Inklings at June Kelly Gallery

Inklings: Drawings, Sky Pape at June Kelly Gallery
Essay by Jonathan Goodman, 1999

Inklings,” the title of Sky Pape’s exhibition, points out the artist’s desire to have her art seen within a tradition: works on paper. And yet, while her current efforts employ standard materials—ink and graphite on paper—they are also exploratory in both category and historical tradition. At once intricate and elegantly simple in their form, her drawings extend the idea of drawing as a medium, finding not only formal but metaphysical complexity in what Pape has described as “works of inconspicuous beginnings.”

Despite Pape’s offhand, even diffident description of her art’s origins, it quickly becomes clear that she is addressing large issues and grand themes. The drawings are arresting as visual statements; they attain a sculptural volume, consisting of scores and scores of strips of Kozo paper (a Japanese paper handmade from one of the strongest of the paper-making fibers), arranged in horizontal rows. Her hand-torn strips are usually treated with ink or graphite, then pasted to one another and extended as much as two inches off the wall. They offer the viewer a series of edges, often darkened, which serve as limits to the paper’s close-to-sculptural presence. Metaphorically, the material presence of the paper strips—their unusual ability to indicate physical depth—serves to suggest its opposite: the experience of a spiritual intensity which connotes absence and emptiness more than anything else.

Pape’s method alludes to several kinds of perception, both actual and conceptual. The contemplative beauty of the work lies, to some extent, in a period of personal loss during the past few years, including the death of her sister and a disastrous studio fire. According to Pape, these misfortunes freed her to take certain risks with new form, which accounts for the formal idiosyncrasy and adventurousness of these drawings. The artist is attempting to document nature—or, more particularly, what happens in nature—as a process, without being descriptive of its particulars. As she points out, the drawings are “driven by the existence and effects of incomprehensible, random forces within a rational system of implied order.”

In the large (106 by 96 inches), powerful piece entitled I’ll Go First (1999), Pape has suggested landscape with the most minimal of means. Working with Sumi ink on Kozo paper, she begins with dark edges at the top of the composition, and continues this for the upper two-thirds of the piece. The atmosphere is resonant of a night sky. Then the lower third of I’ll Go First grows gradually lighter, with the bottom’s edges nearly a pure white; additionally, the drawing is divided into fourths, with the ends of the torn strips creating three equally spaced vertical seams. The incremental nature of this drawing gives us a visual equivalent of its process, in which fine measurements of duration—gradations of time—become physical artifacts. Mystery, an important aspect of Pape’s esthetic, is thus rendered visible.

According to Pape, the idea is to undermine “the austerity of the ordered scheme.” The irregularities of the paper strips, as well as the tonal shifts in pigment, express the variations inherent to a handmade process. Her work intimates worlds without directlly quoting them; the drawings are at once available and reticent. In The Last Letter (1998), the strips of Kozo paper are uninked; they billow out on top of each other, their delicately inked fringes suggestive of burning. A strong middle seam vertically divides the drawing into halves, which offers a satisfying physical partition and which may be read, as well, as a metaphor for separation. here, as in an almost entirely black work from 1998, entitled Between the Meadow and the Moon, the suggestion of Asian mysticism is strong, the consequence of both inferred feeling and evocative materials.

Art, as Pape sees it, reflects an essentially mysterious process, which is for the artist to imply without overtly demonstrating. Pape’s achievement is to have found a way of working that cuts across preconceived categories—of drawing, of materials, of mind. She is aware that she is pushing her media so as to circumvent expected notions of what drawing should be. At the same time, she is representing, in a nearly figurative fashion, basic processes in nature, what she calls the “division and recombination involved with growth.” These quiet but compelling works on paper don’t so much order the world as present things as they are or, rather, as they might be, if we took the time to truly perceive them.