Review: “Pure Pulp” is pure poetry and a complete must-see

Firelei Báez. "Amidst the future and present there is a memory table" (2013). Pigmented abaca, cotton, and linen on abaca base sheet with radiograph opaque ink, 39 3⁄4 x 60 3/8 inches. Collection of the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College. Purchase, William G. Roehrick '34 Art Acquisition and Preservation  Fund. Image courtesy of the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College. Photograph by Jason Mandella.
Firelei Báez. "Amidst the future and present there is a memory table" (2013). Pigmented abaca, cotton, and linen on abaca base sheet with radiograph opaque ink, 39 3⁄4 x 60 3/8 inches. Collection of the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College. Purchase, William G. Roehrick '34 Art Acquisition and Preservation Fund. Image courtesy of the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College. Photograph by Jason Mandella.

One of the most remarkable exhibitions currently in Atlanta (at the Robert C. Williams Museum of Papermaking through August 5) is in danger of being overlooked by too many who would find it a must-see, perhaps because of its less familiar venue, less recognized artistic medium and overly cute title.

If Glenn Ligon, Do Ho Suh, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Melvin Edwards, William Kentridge, Richard Tuttle and a dozen or so other artists of similar ilk were all featured in a single show elsewhere in the city, you would have heard considerable conversation about it. But despite early media attention, this easily accessible yet evasive exhibition at Georgia Tech (open only on weekdays, unfortunately) seems to have eluded some viewers’ notice.

Molly Smith. Dust, 2012. Handmade cotton, abaca, linen, and recycled paper, 581⁄4 x 39 5/8 in. (147.8 x 100.6 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Dieu Donné, New York. Image courtesy of the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College. Photograph by Jason Mandella.
Molly Smith. “Dust” (2012). Handmade cotton, abaca, linen, and recycled paper, 56 x 39 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Dieu Donné, New York. Image courtesy of the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College. Photograph by Jason Mandella.

Pure Pulp: Contemporary Artists Working in Paper at Dieu Donné may have suffered from several unrelated difficulties: a prejudice against handmade paper in general, the nature of the exhibition as documentation of recent work from a residency program (this in spite of Dieu Donné’s longstanding position as a respected New York arts organization), and the inherent difficulty of writing comprehensively about how internationally famous artists have explored the incorporation of the medium into their own artistic practices. A proper evaluation of the exhibition demands an investment of time that is simply not available to most working critics in Atlanta.

Of the many approaches these artists have taken, William Kentridge’s has probably addressed the long history of papermaking most directly. Sheets of Evidence is an 18-page artist’s book that seems completely blank until held to the light (the unbound pages are displayed in a lightbox) where Kentridge’s typically startling drawings appear as watermarks. The links to social class associated with fine-quality watermarked paper completely subvert the outdoor-art-fair echoes that the words “handmade paper” too often evoke in the general public. Glenn Ligon’s faultlessly reproduced copies of his grade school end-of-year reports in a portfolio also analyzes the relationship of paper and social evaluation, but in as different a manner as could be imagined.

More than one artist combined the medium with thread, wire, and found materials to create artworks that range from immense wall pieces to small sculptural objects. Ursula von Rydingsvard’s stunning three-and-a-half-foot tall drawing incorporating pigment, thread, fabric and paper is in sharp competition for viewer attention with the dazzling visual impact of E. V. Day’s 60-by-40-inch sheet of paper in which the sharply defined geometric imagery has been embossed using fishnet-bodysuit fabric.

One could go on, and should. The versatility on display here deserves a level of analysis that would include reflection on how traditional techniques of handmade paper as an art medium appear in this exhibition alongside objects only made possible by the advent of the latest technologies for digital reproduction. But it is better, at this point, to make an audience aware of the existence of this remarkable body of work before it leaves Atlanta so shortly. 

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