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Posit(ion)ing: A Look at Negative Space

Summer 2016
Summer 2016
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Buzz Spector is an artist and writer living in St. Louis, Missouri. He has had solo exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, Grunwald Gallery of Art at Indiana University, Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, and at many galleries and alternative spaces. The transcript of remarks by Spector appears in Threads Talks, a series of talks devoted to the arts of the book, newly published by Granary Books/Cuneiform Press. The following essay accompanies Hand Papermaking's eleventh limited-edition portfolio Negative Space in Handmade Paper: Picturing the Void.  We consider negative spaces in life to be antagonistic to what's positive, and   there's a mighty industry of uplifting affirmations encouraging us to accentuate   the positive and avoid the negative. In artworks we consider the positive   spaces to be where we find what's there to look at, defining the rest as   of no importance. But if there's to be "there" at all, in experience or perception,   we must have a certain "thereness" against which something else is not   there. The coexistent thereness and not-thereness of art's material aspects   embody this circumstance.   Here you have a portfolio of artists using paper to explore negative space;   to "Picture the Void," as the title on the clamshell box declares. But the "Void"   is essentially singular; its non-being is not portion-able without making its   portions into things, and a thing must be someplace while what it's not must   be someplace else. The works collected here all provide meaningful negative   space for us to explore.

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Each, then, posits meaning as arising from some aspect of "not-thereness" which we seek because what is there, in this work and that, does not achieve its "thereness" except through that seeking. It is no accident, however, that none of the 22 participating artists have crafted works with mere holes in them. This writing begins with an epigram from Carl Andre which I will restate thusly: A hole in a thing is a thing in itself. The most obvious material negative in anything is an actual hole we find there, but seeing the hole as the missing part makes for a brief and self-evident exploration of "thereness." Instead, the artists you'll find here offer whole works in which subtler means of absenting, occluding, layering, or isolating invite us to care about what (or whom) is not there. Posit(ion)ing: A Look at Negative Space buzz spector Negative Space in Handmade Paper: Picturing the Void, 2014, 9¼ x 11¾ x 2 5/8 (closed), 19 handmade paper artworks in loose folios and a booklet with essay and artist statements, housed in a clamshell box. View shows Wheel of Time by Béatrice Coron, with Amy Jacobs. All photos by and courtesy of Jim Escalante. summer 2016 - 41 Considering, then, absence, where our scrutiny of a thing does not confirm its wholeness. How do we recognize that something's missing? Roberto Mannino's vessel—or is it a nest?—is present as impression and printing, while the ovoid gray form of its hollow is pulp painted where we'd expect an interior shadow to fall. Another shadow, of latticed gray lines, evokes the outside of the vessel while woodblock raindrops, outlined white against yellow, fill the field. If drawing makes shadows into substance here, we are made to see the unrendered container by our belief that the form of its interior must be surrounded. Belief and its vicissitudes shadow Cynthia Nourse Thompson's work. A sheet of black cotton is letterpress printed with a pattern of thistles, also in black, to make a spiky garland of silhouettes and inked sheen. The bilateral symmetry of the pattern incorporates an oval vignette, within which a woman's head and shoulders are evoked by the folds of a veil. Where we expect a face we find only featureless paper, but recognizing the veil as empty is complicated by another element, a single tear-shaped impression beneath. It is as if the force of that shed tear has left a basin for other tears to fill. Yet, that tear is also the only thing outside the pattern. Could there be any more hopeful sign of remorse creating an opening for forgiveness? While absence is strongly a function of representation, a work need not engender a sense of absence through sheer pictorial means. Victòria Rabal uses the watermark process to make the pliant grid of a fishing net in translucent abaca against opaque cotton, so that space has more materiality than substance here. However, the mesh is "torn" in one place, an interruption in the grid which is also an outlet, drawing the eye to it like a fish finding freedom. The apertures activating Emily Chaplain's sheet cohere as a depiction of a cathedral rose window. The suggestion of architectural space is enhanced by a diaphanous layer of abaca, whose translucence evokes light filtering through glazing into a sacred space. The stencil she hand cut to "draw" the structure has left softened margins of its openings, as if the light falling into the interior was curving gently around the edges of things. Gabrielle Galbreth meditates on the correlation of absence to mortality by giving us the silhouette of a chair as watermark at the verge where a pulp-painted wallpaper pattern fades into nothingness. The work's rounded corners cue us to a Victorian sentiment paralleling the Queen Anne attributes of the chair back. The historical references in the work are intended by the artist as remembrance of a deceased grandparent, but the transpositions of substance and space, of light and weight, evoke everyone's final vanishing act. Occlusion is overshadowing, the something we don't notice because something else makes earlier claim on our attentions. Karen Hardy's sheet of abaca and flax offers a vertical sequence of overlapping circles. In the translucent fiber field the circles are barely visible as shapes, except where a spray of light sand outlines the topmost circle while a shadow of dark sand forms the inside of the one below. A third circle at the bottom of the sheet might escape notice as it is made without sand so that only a vestige of difference in paper body allows us to see it. While the grains of sand make the other circles into things, the stencil forming the third circle renders it as a portal. Apothecary jars were made to show the things they contain as much as to preserve their contents. As such, they are closer in attitude to vitrines than to storage bins. Erin Harmon explores this signification in a jar form outlined against black cotton whose interior is a lush—but also sinister—"terrarium" of foliage and branches, blossoms and detritus, made with paint, silkscreen, stencil, collage, and pulp painting. The material and chromatic vitality here is something other than "natural." The pigments are as garish as mold while the tendrils are uncannily geometric, recalling the toxic botanicals made by the title doctor in Nathaniel Hawthorne's story, "Rappaccini's Daughter." A clash of black and red is enacted in John Babcock's work by his laying of a sheet of wet black cotton onto a slightly larger sheet of red abaca. Lifting and cutting the bottom right corner transforms the red beneath into something solid that penetrates the black atmosphere above. Figure–ground is ever so subtly contradicted by the black on black arc of hikkake-gami that sweeps across the top of the cotton. Once we notice its sheen we can then see that this arc transmogrifies the black layer from a weighty something on top of red into a spacious opening through it. One thing on top of another makes for a work with a middle, with unseen portions that lie below, which are often also spaces to be imagined in the face of what has cleaved one material to another. Jared Akerstrom's laser-cut paper diagram evokes Euclidean geometry. Its bilateral symmetry suggests such scientific graphics as the isotropic coordinates used by astrophysicists to model "wormholes." It rests on a field of four radiating marbleized whorls, whose irregular contours also make reference to mapping frequencies, as of sounds or radiation. The diagram appears to "float" above the whorls, making the marbled surface into a receding ether. Aïdée Bernard's work eyes us back as we look at it. The "sheet" is an armature of fragile leaf skeletons, slightly embodied by pulp of wild oats and viscous material. Well-aimed jets of water penetrated the wet pulp to make a watermark drawing of a pattern of wide-open eyes. The evocation here is of Plato's Alcibiades I, in which Socrates notes that "the eye, looking at another eye … at that part of the eye \[the pupil\] where sight, which is the virtue of the eye, resides, will see itself." These graphically materialized eyes aren't the only ones we behold; other printed eyes are here as well, although in seeing these we also see that they are looking away. Language is always layered, with meaning upon meaning residing in its structure and syntax. Megan Singleton's aleatory text, a "poem" made up of cut-out and rearranged lines from a botany textbook, is letterpress printed on an abaca sheet, both sides of which have been pulp painted with meandering lines in white, summer 2016 - 43 John Babcock, N-Space Aggregator, 2014, 10 x 8 inches, aligned abaca fibers (black) on a black cotton sheet couched on top of a red abaca sheet, clear acrylic surface sizing. Jared Akerstrom, Untitled, 2014, 11 x 8½ inches, laser-cut handmadepaper (mixture of "found" pulps), waterleaf bleached abaca paper marbled with Golden fluid acrylics and carrageenan. Aïdée Bernard, Visualité, 2014, 7½ x 7½ inches, inkjet printing on watermarked handmade paper (wild oat backed with ivy leaf skeletons). taupe, and dark brown cotton. These lines simulate the serpentine tunnels, called "galleries," left by ash borer beetle larvae feeding on wood just beneath the bark of ash trees. The tracks of this damaging insect resemble a kind of decorative inscription of just the sort we'd find in another kind of gallery, so entomology and etymology come together in this work. Michelle Samour also employs layering to make art that references forms in nature; in this case the intricate mineral skeletons of radiolaria, single-celled organisms whose silica remains are among the oldest fossils in the Earth's geological record. More precisely, the evocations are of a pair of nineteenth-century artists, Ernst Haeckel and Anna Atkins, who made artful illustrations (Haeckel) or else used cyanotype photograms (Atkins) to represent exquisite polygonal radiolarian structures. The blue-pigmented abaca sheet incorporates white flecks of kozo fiber that appear to float around or through a watermark drawing of radiolaria. During a 2012 visit to the Portland Chinese Garden, Paul Wong took a photograph of vegetation beyond a lattice window. Cutting the photograph to make a stencil transformed its contrasts into a silhouette. The base of the work is a layer of cotton. The middle is unbleached abaca, and the topmost, stenciled layer is white-pigmented linen. The pulp is carefully sprayed away from the exposed areas of the stencil to make a sheet that bears a subtly silhouetted scene of branches and foliage against a latticed window grill. Contemplating this image we do not know if we are inside or out. Layers can be made by folds as well as lamination, and Béatrice Coron has cut and folded wheels of double-couched blueblack/ white paper, made by Amy Jacobs, to form a circle into which the individual letters of a circular phrase, "…positives transform negatives become positives…" are cut out of the paper. The other, partially cutout elements are four human figures, attached by their hands or feet to the sheet and folded over so that their white silhouettes overlap upon the blackness. These figures can be lifted up so that they appear to be standing or doing handstands. The fold in the collaborative work by Anne Covell, Steph Rue, and Radha Pandey is not immediately visible. A grid of silk threads is embedded in abaca on which a coating of beeswax has been ironed. The seven different colors of the threads are arranged so as to make a progressively lighter gradient across the surface of the work. The threads are trimmed at one edge but extend outward from the opposite side. The loose threads are a clue that the sheet from which they emerge has been folded, and opening it is like reading a letter whose words are escaping the paper they were written upon. Isolation is to be dreaded, the space separating us from others whose presence we long to feel. Isolation, then, is a negative state, but also a pictorial one, for we recognize its affect only by reading a nothingness into the something before us. Kyle Holland combines pulp painting of tree trunks with inkjet printing of a foggy atmosphere and a lone deer. Head turned to look over its shoulder, the deer eyes a nothingness beyond the edge of the image. This solitary animal is rendered even more vulnerable by being skinless—the image is taken from a taxidermy catalog—while the trees are completely devoid of leaves. Even the ground is missing, although we infer its presence through the cast shadow of the deer. Everything in this picture shares the bareness of outermost layers peeled away. Tom Leech provides us with a map of terra incognita, the historical cartographic term for unexplored lands. The name of the territory, "UNKNOWN," is given in wide-spaced letterpress capitals running diagonally across the abaca sheet. The paper also includes strips, cut from a Rand McNally road atlas, that are each details of someplace but which taken together won't get you anyplace. The missing parts here make pointed reference to a different sort of lostness, that of Alzheimer's disease. The disorientation of dementia is clearly read in this map to nowhere. The translucency of abaca lets what lies beneath the sheet enter a bit into the visible realm. Elizabeth Sheehan employs translucency as embodiment of vagueness—as in vague recollection— in a composition whose two components, a family photograph from a childhood camping trip at bottom left and a random newspaper obituary at top right, are embedded in its material. These immersions, however, are not complete; small, but crucial, portions of each element were protected by stencils during couching, then peeled away to create moments of vividness, of hands in the picture and of the words "beloved" and "devoted" in the text. We cannot know whether the figures in the image are named in the obituary (the artist says they're not), but whatever the sheet is placed upon adds something else to the space between them. The figures and words in Lesley Dill's work seem to float above a spiraling cloud. Is this a vortex drawing everything in or an explosion throwing everything out? The line of poetry to be read, "a Void through which you pass like Rays," is from the poet Tom Sleigh, who has written about outer space as a site for consciousness in extremis, but the figure silhouettes could be from anyplace. Their differences in size propose that the ones nearer the middle of the sheet are farther away. Powdery sparkles are also seen in the middle, as vague a nebulosity as dust motes adrift in a beam of sunlight. One other element in the picture both confirms its isolating space and extends a line outward for us to grasp; the length of blue thread that emerges from the chest of the uppermost figure. This filament evokes another thread, that of a story line. Tie it to yourself to have a heart-to-heart. Through substance and images all the artists here have brought creative force to manifestations of negative space. Every not-thereness thus emphasized becomes something there. "There there" is a comforting repetition we bring to some minor forms of suffering, although Gertrude Stein disparaged Oakland, California by saying "there is no there there." Perhaps negative space is best eliminated—or is that illuminated?—by thinking not of Stein but of Johnny Mercer, lyricist of that old Harold Arlen standby, "Ac- Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," wherein he notes "have faith or Pandemonium's / liable to walk upon the scene."  The portfolio houses Spector's whip-smart text, 19 artworks that explore in handmade paper the point at which what is negative becomes positive, and statements, both aesthetic and technical, by the participating 22 artists. All of the works in the portfolio are reproduced here. Ed. A thing is a hole in a thing it is not. — carl andre