Exhibition opening by Stanley Cohen

This exhibition is the fifth ART ON PAPER show at the Kalk Bay Modern and I came to wonder if any of us have given a thought to the very notion of an exhibition of “ART ON PAPER” ?  Would we have come to an exhibition entitled “art on canvas” with the same sense of anticipation and allure that brought us here today. What is it about PAPER that can be so familiar and ordinary on the one hand, yet loaded with substance on the other ? Why, in one artwork, is PAPER simply a support, somewhat invisible to us, while in another, it consciously asserts its presence? Why do we think we know paper as if it were our own skin, yet we re-discover it anew when we look subcutaneously? 

As artists, we feel it when we choose it, we scribble and sketch on it, we tease its surface or bear our souls on it, we inscribe it and we fold it, we treasure it or trash it. PAPER; materially indispensable; the bearer of image and text, the archival record of history and mythology, birth and death, fact and fiction, reality and dream.  36 artists are represented on this show, some we know better than others, but rather than try to introduce you to each of them, I have chosen instead to offer my personal view of their ART and PAPER and US

And so I thought it might be helpful to briefly interrogate the nature of PAPER as medium and its place in the creative act. I want, simply, to alert you to my observations of the diverse ways in which artists have invigorated the surface and substance of PAPER to make it uniquely theirs. I invite you to look and re-look at what has happened around us, to detect how PAPER has served the needs of each of these artists, how it has inspired them and challenged them.

Let me start with a simple aesthetic proposition: A sheet of paper becomes something else the moment we disturb its surface. Whatever we impose upon its blankness redefines that surface and asserts its edge. The tickle of pencil, the scratch of pen, the wash of water-colour, the smudge and edge of charcoal are indelible traces of our intervention and an invitation to the eye. As you examine the work around you, you will revel in the polarities of tentative, intimate delicacy and wild, exuberant energy. You will discover that recessive, faded tints are as evocative as intense and vibrant hues, that veils of transparency live happily alongside dense impasto. You will enjoy an artists’ observant eye as much as you will their imaginative mind. In this show, narrative and concept co-exist as comfortably as naturalism and abstraction. So pick out those artists who, in pursuance of the classical and contemporary disciplines of drawing and painting, set out to banish the void and to leave in its place their mark, their gesture, their experience in a singular, unique, original work on paper.

In another way, this show also reveals how willingly paper submits to the pressure of repeated imprint and the several graphic prints here suggest that many artists favour this route.  The early history of printed text rapidly precipitated the natural birth of the printed illustration and the ability to replicate multiple prints from a single, original image has been with us since the middle of the 15th C. The graphic processes of wood- and lino-cut, etching and engraving, screen-print, lithography, photography and digitalization have fundamentally changed the way art resonates with us. These techniques have shifted the way we understand art and deepened our appreciation of it. The phenomenon of the graphic print, in large or limited editions and the concomitant prospect of ownership has permanently altered our personal relationship with art. No longer are we merely passive viewers of art beyond our reach. Acquisition of quality, desirable, affordable graphic art is infinitely possible, within our reach, readily at hand as a “take-away” with which to enhance our homes and our lives.

Although this particular show has few examples, look out for the work of those who challenge the boundaries of PAPER in the way that sculptors do.  20th century art history is a testament to their provocative engagement with all manner of new materials of their time. Steel, glass, plastic and fibre took on novel form in their hands and PAPER was no exception. It responds submissively to complex technical manipulation, imposes few limitations but offers endless possibilities.  Cutting, tearing, folding, crumpling, stitching and glueing are direct, physical assaults on the material which, in synergy with colour, texture and composition and the use of other media, amplify and affirm the sculptural intention.   

In similar vein, and blurring the boundaries between two and three dimensional art, there are works on display that reference “the book” as starting point.  However, they redefine its physical properties, its form and context. The cover, the pages, even its content are an invitation to acts of deconstruction and reconstruction, alteration and addition.  All manner of creative intervention turns the familiar inside-out and upside-down, imbuing it with new meaning and new sculptural form.  Look out for these on this show.

And finally, but importantly, look at those artworks that explore what I call the CONTEXT of PAPER, its very particular character, its meaning, its social identity. I am referring, of course, to the Collage art-form, of which there are several examples on this exhibition. Collage relies on the “found object” as content and through it, conveys a particular, unique narrative and aesthetic.  An old photograph, a bus-ticket, a scrap of wallpaper and a news-clipping are suffused with biography, association and memory which, integrated with text or mark, brushstroke or print, combine to tell yet a denser and richer story.  What began with a conceptual leap of faith by Braque and Picasso in their early experiments with Collage, followed by the sardonic collages of the German Expressionists a decade or so later, was to profoundly expand the visual language of artists who savoured its potential.   Examine the collages to see how they use that element as seminal feature or as supportive adjunct.

In my view, art on PAPER has long escaped or sidestepped the “high art / low art, art /craft, “investment status” controversy. It exists in the fullness of art production and its merit and value are solely and inextricably determined by the quality and artistry and gravitas invested by the artist.   I invite you to look at the work again and again and to navigate and enjoy the divergent routes that this engaging and diverse collection of artists have followed.


-          Stanley Cohen, 2014