Sky Pape: Selections from the Bellagio Suite

Yellow Box Gallery

Essay by Jo Anna Isaak, Ph.D., John L. Marion Chair of Art History, Fordham University, New York, NY
From the exhibition catalog, “Sky Pape: Selections from the Bellagio Suite,” January 2013
Yellow Box Gallery, St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada

I became acquainted with the Bellagio Suite as the work evolved over a period of time during the spring of 2010 while Sky Pape and I were both in residence at the Rockefeller Foundation at Bellagio, Italy. For several weeks the works-in-process were a kind of performance piece or ephemeral installation that appeared like morning frost on the grounds of this ancient estate, once visited by Leonardo, overlooking Lago di Como.

They are made with handmade kozo paper and black Sumi ink (used traditionally in the ink wash painting that flourished in China during the Tang Dynasty). Kozo paper, made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree, is a light, translucent paper with long, strong, unbroken, smooth, naturally white fibers. The long randomly arranged fibers are apparent along the soft uneven edges of the sheets, giving it a warm organic feeling. But it is the strength of this paper that is key to the formation of the Bellagio Suite because the paper must endure exposure to the elements.

The compositional process involves collaboration between the artist and the surrounding environment. The artist works in the studio and en plein air, or more precisely she works with the air and the elements: using water (in the form of rain, snow, sprayed mist and poured water) and ink (misted or poured, or squeezed from soaked cloths). Only black ink is used, but this ink is capable of astonishing variations in tonality, from deep warm black to silvery gray. The composition is created in concert with the elements: the mist, wind, rain, snow, sunlight, or blown leaves, working with the ink flow and the absorbency of the paper, all contribute to the drawing process. The artist participates and responds to the elements with the acuity of an ancient master: the ink dissolves into the fibers of the paper directed by the actions of water, light, and air, or by the hand of the artist. The shading, the simple dark-light arrangement; evolves into the beautiful nuances in tonality characteristic of East Asian ink wash  landscape painting and brush-and-ink calligraphy, though no brushes were used. One is struck by the fragility and the receptiveness of the process; the expressive acts of nature that capture the unseen, as if the will to represent itself was inherent in the landscape.

The process is meditative, ancient, and perhaps most importantly, it is fundamentally tactile—the artist and the elements are viscerally present in the work. The artwork takes on the character of its surroundings: conveying its vitality and fragrance. The pieces I saw, felt, smelt like an Italian vineyard in spring: the sense of early earth aborning was palpable— decaying, fallow ground and new growth. At the same time, for all that the artist relinquishes authority, the process was intimately about the artist; the experience was a little like reading a poem, the author’s sensibility is present in the movement and shading; in this case there were many authors: wind, snow, rain, frost, sun, birds, insects, leaves.

Were I to mention Pape’s artistic precursors or kindred spirits I would list Monet’s doubled reflexive studies of the mist on the Seine, in which the viewer is drawn into deep recessional space not through form but through elusive elements of light and dark, Degas’ drawings of factory smoke, the frottage technique of Max Ernst, or other aleatoric processes in which some element of the composition is left to chance. In its evocation of the inchoate nature of drawing and the activity of making a mark on the land and that mark being responded to by the earth, I see her work as akin to Cecilia Vicuña. In her receptivity to the landscape, I see her as a fellow Canadian, awake to the luminous beauty of her country of origin, who grew up knowing the landscape painting of the Group of Seven. After her visit to New Brunswick, Canada, perhaps her audience will be able to smell the salt sea air in her work and when they look at what that land has wrought, they will sense the urge to turn their collars up against the wind.

Jo Anna Isaak, Ph.D.
John L. Marion Chair in Art History
Fordham University, New York, NY