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Paper Routes—Women to Watch 2020

Summer 2021
Summer 2021
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“Paper Routes—Women to Watch 2020,” National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC October 8, 2020–January 18, 2021

An exhibition review by Helen Frederick.

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“Paper Routes” celebrates the sixth installment of the exhibition series “Women to Watch” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), in Washington, DC. The exhibition is organized by a network of national and international outreach committees who work with distinguished curators to nominate artists for the exhibition. Final decisions by two NMWA curators were instrumental in bringing the exhibition to fruition.

In that context, we enjoy a corpus of work, mostly large scale, made with technological, hand-formed, recycled, disposable, printed, cut, and cast elements, created by a total of 22 artists in studio locations from Massachusetts to Chile, Arkansas to Italy, Texas to Peru, and many other geographical regions.

The flexibility and versatility of a mainly lightweight material is carefully and impressively installed in the museum, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the artists could not be present to engage in their installations. Visitors are guided into complex, rhythmic, illusionary, and elaborate physical and transformative experiences of materiality, as environments of comfort and discomfort.

Outstanding in the exhibition with five innovative constructions are artists Elizabeth Alexander, Jen Aitken, Paola Podestá Martí, Luisa Pastor, and Lucha Rodríguez.

In All Things Bright and Beautiful (2019), Elizabeth Alexander (born 1981, Massachusetts) presents a 10-foot-long two-sided sculptural and cast-paper work with extracted wallpaper collage. Her delivery of highly decorated found and domestic objects first lure us in to a sense of comforting pattern and somewhat familiar spaces. When we move around to the other side of the work that is skillfully installed on the backside of the same wall, we find an ominous mass of charred-black cast paper literally pushing out of the wall. Alexander imparts this narrative after witnessing a devastating wildfire in Tennessee. The duality of the altered objects from one side of the wall to the other is a brilliant depiction of a domestic vignette terribly destroyed by natural forces.

Luisa Pastor (born 1977, Spain) provides Topologia del pliegue (Topology of the Fold) (2018), constructed from accounting book papers, as a reflection of her passion for retracing time through flea market and antique store acquisitions. The series of small ivory-colored boxes within boxes destroys in her mind the “single plane of the notebook of invoices, which was necessary for its perfect economic importance.”1 On a formal level the intricacies of multiple vertical and horizontal closely fit pieces create a non-decipherable language, evoking a cityscape of open doors and windows that is appealing for its pure schematic elegance.

Lines and Planes (Temporary Structure) (2020), by Jen Aitken (born 1985, Canada), uses the built environment of the museum to create a sense of absence and presence with her use of manufactured paper, masking tape, pencil, and gouache. Aitken makes carefully constructed, dimensional sculptures that wrap around the walls and corners of a space to combine effectual ambiguity with rational structural geometry. Some of her works are studies for concrete casting. In this exhibition the viewer is asked to place their physical presence into the architectural space so that one inhabits the museum almost like a construction site, with perhaps the same uncertainty of completion.

Perhaps one of the most stunning uses of paper in the exhibition is the Vargara Palace Cornice (2010) by Paola Podestá Martí (born 1970, Chile). You can almost inhale this fine, large particulate paper matter piece as you approach the nearly 10-footlong work, wondering, as you do near it, what you will find in its many elaborate parts of gently colored aquarelle paper pinned meticulously to the wall. Martí has replicated an ornamental architecture design based on research of a Chilean palace. Unlike Aitken’s minimalist work, the hand-cut, industrially produced, and hand-crafted elements astound you as you witness a residue of an abandoned architectural heritage ridden with some small black laser-cut insects. These insects camouflaged in the immense orchestration, symbolize deterioration, the main context of the piece.

Moving from the large works to an almost microscopic observation, the Knife Drawings (2018) of Lucha Rodríguez (born 1964, Venezuela) are treasures of transformation. Rodríguez redirects light with her knife-cut drawings, all of which are exercises on how we see things and how our perspective with intimacy is important. Exquisite repetition, rhythm, pattern, and gentle washes of watercolors over small raised surfaces have our noses pressing to the glass. The work, human-scale sizes (at 30 x 22 inches), provide paper’s magical ability to sustain itself even with all the cutting in its surface.

The museum provided affiliated programs and interpretive resources: a panel discussion titled “Paper Routes: The Journey of Three Contemporary Latin American Women Artists” held on November 19, 2020, hosted by the Embassy of Argentina; virtual studio tours with the artists and NMWA director Susan Fisher Sterling; an audio guide; and an online exhibition.2 A print catalogue titled Paper Routes—Women to Watch 2020 is available through the NMWA museum store.



1. Luisa Pastor, personal statement in Paper Routes—Women to Watch 2020, catalogue for exhibition of the same name (Washington, DC: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 2020), 64.

2. Editor’s Note: The online exhibition is available at (accessed December 10, 2020). Readers may also be interested in a concurrent NMWA exhibition of Julie Chen’s artist books, “Julie Chen: True to Life.” Information about this exhibition is available online at (accessed December 10, 2020). Chen’s artist books were recently featured in Hand Papermaking, vol. 35, no. 2 (Winter 2020).

Jen Aitken, Lines+Planes, 2020, dimensions variable, paper and mixed media. Photo: Kevin Allen. Courtesy of the artist and National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC. below: Exhibition view of Jen Aitken’s paperworks in “Paper Routes—Women to Watch 2020.” Photo: Kevin Allen. Courtesy of the artist and National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.

Paper Routes—Women to Watch 2020, Virginia Treanor and Orin Zahra. Washington, DC: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 2020. 92-page, 9 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 3/8 inches, soft-cover exhibition catalogue, includes full-color illustrations throughout and statements by the artists. $21.95, available from NMWA,, tel 877-226-5294.

Lucha Rodriguez, close detail of Knife Drawing XX, 2018, 30 x 22 inches, watercolor on paper. Photo: Paco Vergachette. Courtesy of the artist and National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.

Luisa Pastor, detail of Topología del pliegue (Topology of the Fold), 2018, 43 x 32 7/8 inches, accounting book papers. Photo: Helen Frederick.

Elizabeth Alexander, Side 1 (top) and Side 2 of All Things Bright and Beautiful, 2019, 92 x 124 x 40 inches, cast paper and hand-cut wallpaper print. Photo: Lee Stalsworth. Courtesy of the artist and National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.

Exhibition view of “Paper Routes—Women to Watch 2020.” At right: Paola Podesta Marti, full view of Vergara Palace Cornice; at left: Dalila Goncalves, Desgastar em Pedra (segundo ensaio) (To Wear in Stone (second test)), 2018, 157 1/2 x 78 1/2 x 70 5/8 inches, blue sandpaper and agglomerated sand. Photo: Lee Stalsworth. Courtesy of the artists and National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.

Paola Podesta Marti, close detail of Vergara Palace Cornice, 2010, 82 5/8 x 118 inches, foam core, aquarelle paper, stainless steel. Photo: Calipsophotography. Courtesy of the artist and National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.