Paper is formidable medium in university exhibit

by Amy Kingsley

Paper is, in many ways, the most fundamental visual art surface. Blank sheets of office paper and the newsprint pages of coloring books provide the first artistic outlets for burgeoning creative minds, and artists of all ages often work out ideas in paper’s two dimensions before committing them to canvas, sculpture or installation.

All of which begins to explain the variety found in the Weatherspoon Art Museum’s 39th installment of the biennial Art on Paper exhibition. But the 100-plus works by 86 artists from around the world are by no means elementary or preliminary. The works included in the exhibit, culled from emerging and established artists most of whom live in the United States and Canada, demonstrate the vitality of paper-based art as well as its diversity.

The works range in size from Violet Hopkins’ “New Face in Hell,” a pencil and paper depiction of an atomic explosion smaller than a standard postcard, to Ed Pien’s wonderful “Encircling,” a two-dimensional sculpture of children traipsing in jungle vines carved from thick Japanese paper. Pien carved out the negative space in his life-size work in which a few kids peer from behind hundreds of intertwined branches.

Curators situated “Encircling” next to another large-scale piece, a Conté crayon drawing on butcher paper by Houston artist Robert Pruitt. Pruitt chose as his subject the cult figure Lil’ Joe Washington, an indigent musician from that city’s 3rd Ward whom the artist fancifully drapes in African garb. The organic hues of butcher paper and grayscale Conté, alongside the subject’s towering benevolent presence, conspire to give the piece an oddly devotional quality. Pruitt’s Washington, robed as he is and leaning on his six-string, resembles a religious figure memorialized on butcher paper.

Some of the pieces in the exhibit were installed specifically for the show. Uruguayan artist Marco Maggi, at the request of curator of exhibition Xandra Eden, installed a piece titled “Hotbed.” He stacked several reams of standard printer paper on a grid system, and then carved texture into each of the top pages. The result approximates a bird’s eye view of an industrialized downtown. When the show comes down, the Weatherspoon staff will recycle “Hotbed” into house copy machines.

Maggi’s other piece, “Kitchen Notes,” although included in the general paper art rubric, couldn’t be much more different than “Hotbed.” The artist pressed tiny, detailed patterns into standard aluminum foil; the result looks like a dollhouse version of the intricate pressed tin ceiling tiles common in Greensboro’s oldest buildings.

Another installation exclusive to Art on Paper comes courtesy of the Virginia Beach artist collective Dearraindrop. “Free the Pets” occupies one corner of the spacious upstairs gallery from floor to ceiling. It’s a playful collage of neon pictures accompanied by a pair of 3-D glasses. Do not overlook the accompanying eyewear; they fundamentally alter the viewing experience.

The Dearraindrop collective is notable in the exhibition for fielding some of its youngest artists; several were born in the 1980s. The show features artists from several generations; some of their birthdates date back to the early part of the last century. Some of the artists hail from close to home – North Carolina is well-represented in the exhibit – but the intent is to survey national trends in paper art, Eden says.

The biennial, which the Weatherspoon has hosted for almost half a century, is one of the most anticipated art events in the region. Eden spent more than a year surveying the work of established artists, sifting through younger artists’ submissions and gathering work from UNCG faculty members. The result is an exhaustive and inspiring journey through the world of paper art.

Several of the pieces from this year’s exhibit will join hundreds of others in the Dillard Collection, named in honor of the paper industry family that funded and inspired this biennial. The show will hang in the main gallery until Jan. 21.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at