April 21, 2009

Layers Upon Layers: Paper and Image

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This week’s art show in Hartell Gallery is no easy view — there’s a lot to see and dissect, from works on paper to sculpture and even sculptural works on paper. The viewer simply can’t absorb the entire installation in one turn around the room. Elliot Hess grad’s M.F.A. thesis show is challenging but not inaccessible; the conscientious viewer will not walk away empty-handed.
Hess’ background in papermaking has driven the physical and conceptual processes behind many of the pieces in his show. He combines this centuries-old technique with new media, printing digital images onto both fibrous and incredibly fine handmade paper as well as stretched canvases. Because he never stops after just one layer or technical process, his blend of “analog” and digital media is successful and quite refreshing. Given the often-simplified production digital printing allows, Hess’ long and complex route in his own image-making is very rewarding.
The installation is a virtual inundation of work which is, at first, overwhelming. Its components fall, however, into three categories of imagery regardless of their medium or scale: they are either photographic, process-based (for example, his large-scale painting derived from the act of folding and then painting a surface) or abstracted, though not purely abstract. This division of work is a good starting-point in an analysis of the show, instead of the normative method of looking at the collection work by work. In fact, the ambiguous or elusive identification of each image allows the viewer to focus on Hess’ materials and processes. In other words, the viewer will notice that he or she stands before a digital print juxtaposed with handmade paper more than he or she will note the specifics of the image.
However as opposite handmade paper and digital printing may seem, papermaking is not a static art; it is as of late evolving just as much as digital art to allow for intricate, precise and sculptural results. Hess acknowledges the new possibilities of papermaking with his wide variety of finished papers in his work; his paper has as much presence as the images that sit on its surface. Because he has installed many of his works on paper floating anywhere from several inches to several feet away from the wall, they become objects and not merely drawing grounds.
There are a few standout pieces in the show that could stand alone and out of the context of the supporting pieces in the gallery. First, there is a large digital print on a paper that has the sheen and crispness of parchment paper, free-hanging in a corner of the gallery with the front side facing the wall. This orientation displays to the room a few stray fibers of unbeaten pulp in the paper. The image is visible from both sides because the paper is so transparent; consequently, Hess loses nothing and gains much by installing it in this manner.
The second star is a digital print of a charcoal drawing on a much-thicker paper with a “real” drawing over the print. Like the unbeaten fibers embedded in the transparent paper, this added drawing serves as almost didactic proof of manual involvement in the works’ production (these are not the only two examples of manual proof in the show; the handmade is obviously important to the artist).
Finally, there is a low sculpture on the floor that consists of a printed-paper-wrapped crate, sans bottom and lid, resting with one corner over an 8½ by 11 mixed-media drawing. On the portion of the drawing within the crate’s walls sits a glass magnifying paperweight — a little treasure within a relatively banal boundary. One wishes that the supporting works in the gallery were more like this, more of a surprise to discover or less like one another.
Hess’ show communicates best when the viewer considers it as one complete installation rather than as individual works. The fact is that some of his work can only be part of an art amalgamation and some have the weight and ability to stand as discrete pieces. His work is additive, both within single works and in his sensibility as an installation artist. The oeuvre is rich because of the multiple visual layers he creates with different textures, media and topographies. Its formal qualities free up the viewer to consider material, medium and process. The juxtaposition of techniques from two widely different generations of art-making far exceeds the limits of either one.
The opening reception for Division/Antithesis will be on April 23 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.