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Review of Pulparazzi: Painting with Paper

Winter 2019
Winter 2019
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May Babcock is an interdisciplinary artist based in Providence, Rhode Island. Her studio techniques combine hand papermaking, printmaking, sculpture, historical photography process, and book-arts techniques, creating artwork that addresses place. She exhibits nationally and internationally and teaches widely.

“Pulparazzi: Painting with Paper”
Jamestown Arts Center
Jamestown, Rhode Island
July 12–August 17, 2019

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The 2019 Jamestown Art Center (JAC) exhibition, “Pulparazzi: Painting with Paper,” showcased artwork by a group of eight artists working with pulp, self-named with humor, the Pulparazzi. Curated by artist Joan Hall, the Rhode Island exhibition featured a stunningly wide range of technical approaches and concepts, pushing the envelope of pulp possibility and further securing the primacy of hand papermaking as a potent, contemporary artistic medium.
First conceived by Lynn Sures and Beck Whitehead, the Pulparazzi gathered in 2010 in San Antonio, Texas. These eight prolific artists demonstrated pulp-painting techniques discovered through their individual studio practices, and experimented with each other’s approaches ranging from high-shrinkage pulps and methyl cellulose to the use of syringes and mouth atomizers. They have since gathered for demonstrations and group exhibitions in St. Louis (2011), Cleveland (2012), and back in San Antonio in 2016 for “Full Circle,” a Southwest School of Art exhibition in honor of Whitehead’s retirement.
All eight Pulparazzi artists were represented in the recently held JAC exhibition: John Babcock (Soquel, California), Shannon Brock (Brooklyn, New York), Joan Hall (Jamestown, Rhode Island), Anne Q. McKeown (Secaucus, New Jersey), Michelle Samour (Acton, Massachusetts), Peter Sowiski (Buffalo, New York), Lynn Sures (Colesville, Maryland), and Beck Whitehead (San Antonio, Texas).
As one entered the JAC main gallery space, John Babcock’s Hokule‘a (2014) beckoned. Suitably oceanic for the gallery’s island location, this large-scale artwork floated gently away from the wall, evoking the universal coastal experience of repetitious waves and deep-blue seas. The title refers to the Polynesian name for Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation Boötes and a nighttime guide for ancient mariners of the South Pacific. These sailors brought paper mulberry trees to the South
Pacific Islands, where the bark was pounded for tapa cloth. Babcock,
too, beat this wonderful papermaking fiber by hand, floated the paper-mulberry pulp in a water bath, and formed the eight-foot translucent sheet. Rhythm and planetary vibes tied together the neighboring works Tigers on Mars (2012), with its Martian-like red iron oxide, and the lunar Rabbit in the Moon (2012). Babcock uses a Japanese technique called hikkake gami which takes advantage of the way long fibers “change from light to dark, depending on the angle of light,” explains Babcock. “Nature did it first!” Using a bast fiber such as mitsumata, he picks up the fibers with a ruler, and releases the line of directional fiber on a piece of mosquito netting on a screen in a vat of water. The fibers are then transferred onto a large sheet of paper.
Wisely placed to the right were works from Lynn Sures’ Montserrat series (2015), a group of embossed pulp paintings that also branch from an encounter with the sublime. Sures had a meet-cute with the monumental Catalonia mountains, a relationship that deepened with roads driven and paths hiked. Conveyed through repeated but varied pulp paintings, her approach is reminiscent of Paul Cezanne’s life-long Mont Sainte-Victoire series. Leading viewers back to the oceanic was Joan Hall’s Invasion of Hull Cove - The Venice Project (2019); two-dimensional but deep enough to dive into with its pulpy textured collage layers. Part of a series of paper variables created at Dieu Donné in Brooklyn, New York, the beautiful triptych is a visual feast that draws the eye to Hall’s intended message: the gorgeous entanglement represents the massive amounts of invasive algae found on Rhode Island beaches; we must not ignore the critical issues of climate change, responsible consumerism, and stewardship
of marine ecologies.
On the far end wall was Predator (2017), an immense, imposing pulp painting by Peter Sowiski, created by tiled Nepalese-style sheets forming a black silhouette of military aircraft. Interestingly, the bottom left of each sheet was a ‘guide’ of the entire piece, placing anxious emphasis on ideas of military plotting. There was a dynamic contrast between the imagery, the soft pulp-painted edges, and the paper’s material delicacy.
Breathtakingly encompassing a 27-foot wall was Michelle Samour’s Blue: Channeling Anna Atkins (2019), created from pigmented abaca pulp. She pulp paints without a base sheet, resulting in nearly sculptural paper drawings that are installed an inch or two away from the wall. An artist whose work lives at the intersection of science, technology, and the natural world, Samour’s newest installation expresses this interest to the core, drawing from Anna Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae, 1843–53 (the first photographic book of algae specimens captured as photograms using the cyanotype process). Blue physically recreates the algae forms in the gallery space.
In an adjacent room resided a wonderful range of works. Richly toned in the colors of Southwest Texas, Beck Whitehead’s Air, Land and Water (2017) evokes the exposed layers of earth seen at road cuts. She works with wet, pressed shaped abaca and stretches them over the base panels. Lively linear sculptures by Anne Q. McKeown also lined the wall, and Particular Instability (2019) especially invaded the viewers’ space. The wire base, drawn from camouflage patterns that the artist designed from figures in Western art, held threateningly long wire pieces that warded off attempts to look and understand. Shannon Brock’s series of pulp paintings pulled the viewer in for a closer look. Her highly detailed images with their personal and complex visual language are expressed through innovative techniques of multiple layering, intricate stencils, and deeply pigmented palette of finely beaten pulps.
Formed with the intention of sharing techniques, the Pulparazzi are now planning a documentary video, complete with artist interviews and pulp-painting demonstrations. Additionally, curator Joan Hall comments that it has been “pretty interesting that each time we’ve gathered, it’s always something new, something different.” Techniques developed individually are shared, others riff on them, and the Pulparazzi surprise each other with newly evolved, exciting artwork.
Beck Whitehead, Air, Land and Water, 2017, 16 x 12 x 3 inches each, paper over panel, as installed in “Pulparazzi: Painting with Paper” exhibition at the Jamestown Art Center, Rhode Island, July 12–August 17, 2019. Photo: Kim
Fuller ( Courtesy of Jamestown Art Center, Rhode Island.
Michelle Samour, Detail of Blue: Channeling Anna Atkins, 2019, 12 x 27 feet, pigmented abaca, as installed in “Pulparazzi: Painting with Paper” exhibition at the Jamestown Art Center, Rhode Island, July 12–August 17, 2019. Photo: Michael Derr for the Independent. Courtesy of Jamestown Art Center, Rhode Island.