by Lawrence Gipe
The invention of paper has surprisingly mundane roots: The oldest remnant dates from 200 BC, and it wasn’t designed as a surface for art or writing, but as padding material for delicate objects. Despite this inauspicious beginning, paper’s great potential was soon realized in China (where it was invented) and throughout Asia, where its secret process remained isolated until 751 AD when the Chinese invaded Samarkand — and lost. Part of the spoils of victory for the Islamic world was a reparations payment in the form of papermaking knowledge, which was
fully exploited by the technicians of Samarkand, now Uzbekistan's third-largest city. Paper gradually gained acceptance in Europe and the Western world, but with some resistance, as the guardians of Christendom distrusted it as a “Muslim invention,” preferring vellum or parchment for their needs. Post-Gutenberg, any such reservations were shelved.
From this development artists have, quite obviously, been major beneficiaries. Evidence of which is on view in two sprawling group exhibitions: NextNewPaper, a show that pulls in a wide variety of contemporary paper-based practices, and This is Not a Book: Chapter II, which concentrates on paper as the key component in so-called altered books.
A highlight of NextNewPaper is Taro Hattori whose installation of a Kamikaze plane is clearly the showstopper. In previous exhibitions, he explored the relationship between belief and loss in videos and site-specific pieces; but this work, which has been seen in several Bay area exhibitions, tackles one of the weightiest themes in Japanese culture, the cult of the “Divine Wind”. It’s titled Obscenity, Version One (2010) after a line by Milan Kundera in Immortality: "Hate traps us by binding us too tightly to our adversary. This is the obscenity of war…” It consists of a to-scale cardboard replica of a MXY7 Ohka in a corner of the gallery, suspended as if it had crash-landed. Hattori shows us the inner skeleton of what was essentially a manned missile, designed to blast off and never return. Far from being a detached, historical exercise, Obscenity brings into sharp focus the recent and disturbing fascination with the cult in Japan, where Kamikaze museums flourish as flashpoints for nationalistic idolization of these fallen “warrior heroes”.
Other ambitious works include Weston Teruya’s paper replications of still-lifes he’s constructed with discarded materials. Here he presents Extracting Gold in the New City (2016), a piece from the space left behind,a body of work first shown at Recology as part of his artist-in-residence installation. With Recology’s bounty of refuse at his disposal, Teruya makes work in two acts. First, he fashions a physical arrangement of things: recycled office supplies, discarded chairs, and sections of security gates intermingled with other items that have political and economic undertones: foreclosure
counseling documents, renter informational pamphlets and tech start-up brochures. Then, he replicates the tableau – quite convincingly – as a paper sculpture.
Another Recology alumnus, Imin Yeh, uses banal electronics like charger cords and phone jacks as subject matter. In Wall Installation (2016), a white-on-white grid of hundreds of plug/power charger combos constructed in paper, Yeh appears to be making a statement about our mania for plugging in. But her critique extends more deeply – in a manner reminiscent of Stephanie Syjuco – to the invisible labor behind the manufacture of these commonplace devices. (In another piece accessible on her website, she invites viewers to download a PDF file of a wall plug template. The idea is to build it, install it surreptitiously in a public place and post photos of the results to Instagram.)
Javier Arce’s Estrujados series, seen recently at Jack Fischer, is part of a powerful group of politically charged portraits drawn with felt-tip marker on crumpled Tyvek, a synthetic product made of polyethylene fibers that he prefers for its “indestructible” quality. It’s a compelling ground for the artist’s self-described “hidden bestiary” of America. It includes cowboys, the East Bay Dragons Motorcycle Club and, in this show, a portrait of Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party who was gunned down in Oakland in 1989. Arce’s portrait of him fits well into his collection of characters operating at society’s margins.
This is Not a Book, Chapter II contains 29 artists, most of them alumni of Seager Gray Gallery’s annual Art of the Book exhibition, which, in 2015, celebrated its tenth anniversary with a show at
the Brooklyn Public Library curated by its principals, Donna Seager and Suzanne Gray. The ICA exhibition is a testament to their expertise and devotion to an art form that posits the book as a site for all manner of artistic détournement.
The show divides more or less equally between Bay Area artists and others from outside the region, including a sizable international contingent (from Australia, Germany, South Africa, Canada, Korea and Mexico), most of whom have appeared in previous iterations of the show. Maria Porges, a veteran Bay Area artist whose critical writings appear frequently in this magazine, includes two beautiful examples of her Exhortations series, both of which use splayed-out books as faceted surfaces for phrases (e.g. “Harm Charmingly,” “Calm Calamitously”) built from words concealed inside other words. The resulting couplets yield ironic or sardonic relationships. Julie Chen, who is also known for her imprint, Flying Fish Press, specializes in precisely rendered sculptures that are constructed out of letterpress books. Here she contributes two gorgeously assembled pieces, Cat’s Cradle (2014) and Chrysalis (2014), both of which hew closely to the idea of an accessible, readable book, though I’d hesitate before touching either of these delicate objects.
In Onomatopoeia (2015), James Allen painstakingly carves out the contents of an Incredible Hulk comic book, leaving only exclamations like “BADOOM!” and “SCRAKK!” hanging in inchoate suspension. Similarly, Brian Dettmer excavates the contents of large books, or even
stacks of them, creating what look like miniature stage sets. The title of his contribution, To Conquer the Ends of the Earth (2015), is also the name of a late-19th century tome, which he excavated front-to-back leaving only a shallow space populated by select images and text fragments. Nothing like digging into a good book!
In the end, curating shows based on a material rather than a thematic concept can be a risky proposition. While big rosters allow the audience to experience a wide range of practices, the result can feel more like an all-star game rather than a coherent exhibition. But the lack of elbowroom between pieces is the main problem, with 65 works from 42 artists shoehorned into spaces designed for half that capacity. That, however, shouldn’t deter anyone from visiting, as both shows contain work that is conceptually rich and meticulously crafted.
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“NextNewPaper” through September 18, 2016 and “This is Not a Book: Chapter II”through September 11, 2016 @ San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art.
About the author:
Lawrence Gipe is an artist, art professor and writer living in Oakland. His painting and drawings have been shown in more than 50 solo exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe.