Art on Paper appealed to me because I am extremely sick of pop art. Not the original Liechtensteins or Warhols, of course, but the contemporary artists who pop a plastic emoji atop another plastic emoji and say “Voila.” I’ve seen a million Marilyn Monroes and Daffy Ducks with dollar bills for eyes. We get it, consumerism will eventually kill us all. But let’s enjoy some innovative art before the apocalypse.
Art on Paper is one of nine art fairs (and one book fair!) that make up Armory Week 2018. The show is located on Pier 36 by the East River, a neighborhood that is apparently called “Two Bridges.” (I attended with a few fellow New Yorkers who had never heard this term before- we are convinced it is a real estate scheme.) The opening featured an oyster bar and an eclectic music duo- the combination of midi-keyboard and live drums was oddly soothing.
Gallerists brought a lot of aesthetic work- dreamy photographs and mesmerizingly-detailed pen drawings. As an art-lover, my senses were stimulated and I felt very happy. However, as a critic, I noticed few works that made me stop, focus, and think. Two in particular stood out.
These works came from Gallery Toki-No-Wasuremono and Analix Forever. The select pieces, by Yusuke Koshima and mounir fatmi, challenge the physical limits of paper and the medium’s emotional capacity.
Gallery Toki-No-Wasuremono exhibited the fantasy landscapes of Japanese artist Yusuke Koshima, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at Art on Paper. Koshima’s training as an architect reveals itself in his magnificent work, Urban Landscape Fantasia 2017-01. The painting is almost 6.5 feet tall, towering over the head of the viewer. It is notable that the work stands so tall but is only 3 feet wide. Perhaps Koshima chose these proportions to emulate the appearance of a traditional Japanese scroll. Regardless, the effect is astounding. Choosing to emphasize height over width, the artist implies something about his world’s geography. Does it cover mountains? Or does it rest on clouds, rising into the heavens?
I’ll make a strong case for the latter. Billowing masses of misty grey beneath Koshima’s buildings resemble clouds. These pools of frothing vapor are the result of a unique paper-dying technique. Most techniques involve the manipulation of an existing sheet of paper, but Koshima starts at the beginning. He explained that he spends several days at an old paper factory, pouring ink directly into the paper pulp. The resulting sheets are marbled black and white. Varying degrees of saturation across the surface create many hues of grey. This adds a delightful element of chance to the artist’s work. It reminds me of the actions the surrealists took to eliminate the editing quality of their conscious brains. Like Hans Arp and Marcel Duchamp, Koshima allows natural forces to guide certain aspects of his work; in this case, the nature of the paper itself.
The paper’s unpredictable patterns inspire the artist’s architectural plans. Koshima imagines bridges spanning between clouds. Atop these whimsical bridges he builds detailed structures. Many look like towers with flared turrets. Some are are circular, resembling pinwheels or ferris wheels. And yet others defy categorization. A brain-like blob perches atop a rectangular prism. A pair of antlers distend from a wall of bubbles. A seemingly sturdy square contains a circle that contains… nothing. Can such a structure be three-dimensional at all? The individual buildings defy the laws of physics, but together they create a seemingly possible universe.
Like a popular fantasy novel, Urban Landscape Fantasia 2017-01 compels its audience through its world-building. It’s difficult to look at Koshima’s work without desperately craving an adventure of your own- into the cavernous clouds and atop the most precarious of towers.
Analix Forever, a Genevan Gallery, presented several works by the celebrated Moroccan artist, mounir fatmi. His work has been shown in museums around the world as well as at three Venice Biennales. He works in a myriad of mediums, from installation art to painting, collage, and photography. Art On Paper restricts artists as multidisciplinary as fatmi in a fascinating way. Forcing him to work within the boundaries of paper is like pouring his concepts into a funnel; what comes out is narrow in content and purified in emotional strength.
For this particular show, fatmi exhibits a series of collages centered around Ellis Island, entitled The Island of Roots.
For this series, fatmi used the works of documentary photographer Lewis Hine, whose images of emigres at Ellis Island are now part of public record. The series includes several mixed-media collages, though Armenian Jew is by far my favorite.
Each work includes a photograph and a descriptive excerpt. In Armenian Jew, fatmi suggests that the subject of Hines’ photograph fled Turkey due to religious persecution. The format feels formal, as if fatmi is re-performing the process of identifying and labeling immigrants to the United States.
The artist layers red ink over the surface of the photograph. Pigment on the figure’s hat and beard contrast subtly with the cool grey of his skin and the bright whites of his eyes. Feathered red lines continue down the figure’s torso and off the borders of the photograph. They extend left and right, branching off from each other like roots.
fatmi is inspired by all sorts of roots- “vegetal roots, organic, horizontal, floating, dendritic (as our central nervous system’s cells), sometimes sanguineous… the type of roots that one makes when walking.” I can imagine vines growing out this man’s shoes as he walks, with every step exploring his relationship to a new land. I am also quite taken by fatmi’s use of the term sanguineous, meaning ‘related to blood.’ The color red is emblematic of that. The artist could be referring to family blood- having children in a new land is a means of putting down roots. He may also be suggesting that putting down roots is a dangerous business- a process fraught with xenophobia, religious intolerance, racism, classism, and possibly, bloodshed. These roots run deep, but they are soaked in blood.
fatmi says collage allows him to consider the past and the present simultaneously. By layering images, text, and ink, he brings historical references to the subject of immigration politics. The artist sees himself firstly as an immigrant worker. “Since I voluntarily left Morocco,” fatmi says, “I have lived with the acute awareness of separation, displacement, and the weight of identity.” The connection to the present grounds Armenian Jew. It colors the beautiful, liberated roots in blood.
The work’s dual temporality also reveals itself in fatmi’s use of red circles. These perfect spheres are meant to evoke circles of fire. “It is a circle that warns us of the danger of certain decisions we took in the past,” fatmi warns, speaking of deportation throughout the 20th century. He is also aware of the circles’ aesthetic effects. They disrupt the harmony of the work, adding hardness and precision to an otherwise soft surface.
Read more about mounir fatmi’s incredible work on his website.
Though Koshima and fatmi’s work clearly stands out as the dual-gold medalists at Art On Paper, there are several other artists whose work bears noting. For the sake of brevity, I’ll keep it concise:
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my thoughts on these works. I highly encourage you to seek out these artists and their respective galleries. You still have two more days to race madly around the city- this Armory Week Guide may come in handy if you don’t know where to start! If you do make it to Art On Paper, be sure to swing by Gallery Toki-No-Wasuremono and Analix Forever, as well as the galleries highlighted at the end of this article.
Until next time!