Notes from the Arts + Crafts Research Studio of Andrew Cornell Robinson
The art of the cut paper has it’s roots in many traditions including Chinese and Japanese rice tissue silhouettes, German, Aztec and Mexican papel picado (perforated paper) and most famously the French silhouette named after Etienne de Silhouette, the Controleur-General of France in the eighteenth century who “invented” the leisure folly which was quickly adopted by the upper classes in Europe and the Americas. More interestingly however are the separate and parallel roots in Meso-America. The Aztecs used cut tree bark decorated with colored liquid rubber and hung the cut outs during various seasonal festivities. After the Spanish conquest papel de china (tissue paper) was introduced and became the material of choice for Christian holiday decorations. This tradition still survives today in Mexico. These wide ranging traditions have carried on into contemporary art by the likes of Matisse who created lyrical painted paper cutouts, and more recently the art form has become synonymous with artist Kara Walker who has managed to subvert the medium with her engrossing narratives about the grotesqueries of American slavery and the racist mythology in American culture.
Given the rich history of this art form it is a wonder that any artist can claim this currently loaded medium. But Dylan Graham, a New Zealand-born artist appears to be up to the challenge. He has been working on a series of meticulous, obsessive, even extravagant cut paper silhouettes? His work in the recent past has included large scale installations with physical objects, and dazzling patterns that take over the interior spaces in ambitious ways. The work for his current exhibition at Rare gallery include a variety of cut colored paper pinned to the white walls, like lace. The play of the shadows and the muted colors create welcome complexities in the visual field. His work takes some inspiration from European silhouette figures in anachronistic costume, Mexican papel picado’s use of skeletons, and meticulously cut grids overlapping with elaborate embellishments as well as pop iconography used by contemporary graphic designers and artists like Ryan McGinness.
With the choice of this medium and content Graham takes on issues of colonialism, forced migration and servitude. But unlike Kara Walker’s interpretation of similar issues, Graham’s work maintains a degree of emotional distance. It’s less operatic passion and more visual delight. The filigree and decorative excesses of the medium are utilized in the extreme and act as a sort of go-between with the aesthetic pleasure of the line, figure and ground, vs. the distant narrative.
The silhouette lends itself to avoidance of the subject because all interior detail is omitted and yet this abstraction still carries the narrative in unexpected ways. The figure-ground is commonly exemplified by the Face/Vase illusion based on experiments by Edgar Rubin. This visual Gestalt can easily lull the viewer with a sense of aesthetic distance yet there is an opportunity for multiple and simultaneous interpretations of the images.
Graham is in a peculiar position because he is a white male of northern European descent (Dutch) and he is commenting on the injustices of colonialism from the days of the Dutch East India Company to the current situation of privatizing the Global South, through neo-liberal economic wage slavery under the auspices of global corporatism.
There is allot to explore here, and his imagery includes a lot of visual punch. “Rain Follows the Plow” is one of the more stunning examples hung in the center wall of the gallery. Cut ocher colored paper depicts a stylized swooping swirling dust cloud peopled by wind gods, blowing and hovering over the heads of unsuspecting farmers, preachers and pickup trucks. The work is a commentary on misguided theories of climatology and poor agricultural policies in the United States which in part led to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Dylan Graham’s hand-cut paper works are an ambitious and impressive effort of skill and delicate sensibility. At times the narratives in the work feel vague or heavy handed. But the work is still a visual pleasure and is worth spending some time with.
Written for the Gay City News
Dylan Graham, The Stars Never Lie, But The Astrologs Lie About The Stars
April 7 – May 12, 2007
Rare Gallery 521 West 26th Street New York, NY 10001