Art on Paper Fair Celebrates the Tactile While Resisting Nostalgia

Brian Dettmer showing with Stewart Gallery at Art on Paper 2019 (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

As we consume images — and art — more and more through the screens of our phones and computers, this year’s Art on Paper fair celebrated the tactile qualities of paper while still resisting nostalgia. Located at Pier 36 on the South Street Seaport, the tent was spacious and airy, featuring 85 participating galleries and six installations, with booth after booth packed with watercolors, collages, drawings, prints, and paper sculptures.

As a paper collector myself — constantly surrounded by walls of bookshelves, stacks of press releases and checklists, and piles of my own notebooks and writings — Art on Paper offered an opportunity to see this material for its unique fine art potential, part of which stems from the magic of what can be built when pages are stacked together, torn in half, or maintained as delicate single sheets. The best gallery presentations built on this complexity of one of the most common, and often least valued, materials at hand.

Tony Dagradi exhibiting with Jonathan Ferrara Gallery at Art on Paper 2019

The fair featured a number of sculptures and immersive built environments, such as Samuelle Green’s Manifestation 4, a group of cavernous archways, made from recycled paperback books, which viewers can walk through. While certainly impressive and inventive, these installations felt designed to be captured and shared on social media screens. The more interesting booths held more minimal works that built on the intimacy evoked by a page, showing groups of collages and delicate assemblages.

Right near the entrance, New Orleans-based gallery Jonathan Ferrara exhibited the work of several artists who explore the three-dimensional qualities of paper. Tony Dagradi, an artist and jazz musician, showed sculptures made out of remixed mass media books, like Readers’ Digest Atlas, Batman comics, and Watchmen. Meticulously cut-out figures and imagery from various pages are assembled into diorama-like 3D collages.

Brian Dettmer showing with Stewart Gallery at Art on Paper 2019

Showing with Stewart Gallery, Brian Dettmer took a similarly nuanced approach to transform religious, archaeology, and history books into sculptures — he takes a scalpel to various printed texts and carves out labyrinths of images and words. Unlike most of the other book-artists at the fair, Dettmer tends to reshape the edges of his specimens, cutting off spines or rounding corners, making them look more like multi-layered assemblages than sliced-up books.

Assemblages were another popular form, requiring the close attention often paid to reading pages at book fairs rather than browsing art in gallery booths. Philly-based Paradigm Gallery + Studio featured a wall of elaborate, framed “layered cut paper/collages” by Alex Eckman-Lawn. Each layer is physically spaced out, giving the piece the depth of an assemblage box, composed of religious imagery, anatomy diagrams, and vernacular photography. Eckman-Lawn’s work was so popular that many of his pieces were sold and removed opening night. Despite the sparse hang this left for the remaining fair days, each piece is dazzlingly complex enough to stand alone.

Alex Eckman-Lawn showing with Paradigm Gallery + Studio at Art on Paper 2019

At CK Contemporary, a small grouping of Gayle Donahue’s collages brought together wallpaper patterns, scraps from comics, Dick and Jane-style children’s books, newsprint text, and children’s workbooks (complete with handwritten entries) to emphasize the materiality of this ephemera. Each is made on a thick panel with a wide white frame, giving these works boxy heft in addition to delicate textures. At Pan American Projects, collages by Wanda Fraga cobbled together figures from magazines with bold patterns and blocks of color to create unorthodox portraits.

Wanda Fraga showing with Pan American Projects at Art on Paper

In a similar vein, frosch&portmann showcased Julia Kuhl’s delicate trompe-l’œil watercolors, painted to resemble patterned textiles and superimposed with lines of hand-drawn text. (“It hurts now but later it will flower,” one says; “famous for what she did not say,” reads another). In some cases, Kuhl breaks the illusion and allows the water to make the patterns run, the colors bleed. Hung in a tight cluster, the works are sentimental and unsettling — contrasting traditionally feminine patterns with troubling lines of poetry.

Julia Kuhl showing with frosch&portmann

While Art on Paper offered the enjoyable experience of booth after booth of excessively tactile works — what you might expect from a celebration of paper — I was surprised not to see more works that tackled the obvious rise of the digital. So many artists today lean into the visuals and materiality of technology, especially when making works on paper and book-related works — take, for example, Penelope Umbrico, who mines the web for images to use in her photographic work, and Cem Kocyildirim, who runs Authorized to Work in the US, which produces prints at the intersection of analog and digital. While there are fairs more specifically interested in the overlap of the page and the screen (think the newly founded New York Tech Zine Fair), I look forward to a time when fine art paper fairs at large acknowledge the exciting changes in the medium and that future Art on Paper fairs continue to resist a nostalgia for the old by embracing the new art of paper, which revels in the age of digital-mixed-media.

Art on Paper 2019 was on view at Pier 36 in New York City from March 7 – 10. 

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