Thursday, October 1, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Soaring off the Surface" (on the Paperworks show at the Craft & Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles)

soaring off the surface
by Douglas Messerli  

Howard N. Fox (curator) Paperworks / the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles, the opening was on September 26, 2015

What is paper? The Random House Unabridged Dictionary describes it as “a substance made from wood pulp, rags, straw, or other fibrous material, usually in thin sheets, used to bear writing or printing, for wrapping things, etc.” The second definition continues: “a piece, sheet, or leaf of this.” The new show, curated by my husband, Howard Fox, at the Craft & Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, brings this into question by presenting artworks by a wide-range of local artists that, for the most part, billow out from their flat surfaces or are converted into sculptural forms that literally lift it off from the page, catapulting the substance in expressive and whimsical forms that force us to question its dictionary definitions.
     Since Howard curated this show, I will not attempt to objectively comment on it, but will try to represent the various contributions of its various artists and allow the reader to come to his or her own conclusions. I simply say that, if at first I had some doubts about the ability to these artists to take paper out of its craft context, when I saw the show I and many of the attendees were wowed enough to perceive that the majority of these works belong very much in the world of visual art.
      Superficially, one might describe a few of these works as basically flat collages. Soo Kim’s cut-ups of digital photographs, for example, might seem to represent flat constructions. As Fox notes, for example, her series of trees taken from winter landscapes began by her attending to the real objects with her camera, which she then projects as a digital print upon paper in a four-foot-square format.


                       But the resulting picture is not the final form the photograph
                       takes.Working on a flat surface, Kim takes scalpels, scissors,
                       and X-ACTO knives to the image, cutting away all traces of
                       sky or extraneous content to leave an elaborately complex
                       and random meshwork of images of branches. Some of the
                       images interlock; many do not. As a consequence, when
                       Kim lifts the cut photograph off the worktable and into
                       a vertical position, many strands of the branchy imagery
                       cascade downward and clump in a random thicket of paper
                       toward the lower portions of the original photograph. Kim
                       displays her “de-composed” photographs just so—cut, shred-
                       ded, and clumping—suspended in protective box frames.

     In Kim’s cityscapes and other landscapes, moreover, she undertakes an even more complex series of actions. Taking in the patterns, fenestrations, and other architectural aspects of her landscapes, the artist cuts away most of the visible content of her photographs, leaving, as in Midnight Reykjavik, #12,” what Fox describes as a “skeleton” of that city’s images, displaying what remains against a white paper surface, creating a kind of collage that reminds us of what lies behind all seemingly “real” surfaces, as if “unbuilding” a world instead of merely capturing an “image” of it.   

    Although once more appearing as flat representations, the works of Francessca Gabbiani are also about radicalized space, and use techniques of collage that build up often frightening landscapes from multi-layering of bits of cut paper that transform flat surfaces into deconstructed forms into presentations of “radical space” such as her works with those titles: “Deconstruction of a Radical Space (3)” and “Deconstruction of a Radical Space (4),” both from 2015. As Fox perceives them, they derive from pictures of “commonplace but decayed dwellings, abandoned houses where homeless people might take shelter or disaffected runaways or drug users might ‘crash,’ building up into “woodlands of color, hue, and nuance” that, force us, as I see them, to rethink the original image as something of mysterious depth and perspective.

     Similarly, if Lecia Dole-Reccio’s works may first appear to be flat painted surfaces, they, in fact, defy identity, described by the Hammer Museum’s exhibition in Made in L.A. 2014, as being “works that revel in an identity crisis. They are not quite paintings and not quite collages. They remain untitled, appended only by an indexical list in a clipped, short form of the materials and motifs that comprise them. The ‘painted constructions’—assembled from cut paper, cardboard, paint, and tape—boldly defy being classified.”

     Tm Gratkowski, who studied architecture, creates sculptural collages that, as Fox suggests, not only “resemble architectural renderings of structures that have been built or are conceived to be built, or even elevation or floor plans of buildings,” but are instilled with a keen sense of their architectonics.”
     Most of the other works in this busy show literally take to space itself, pushing off the flat surface that is usually associated with their paper medium. Chris Natrop, a bit like the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollack, begins with a large seven-foot long role of Lenox 100 drawing positioned on the floor of his studio, upon which he drips, pours, and brushes colored dyes and acrylic paints, picking up the paper sheet to encourage random flows of the materials. Yet, dissatisfied with the flatness of his abstract works he has created, he hangs the final sheets up upon the wall, proceeding to cut shapes out of it with a box-cutting knife—ripping away whole sections of the paper in order to create “voids and holes” within his paper originals. He then often mounts the dried hangings several inches in front of the wall, which creates a series of shadows and other compositional designs that he perceives as part of the final “composition,” thus transforming what was once a two dimensional work into a work of many dimensions, as in the works as Of Night and Light and the Half-Light, of 2014-15.

    Although artist Margaret Griffith has done numerous two-dimensional wall-bound works, the work in this show, Commonwealth (2015) takes her basic images of “gates” into open notions of passageways that embrace the viewer in space. Hung from the rafters of the top floor of CAFAM, Griffith’s work celebrates its entry into the world almost as might a bridal canopy, a lovely, black and white, looping of delicate forms and shapes that, as Fox describes it, “dances and somersaults” through the space.
     Similarly, Lorenzo Hurtado Serovia’s large banners are purely sculptural, weaving together strips of paper into massive thatch-work forms that, although sometimes suggesting landscapes, more often consist of abstract patterns. A devoted member of the Pentecostal evangelical International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a group founded in Los Angeles in the 1920s by the late Aimee Semple McPherson, Hurtado Sergovia’s large hanging forms seem, as Fox would have it, “like stained glass windows and priestly vestments,” to celebrate his faith. The banners in this show are not overtly Christian, but they still evoke, as the curator argues, “a sense of ‘otherness” and realities beyond their own materiality.”

     Of the numerous other remarkable artists in this show, I’d point to the paper pop-art like creations of the “all-American Jewish lesbian folk singer” Phranc, whose swimming trunks, life-jacket, and boots seem utterably wearable even though we perceive there are made of a substance that would not permit their use in water or hiking path. As Fox suggests, “Phranc’s artworks re manifestly interested in disguise and false appearances,” and, as such, take a nearly valueless material (used primarily for another medium, print) into a new possibility, transforming them into objects of material value.

    Using the coarsest of paper forms, kraft paper, which absorbs the various dyes (particularly red) that she uses, Echiko Ohira twists, coils, folds, and pleats her material into huge biomorphic forms that read almost as large blows, bird nests, flowers, and breasts.
    Tam Van Tran’s lovely and truly radiant constructions also project out from the wall, creating curvilinear patterns with what Fox describes as “swarming and swirling like cosmic rays across their surfaces.”

    With hexapfexogon-shaped constructions of various colors of paper, Rebecca Niedlander returns a form with numerous dimensions back into a flat surface, as she staples hundreds of these complex structures upon the wall, reiterating that what appears to be a flat one-dimensional surface is, in fact, a truly multi-dimensional one.

Phranc and Howard Fox in from of a work by Rebecca Niedlander

    Along with dynamic works by Enrique Castrejon, Chris Oatey, Minoru Ohira, and Susan Sironi these artists represent a redefinition of what paper can be that is as dynamic and diverse a medium as the cultural and sexual backgrounds of the artists represented.

Los Angeles, October 1, 2015

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