Anyone who wants to learn anything about art will agree that convention centers are terrible sites for its display. Yet our current art market insists on such shoddy places, convinced that the next great finds will be buried in such bazaar surroundings. Under these circumstances, I find myself at the entrance to Pier 36 – a 70,000 square foot facility that also hosts Seltzerland, “the nation’s premier hard seltzer festival”; K-Expo, “a celebration of all things Korean pop culture”; and the Sneaker Exit, “the ultimate sneaker trade show” – to cover Art on Paper, a fair that claims to showcase the preeminent modern and contemporary artists working on paper.
As I enter, I brace myself for the worst: the din of cocktail chatter increased tenfold in the cavernous pit; the vacant and warlike gaze of merchants in costume; left outfits I never would have worn in a million years that still make me want to evaporate. For my own sanity, I set myself a simple task for the evening: learn something new on paper. I admit there is something redeeming about paper as a medium – and a fair that is faithful to it.
A preliminary study of the fair gives me my first glimpse, that shared by several murmuring carnies huddled not inside the stands but in the central aisles. The most eye-catching and surprising pieces at first glance are sculptural. A tapestry woven assiduously with long strips of shredded paper drapes like a huge roll of gauze from the ceiling. Titled “Warp and Weft #05” – a reference to the vertical and horizontal weaving technique that turns yarn into fabric – each strip is inscribed with words taken from 1980s crime and welfare bills and 90 or bills limiting access to abortion. The paper tapestry is complemented by a series of photographs that artist Bang Geul Han has staged in daily life by wearing it in various unexpected ways (i.e. reading with the bamboo mat covering his eyes). Not far from Han’s room is a white sundress arrangement of labyrinthine cutouts hanging perpendicularly. The maze-like pattern on each two-dimensional sheet, superimposed on each other and taken together, produces the illusion of an infinite three-way recession.
“Three-dimensional works are particularly fascinating. Paper is two-dimensional, but turning it into three-dimensional takes it to another level,” a man named Jeff, who wears a Hawaiian shirt and a Target reusable tote bag, tells me.
The most impressive to me of the sculptural works is “Entropy: Macrostates & Microstates” by Shanthi Chandrasekar. Near the top of the hanging piece are a set of large circular discs populated with holes of varying sizes. Suspended from these discs are smaller discs made from the drilled holes – and the discs suspended from them then iterate accordingly.
Chandrasekar, who did not formally study art but studied physics and psychology, says that from an early age she was drawn to the everyday delights of punching. “I loved the remaining negative space,” she explains.
“The more I worked, the more I understood the medium, in terms of not using a pencil or anything other than a piece of paper and a hole punch. I loved every piece of paper I punched,” she says, associating her process and the finished product to entropy. Carefully guarding every piece of paper she punched, she says, “is entropy on different levels; change is happening. It’s the disintegration of a sheet of paper, which dissipates energy. As I follow this dissipation down to the ground, I notice the infinitesimal piles of debris at our feet. “It all comes down to this. After that, you can’t go any further,” laughs Chandrasekar.
“It’s also a remnant of my childhood – growing up by the sea, coming to this country, and the snow, the rain, the leaves,” she says. As an aside, she adds that she wasn’t too strict with herself about calculating the number of holes in each disc, but that “prime numbers” tend to “go wild”. The enjoyment of complexity in a familiar medium that many of us only engage with haphazardly and instrumentally is essential to the sculptural enjoyment (and consequent creative urge) of these works.
Shortly after, I find myself surrounded by posters of Dave Eggers in a surprisingly immersive and satisfying booth set up by the San Francisco Electric Works gallery. Noah Lang, owner of Electric Works, was initially skeptical when Eggers approached him with his designs.
“I’ve seen drawings of famous people doing other things,” he says before pausing. But upon seeing Eggers’ visual works, Lang found them “beautiful” and “amazing.” Although many of the posters contain disturbing and depressive messages, the viewers who stream in seem largely charmed and humorous. I tell a smiling woman taking pictures that she looks happy.
“That describes my feelings exactly,” she replies. “It’s very accessible, which I really like.” She says that while she also enjoys abstract work, “the value proposition is much more evident” with works like these. “The humor is very close to the absurd, à la Douglas Adams”, she continues. She adds that she loves “the color palette, the animals and the animals saying nonsense things.” A second lesson, which serves as the inverse of the first, arrives: paper is all about ease, comfort and accessibility, and it is gratifying that art on paper embodies these values.
I take the time to wander around the fair making reviews. There are a lot of “fresh” things, as Jeff puts it, but there are also a lot of similarities, as a disgruntled man who looks hopelessly bored and stands in line for a drink tells me. (At the start of the line, we find out that drink tokens are required. On my way out, I catch up with him again near the bar, still looking dour. “Make sure you write about how we have to pay the refreshments,” he said sternly, apparently struggling to get through the night.)
Many works feature color combinations that could be considered “vibrant” in dark, transient spaces like airports and, indeed, convention centers. That’s fine, of course, but given their so-called dynamism, they have a remarkable ability to blend into their mundane surroundings. Fifteen minutes before closing, I embark on a wild goose hunt to document all the non-inventive works done on the dollar bills, but it’s a mad rush: I can’t remember where the kiosks are.
It was then that Art on Paper offered me a third and final lesson. Out of the corner of my eye, hidden in a corner of the Pan American Projects booth, I see a large vertical pile of yellowed papers tied together with string. It’s by José Manuel Fors, a Cuban artist concerned with accumulation, memory and loss. I am a textual person, so this piece – with its fragility, integrity and volumetry – immediately evokes me. These articles contain an essential truth about the dignity and futility of rescuing memory from obscurity. Paper is its own demise and the value of persisting nonetheless. I let go of my anxieties about tracking down all the bad money art – a meaningless endeavor, I see now – and leave the fair satisfied that an event at Pier 36, of all the places, gave me these lessons.