New Paper Views
If I am ever forced at samurai swordpoint to come up with solid truisms about art at the beginning of the second millennium, I would have to say there are but two I could bet on to save my life. The first is that the genuinely beautiful will never go out of fashion. The second is that real artwork, viewed in the flesh in a brick-and-mortar museum, will rarely, if ever, be eclipsed by art experienced through computerized virtual museums on the Internet.
In support of these self-evident truths, just take a look at two very different exhibitions in two disparate locations at Arizona State University Art Museum. From a purely technical standpoint, "Fragile Moments: Paper Sculpture by Jyung Mee Park" in ASU's Turk Gallery and "Screen Shots," a computer-based project conceived for ASU's "No Absolutes" exhibition and installed at the museum's Experimental Gallery at Matthews Center, are at opposite ends of the spectrum.
But a strange psychic umbilical cord tethers the two shows together. Both draw on childhood memories from antipodal worlds that somehow conjoin and act as a two-way bridge between cultural and historical legacies of East and West. And both amply illustrate my swordpoint-induced assertions.
For sheer beauty of form and execution, Park's folded paper sculptures will weather any storm born from the eye of fashion, past or present. Bedridden several years ago with a serious illness that prevented her from painting in her studio, Park began to fold rice paper, which the artist remembers playing with as a child in Korea.
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From these pleated pieces of delicate yet durable translucent paper Park's bedside visitors often helped to create, she eventually began to construct temporary, three-dimensional sculptures, several engaging examples of which appear in "Fragile Moments." While built around a well-anchored structural base, all of the artist's sculptures eschew the use of adhesives to hold them together.
Park's sculptures draw on fundamental organic forms, using the ancient art of paper folding to which even unschooled Westerners can relate. Paper folding is thought to have begun in China -- the birthplace of papermaking and a place that has long valued the pursuit of the meditative -- in the first or second century A.D. From there, it was introduced to Japan in the sixth century. Initially limited to the upper-class because of the paper's exorbitant cost, paper folding was eventually used in Japan both ceremonially and recreationally, especially in rites connected to the indigenous Japanese religions of Shintoism and Buddhism.
According to origami history buffs Joseph Wu and Victoria Beatty, paper folding then spread to the West via the Moors, who brought the art to southern Spain in the eighth century. The Moors had been taught the practice by Muslim Arabs, whose religion even today proscribes the making of representational art and whose scholarly fascination with mathematics, especially geometry, made paper folding a natural talent for them. Paper folding ultimately became the unlikely passion of 19th-century Spanish philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), who, through his philosophic followers, revived and spread the art to South America in the 1930s.
But Park's large, ethereal sculptures bear no real kinship to the small, charming Japanese forms of origami we ordinarily associate with popular entertainment for children -- or even for anguished Spanish philosophers obsessed with the solitary nature of existence (though the artist did enlist a legion of local high school students to fold the mountain of rice paper pieces necessary to construct the two installations in "Fragile Moments"). Nor are her paper works merely vapidly pretty. Underneath their austerely repetitious surfaces, there are real, solid metaphorical underpinnings.
Nest, an eight-foot-wide swirling vortex of folded paper inspired by thatched roofs, swims in a pool of creamy light. Its nurturant title belies the sculpture's visual dynamism, which first threatens to suck the viewer into its ever-diminishing center, then to push him away as it twirls outward.
Shimmering from a distance, Park's Untitled is a small forest of four large lotus-shaped forms dramatically downlighted at one end of the gallery. The forms range in size from five and a half feet to eight feet in height. Each paper leaf in the construction is carefully folded and twisted at the tip. Sprouting miraculously from the wooden floor, the big, bold buds suggest the exotic flower sacred to so many Eastern cultures and religions (in ancient Egypt, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Islam, the lotus is a multilayered symbol for life, enlightenment, creation and spirituality). The forms also read as out-of-control artichokes and/or perhaps sentient pine cones.
In sharp contrast, John Haddock's series of laser-printed, computerized drawings -- originally created solely for posting on the Internet -- are the antithesis of a communal project created by simple hands-on, no-tech crafting. Haddock's distorted yet detached treatment of earthbound violence and death stands in strident counterpoint to the serene spirituality of Park's rice paper megaliths, which only imperceptibly remind us of life's impermanence.
An Arizona native in his 30s now based in Tempe, Haddock takes the stuff of red-blooded, all-American, media-driven cultural heritage and transforms it through the visual vocabulary of a video game. Drawing directly into his computer with a stylus, Haddock never touches a piece of paper or canvas. He uses well-known photographs (easily garnered by the artist from the Internet) of dramatic historical events by which he has been profoundly influenced over the years. Reconfiguring them from a fictional vantage point, the artist renders the events in a skewed, isometric perspective in which all dimensions are treated equally.
The virtual-appearing computerized results, with their eerie bird's-eye views, finger-long cast shadows and unexpected perspectives, remove us from the horror of the easily identifiable incidents depicted, just as violent video games quickly desensitize the player to their gruesomeness.
Homages to such media-pumped historical personages and events as "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris, the Nicole Brown-Simpson/Ron Goldman murders and the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk protesting against the regime of South Vietnam are mixed in with images from popular American films such as The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins and The Godfather. By interjecting fictional cinematic scenarios with scenes taken from historical events, Haddock blurs the boundaries between reality and fabrication even further, leading us to question our own experiential memories.
In The Lorraine Motel, we get a completely different take on the shooting of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., though we instantly recognize the event to which the image refers. In Elián, the artist has created a cutaway, dollhouselike view of FBI agents wresting Elián Gonzalez at gunpoint from the arms of a would-be protector cowering in a closet. The lone figure confronting a tank in Wang Weilin is based on notorious television images beamed from China in 1989 during the bloody political protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Cafeteria reworks one of the bizarre scenes of the senseless student shootings at Columbine High School; it depicts cups of Pepsi and lunches left on empty cafeteria tables, pink chairs in disarray around them as two gun-wielding figures assess the deserted eating area.
The violent images on which Haddock's "Screenshots" drawings are based are all too familiar to most Americans, as well as the rest of the world by now. Burned into our psychological hardwiring by years of repetition in all types of media, these images might be considered archetypal remnants of ancestral experience that famed Swiss psychologist Carl Jung claims are an ingrained part of a society's collective unconscious. For better or worse, they're a part of our national, maybe even global psyche at this point, just as the lotus form is for Eastern cultures.
To be expected, there's a real outlaw edge to Haddock's appropriation of iconic photographs that clearly have been copyrighted, though his images have been manipulated enough to quell any claim of intellectual property rip-off. His computer-generated constructs are, in many ways, a faithful reflection of the outsider nature of the Internet itself, that shadowy cyberworld in which amoral hackers worm into our virtual lives, violating our privacy and upsetting the balance in the process. In Haddock's work, however, the question arises as to who really owns these images of our experience of history. Who, in fact, can "own" cultural experience?
Though only mildly interesting when viewed on a computer monitor, Haddock's digital drawings grow more powerful -- and much creepier -- when enlarged, printed and framed for viewing in person. Face to face, the five-color digital laser prints of the artist's carefully rendered images look more like delicate, pointillist pastels than mechanically generated, pixelated reproductions. Presentation on a monitor obscures the minute detail of facial expressions, the elongated shadows cast by out-of-frame objects and the soft, ambiguous glow of the artist's grayed-down palette -- all of which add a certain sinister air to the work. After seeing Haddock's drawings in person, we have every reason to believe that art, up close and personal, will never be supplanted by its shadow flickering from a screen.
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