Art review: Simple act raised to high art in ‘PaperCuts’

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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The work of artist Lenka Konopasek focuses on man-made and natural disasters, such as tornadoes to create provocative works, like this piece in 2009. This and other works can be seen in the exhibit, Papercuts: A Poetic Interplay of Light and Shadow explores the contemporary art of paper cutting on view Oct. 28 through Dec. 6 in the Emily Davis Gallery at The University of Akron.

Last week I introduced my 3-year-old granddaughter to scissors and watched as she struggled to master them and cut a straight line.

Five days later I walked into Emily Davis Gallery at the University of Akron and was blown away by the heights to which that simple act — cutting paper — can be taken in hands of masters.

PaperCuts: A Poetic Display of Light and Shadow is an absolute stunner. It also raises (and answers) a number of art-related questions, such as:

• Where can you see visual evidence of craft being raised to fine art? In this show.

• How do you know that labor-intensive artwork is no longer a stepchild of the art world? See this show.

• When is it obvious that in art as in life, the devil is in the details? At this show.

PaperCuts consists of works by six artists invited to participate, plus its organizer, Reni Gower, professor of art in the painting and printmaking department at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The show took shape after Gower spent a summer teaching at Glasgow School of Art, in conjunction with Virginia Commonwealth University’s Visual Artists and Writers Workshop in Scotland. She was researching Celtic motifs and developed stencils based on these symbols as the internal structure imbedded in her paper works.

When she returned to the United States, she began investigating the history of paper cutting, and looking for contemporary artists who were transforming this ancient art in new and exciting ways.

At about this same time, museum shows were featuring contemporary cut paper works: the New York Museum of Art and Design’s Slash: Paper Under the Knife that was part of its Materials and Process series; and the Hunterdon Museum of Art’s exhibition Cutters, which also included media other than paper.

Gower eventually chose to showcase the works of the six artists plus her own, because, as she writes, “Each artist contributes a unique sensibility within a complex (often installation-based) construct that has hand cut paper at its core. The laborious processes employed by these artists infuse their works with meditative and reflective qualities that are charged with narrative, metaphor, and beauty.”

Born in Australia, France, Czech Republic, Canada and the United States, the artists (Jaq Belcher, Béatrice Coron, Michelle Forsyth, Gower, Lenka Konopasek, Lauren Scanlon and Daniella Woolf) bring a broad range of international perspectives to the contemporary art of paper cutting.

Using all manner of tools and paper, they create works that range from narrative commentaries to complex structural abstractions. These are bold statements that celebrate the subtle nuance of the artist’s hand through a process that traces its origins to sixth-century China.

Light, shadow and color play key roles, transforming this ancient technique into dynamic installations filled with delicate illusions.

Do not think that any of these artists used shortcuts, like punches, die- or laser-cutting. Every one of these cuts were made by hand, from the cut-and-pasted multicolored paper loops that form what Forsyth calls March 24, to Konopasek’s Indoor Tornado.

Forsyth, a Canadian artist living in Pullman, Wash., is associate professor/head of painting at Washington State University. She says the multicolored loops refer to the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and after a moment’s reflection, we can see that.

Konopasek, born in the Czech Republic, teaches art at University of Utah and Westminster College in Salt Lake City. Her tornado is a perfect storm of both chaos and precision and is a startlingly effective demonstration of her “pop-up” technique.

Coron’s impressive Invisible City is hand-cut from Tyvek, a coated, woven product used in roofing and siding, which gives the piece the cohesion and strength to support tiny details and small, linear elements that would never survive on actual paper.

Scanlon’s incredibly detailed lacy confections consist of paper cuts on pages from romance novels that have been sewn together with golden thread, then reworked to reflect the quixotic dreams contained therein.

Australian-born, Belcher lives and works in New York City, where she is a studio member of the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts. Her work consists of hand-cut leaf or seed shapes that form an almost mandala-like motif on mindfulness and meditative practices.

Gower will talk about PaperCuts in a free public lecture at 6 p.m. Nov. 14, in the Folk Hall Auditorium.

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or dtgshinn@att.net.


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