sitting inside a little wooden shack with a similarly clad Japanese businessman watching a video of a swearing elf covering herself with chocolate. Ray’s exhibit is all about how a space can be infused with the personal, less a haunting than a habitation. Reading the accompanying plaque and sitting within the wooden shelter, it becomes clear that transplanting a small building within a gallery is not an act of eccentricity but a necessity. There are two stories playing in projection inside. I watched the one about the Swedish woman relating her still vivid memories from childhood of her family’s sauna. The work, according to the wall signage, was inspired by the artist’s intention to erect a shelter at his mother’s home in response to her “battle with cancer caused by the toxicity of her home.” The effectiveness of the finished work for me is its ability to capture experience through the tactile and through the interaction of the visitor who “moves into” an environment suffused with personal emotions.

What at first glance look like row upon row of crayola crayons are actually replicas of M16 shells made from plastic.

Take a few steps back and the picture of George W. comes into focus. WARHEAD, 2008 by Moses Nornberg demonstrates that less is more, in every possible sense of the term.

S Patricia Patterson’s watercolor Curtain, 2008. The self assured expression of the eldest along with her relaxed posture contrasts so beautifully with the unreadable nothings radiating out from her siblings.

I can’t remember the last time I encountered works as daunting as Jina Valentine’s Consumption II(a), 2008 Marx vs. Foucault and Consumption II(b), 2008 Kaprow vs. Nietzche.

Tiny scrawled writing occupies every available inch of the twinned dry erase boards on display.

Try not to give in to the inevitable feeling of intense guilt at not reading every bit of it. Of course, once that starts, you begin to think: do I have to read the whole thing to be able to comment on it intelligently? Perhaps I can look at it conceptually, the fact that she is using a medium that screams impermanence or the fact that the labor involved in something that is ultimately perishable says something about the folly of creating “for the ages.” Perhaps if I throw in a bit of text, that’ll somehow give the illusion that I read it start to finish: “Contemporary art production is a multi-valent and self-perpetuating creation circuit. At the most fundamental level, art objects demand that we form words about them/ and the words formed about these objects inspire the creation of other art objects.” Oy vey. That’s only line one.

Even if it points out the limits of patience (i.e. laziness) of today’s viewer faced with a work painstakingly inscribed and displayed for viewing or even if it’s an elaborate joke masquerading as message, I liked it if nothing else because its impenetrability is linked directly to your input.

While it would be overreaching to read into the works collected as indicative of some kind of impending trend, I found it heartening that so many of them seem to place so much of an emphasis on narrative. The replacement of the impersonal dollar with the personal story and subjective determinations of heroism, the word cloud of Annie Vought, the posture of a charred paper plane as the limp body of a dead swan, a tiny shack with memories on playback, indeed all the works mentioned here have a desperation to them, the need to explain, to relate. Damien Hirst’s works are zipping through the auctions right now, but so are many works by Chinese artists, where themes of history and memory collide. In the face of globalization, the leavening of the subjective in lieu of the official, the brand, the franchise, these are anxious attempts to speak us back into existence.

Slice of Life

My sister used to have this fat, pleather bound human anatomy book. Smack in the center were plates of the human body preceded by pages of clear overlays. As you peeled away each layer you revealed a different view of our innards from the central nervous system to the circulatory network. It was like a surgery as strip tease. As far as I know, it was the only part of the book either of us ever turned to.

Nowadays I’m much more squeamish. My friend Sarah and I abandoned The Universe Within exhibit that was here a few years ago after a grand total of ten minutes. It’s both disquieting and enthralling to view humanity in pieces. It’s hard to reconcile the vivisected with the living, moving whole that is a human being. As soon as your eyes reach a face your objectivity tends to go out the window.

So I was curious to see what my reaction would be to Jen Merrill’s work at the Iceberger Gallery. I’m happy to report that it gravitates toward the enthralling end of the spectrum. Taking scientific illustration as her starting point, she playfully inserts relationships between the body objectified by arrangement and the use of symbols which mimic those found in diagrammatic work which might mean something or nothing. Her pieces are small which seems pleasingly appropriate given the source material. It’s as if they were rejected for inclusion in a journal or instructional poster because the illustrator had suddenly gone mad or shown a disturbing penchant for visual poetry. Each work is hand painted and cut yet her precision gives the illusion of the perfection of die-cutting or the mechanical action of a circular slicer. The painting completes the uniformity of the presentation: I had really thought some of the material was linoleum since there was not a hint of brush work. She adheres to the practice of solid colors to denote an individual organ or vascular net: a convention to aid the student of anatomy in identifying the relevant feature of inspection.

In Home Surgery with Heaving Knots and Fortitude an illustration comes to life taking matters into its own hands, tugging at the trail of corded up intestinal paper. The Proportion of Perception presents a lump of facial tissue suspiciously eyeing its own (?) wishbone. Death of a Baby uses dismemberment as a metaphor for emotional loss. Man in a Box turns an investigation of the esophageal tract into the representation of a subject’s silent bellow, his fists determinedly clenched, his wishbone dangling from a red cord. There’s something charming about all of them. It’s in the best interest I suppose for the medical illustrator to help the student divorce the representation from the subject matter. By adding a spark of life and humor to her work, Merrill weirdly seems to give those diagrams back their humanity. In fact, they seem to be demanding to be taken notice of despite the fact that their veins are spilling out (for which they seem rather embarrassed).