The Welch School Galleries’ Papercuts exhibition (a touring show curated by Virgina Commonwealth University professor Reni Gower) is a reminder that a surprising amount of contemporary art is making use of the ancient craft of papercutting, beyond the suddenly fashionable paper wigs of Atlanta’s own Paper-Cut-Project. (The cutout outlines of the Paper Twins are a separate practice from the art in which the cut pattern itself is the art, no drawing involved.) Some viewers may remember ex-Atlantan Julie Püttgen’s exhibition of international cut-paper art a few years ago at Georgia Tech’s Paper Museum, a show that featured some of the same aesthetic devices found in this current exhibition, but fewer of them than you might expect. Since this exhibition, like Püttgen’s earlier one, includes artists from a number of countries, the extended international appeal of the medium is evident.
Like many of her contemporaries, curator Gower resorts to a monumental scale, designed to undercut (as it were) the medium’s traditional intimacy. Beginning from traditional Celtic knotwork patterns, she produces nearly floor-to-ceiling pieces in which the voids and shadows of the cut patterns interact with a pale pastel background rectangle painted on the wall (apparently; there is no explanation given of this physical detail, but the color seems too subtle to be from a reflective backing on the paper itself).
This gentle formalism is taken to its visionary limit in Jaq Belcher’s mystical geometries, which quote the mathematical strategies, though not the specific imagery, of everything from Islamic tilework to Tibetan mandalas. Her rectangular sheet of paper containing a regular pattern of leaf-shaped ovals hangs above a square arrangement on the floor of the cut-out ovals, themselves punctuated by a consciously off-center circular void. The bright whiteness of the paper itself becomes an essential part of the perceptual experience.
One way or another, the rest of the show is entangled with history. Lauren Scanlon might be regarded as the biographical bridge between formalism and engagement in human affairs; she cuts bedspread patterns out of the sewn-together pages of the romance novels she read at age ten, and the romantic geometry of the floral imagery taken from bedroom paraphernalia suits the torridly florid prose of the cheap-paper texts she has dissected.
Michelle Forsyth combines a rather esoteric formalism with a fascination with the sites and reports of historical disasters. One body of work consists of quoted descriptions hand-punched into sheets of paper; New York Times, March 26, 1911, for example, consists of the dot-matrix text “Her dress caught on a wire, and the crowd watched her hang there till her dress burned free and she came toppling down.” Forsyth also produces elaborately constructed, even more obliquely titled assemblages of circular pieces of paper that are meant to form details from photographs of disaster sites; it is to my discredit that I was unable to discern any meaningful visual pattern in the examples on view, which despite their complex combination of visual references offer more conceptual pleasures than perceptual ones.
Lenka Konopasekis the other connoisseur of catastrophe in this exhibition, but her cut-paper sculptures of fire and collapsing structures are simultaneously easy to read and edgily provocative in their appropriation of a pictorial style generally associated with childhood innocence rather than the manmade disasters visited on urban societies. Her small cityscapes are accompanied by a spectacular evocation of natural disasters in a floor-to-ceiling representation of a tornado.
For all the spectacle of Konopasek’s tornado and Gower’s large-scale knot patterns, Béatrice Coron’s wall-spanning homage to (not illustration of) Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is the standout piece of the exhibition. Executed in the black-paper silhouette form made familiar in the U.S. by Kara Walker, Coron’s Invisible City consists of an immense number of autonomous vignettes of urban activities ranging from the everyday to the utterly mysterious, from children’s games and animals foraging in trash receptacles to skeletons dancing and engaging in piano recitals. The effect is brilliantly mesmerizing, and the slippages of visual narrative involved are sufficient to guarantee long and fascinated viewing.
Daniella Woolf’s wall hangings of stitched-together notecards or shoe-repair claim tickets exist at the opposite end of the visual spectrum from Coron’s imaginative extravagance. Though there are ample details to be had amid the patterning, they are the details of daily repetition, the notes we make, or the little devices by which we keep track of transactions. The scale of the works, somewhere in the vast midrange between endearing intimacy and attention-arresting monumentality, conveys the way in which a long succession of small events adds up to a quotidian reality too big to ignore but too undifferentiated to hold our interest.
Taken collectively, then, Gower’s selection of works demonstrates the capacity of a medium once dismissed as a minor decorative art to embody complex conceptual messages as well as thoroughly contemporary aesthetic strategies. That alone makes a visit eminently worthwhile, above and beyond the pleasures of encountering such different types of emotionally arresting work.
Papercuts, curated by Reni Gower, will remain up at the Welch School Galleries of Georgia State University through February 3, 2012. A closing reception will be help on Friday, February 3, from 5 to 8PM. The galleries are open Monday through Friday from 10AM to 6PM.