Review Magazine Art Review: Sky Pape
Sky Pape at June Kelly Gallery
by Mark Daniel Cohen, Review Magazine, June 1999
Review of the solo exhibition “Inklings: Drawings”
Sky Pape’s personalized reconfiguration of the very idea of a work on paper — like most formal innovations — takes up its residence squarely within the perimeters of established tradition. In the seven works now on exhibition at June Kelly, all created this year and last, she has devised a unique manner of working paper and ink, a personalized formalism in which to phrase the visions she pursues. Individual and specific to her enterprise, her manner nevertheless abides by the longstanding recognition of the close similarity between, even the near identity of, drawing and sculpture.
Drawing is, in its simplest instance, a concern with form — the outlining of forms, the cutting of forms among forms, the detailing of the intricacies and the visionary potential of the formal imagination. It is in this way, in its essential concern, comparable to sculpture. The painterly imagination is panoramic — it composes the elements of the field, fills areas with tonal configurations that take their significance from their relationships with other tonal areas within a planar context. The difference between a work of painting and a work of sculpture is the difference between form and field — the two essential elements of the visual imagination, which is as much the imagination of logic as of visual insight. And each of the two elements is meaningless, in fact impossible, without the other. The difference between painting and sculpture is, in the end, a matter of emphasis, a choice of which foot is put forward. Sculpture thrusts forth the form to occupy the visual field; painting presents the field to encapsulate the division into forms. With its tendency toward outline and definition by structure rather than tone, drawing aligns to sculpture.
It is no surprise, then, that sculptors are so frequently spectacular draftspersons. Or that draftspeople can so thoroughly and successfully embed sculpted forms into the mind, the precinct in which form fully resides, projected there by the physical analogue in bronze or marble, or by the image on paper. Pape’s ink-and-paper constructions stand halfway between image and physicality. They are as much akin to relief sculpture as to standard drawing. They are as much physical analogues of the impression she seeks as they are rendered images dreamt onto the paper.
Pape has assembled her works out of long strips of handmade Japanese Kozo paper. The strips are set lengthwise in horizontal rows, attached together along one edge, and folded so that they extend outward, achieving a sculptural volume as they bristle out from the gallery wall. She stains the hand-torn outer edges with Sumi ink, often permitting the ink to seep across the width of the paper strips and down into the depths of the work.
It turns out to be a remarkably effective technique of abstraction, for conveying the sensation of disembodied tangibles, of physical facts with no configuration drawn from nature. The torn paper edges that stretch out two inches from the wall seem to mass together visually, creating a feeling of solid volume where there is almost nothing more than horizontal spaces between horizontal paper strips. Shadows gather between the strips and darken with depth; they oscillate and shift as one walks past each work — becoming vibrant densities where there is little more than void, inchoate forms where there is principally nothingness. This is the objective and language of Constructivist sculpture: the volume without mass, the formulated but empty space, the vacuum that is strangely full, the void that is also a plenum.
Pape’s paper-and-ink technique is thus remarkably capable of conveying a sense of tangible mystery, of a heavy presence of the half of our world that is forever beyond precise conception but is ever close at hand. She sees and reveals the thing that is felt to be just over one’s shoulder, that is caught momentarily out of the corner of the eye, that is nearby until one looks straight at it and then isn’t there at all—the thing that comes only in inklings.
The void is also a plenum — Between the Meadow and the Moon, 1998, is a fibrillating but nearly empty mass with the paper stained all through to a solid black. The shadows between the paper layers densify the black, making the darkness darker still with a heaviness of implication, of felt suggestion, as if the space between the earth and the moon were filled with the intuition of a reality that cannot be seen, but that is the very substance and secret of the night.
Pape’s visual language speaks of such things that are past the grasp of direct statement. It is a language that is both potent and in some sense primitive, ancillary to the cultural coding embodied in spoken language and in recognizable symbolic systems, conveying a meaning that underlies all the conscious meanings we know and readily acknowledge. In The Last Letter, 1998, a multitude of horizontal paper strips are inked only along their front edges, creating a series of waving black lines backed by the white of the unstained portions of the paper. Each strip is made of two pieces of paper glued together. The point where they join has accepted more ink and is darker than the rest of the papers’ edge. The darkened seams are positioned above and below each other to give the impression of a vertical black line in the center of the composition. The line is the noticeable mark, and “the last letter,” whether a personal message or a letter of the alphabet, floats above a welter of meaning implicit in nature, evident to the mind only when the last note of culture is silent.
Pape’s artistic language is the language of nature because it has been developed out of her craft, out of the manipulation of the simple materials of art. That is the reason her idiosyncratic manner is legible to us. It is something more than a private code of meaning; it is why we are fluent in her language. Henry Moore once observed that there are universal shapes to which everyone is conditioned and to which everyone is prepared to respond. Such forms are derived from craft, from the knowledge of the inherent laws by which simple materials may be manipulated, materials like ink and paper. That is why are is based in craft, in materials rather than culture — for the sake of a universal legibility.
And her language is more than a blunt presentation of crude forms. It is capable of articulation, of inflections of meaning, and of communicating an articulated understanding. The precision of the relationships between her images and their titles indicates the carefully detailed significance of the works. Two works of similar visual impression are wisely placed side by side in the exhibition, and their comparison makes clear the deep realization to be found in both.
Will, 1999, displays a single black vertical line, produced by ink collecting in the joints between the paper strips, a line floating with the black and white space of the work. Inheritance, 1999, has two such vertical lines but is otherwise the same. The difference between them is the difference between “will” and “inheritance.” For the will is the self, the inner sense of being a whole and independent consciousness, and a single mind, a single spirit. But inheritance is something more than the acquisition of the past. It is the felt presence of another within us, of the “other” within us, of someone within who is not “me,” of someone as foreign as a person seen across a room.
To know you are of the world, that you are born of biology and come from a family, from a lineage, is to discover there are others within, others who seem as alive as you. It is to know that you are not alone, even in the depths of your own mind, and that you do not stand in the center of your own inner realm — like two lines where there had been one, and neither is in the middle of the work. Inheritance makes an appropriate moment in an exhibition that the artist has dedicated to the memory of her father, who died on May 17 of this year.
And just as appropriate is the air of mystery made palpable, an atmosphere that runs through the entire exhibition, through all the work. Pape is clearly among those artists who know that a great deal of art has been and continues to be about mystery, that art often makes mystery tangible, that it often reveals mystery, which is not to dispel it but to make it evident, make it immediate, while retaining all that is mysterious about that truth the artist is pursuing. All is revealed even as nothing is deduced, is simplified, is made digestible, is made comfortable, is made the receptacle for mere opinion.
It is simpler and more direct to say that art has often been a sibling of mysticism. Religious art, Byzantine art, art of pure abstraction has had much in common with meditative disciplines whose goal is to alter consciousness. And much of art still does, when it is created with the passion that Pape has infused into her works, and through her works, into her viewers.
[ view the work discussed in this review]