“Systemic Paper” at Blum & Poe, Tokyo
by Stuart Munro
The paper in each part of Dorothea Rockburne’s series Locus I-VI (1972) is pretty unforgiving. The mixture of lines and edges are slow to reveal detail and require more than a causal glance to let that detail sink in and solidify. But in the company of Korean painter Kwon Young-woo and Japanese artist Rakuko Naito, working with paper takes on something unexpected. “The reason art holds my attention is that there is no map”, says Rockburne. Exploring the self, measuring a moment of expression, the precision of study, and focusing the act of doing the same thing over and over again, works in “Systemic Paper” orienteer the room to reveal a material focus, realizing instead of simply rendering the unknown.
Alongside her series, seven works by Kwon (all Untitled, from 1980 to 1996) and nine produced by Naito (all Untitled, from 2013 to 2016) form the basis for the exhibition at Blum and Poe, Tokyo. The exhibition refers to the 1966 group exhibition in New York entitled “Systemic Painting”, moving painting away from the Mannerism and representation of earlier years. Shown at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, curator Lawrence Alloway defined mid-twentieth century American painting as an active surface with a wide focus, from colour fields and hard edges to geometry and repetition. “Systemic Paper” is not directly a response to that, but it does place a material infused with a sense of urgency at its very centre, drawing on three artists of the same generation who have expanded the subtle geometries of paper differently.
Here, Untitled works by Kwon range in size and scale. A founder of Dansaekhwa, the Korean monochrome painting movement, he uses his hands and finger nails to scratch away the surface and explore his own physical relationship with the work. Vertical lines tear at the Korean paper of Untitled (1980), while the same lines in Untitled (1984) almost tear the piece in half. Scattered puncture marks litter Untitled (1980) from the outer edge inward, with each work pulled apart a lesson in patience and no doubt discovery.
As Kwon’s studies surge silently toward destruction, Naito’s compositions brace each other. Washi paper tests the limits of drawing or painting where any trace of the artist’s hand have all but disappeared. The work shown is relatively new with her choosing to rarely remake or repeat the same piece twice. A wafer thin paper lattice is laid horizontally below a grid of paper boxes similar in proportion (both Untitled, 2015), with panels of rolled (Untitled, 2014) and layered tissue (Untitled, 2016) contradicting and confirming what else is on display.
Yet Rockburne’s works present the biggest departure. Despite the age of Locus I-VI (1972) the series remains the most vital, let loose in one corner of the gallery while restricted to the display case of each sheet. Each one rolls into the next with a sequence of folds, pressings and coatings of plated aquatint, mottled and almost illegible as each piece is rotated around a centre point marked X. Her love of the celestial in Van Gogh or the lucid light in paintings by Vermeer or Borromini churches are channeled through the rotation of each sheet of paper, as if tracking the earth as it rotates relative to the sky, with reference points as weightless as the light that seems to follow.
By moving through the gallery from left to right, the urge to go back and look at everything again only deepens. Fold marks vary in weight, like contours on a map. Borders appear and then vanish. Paper is no longer without feature but integral to the room itself, probing the gallery for points of surprise and unexpected change. The eye runs along a pencil line that begins with a cut and ends with a tear. And as cool air blows through the room it causes soft tissue to rustle, twitch and then subside, mapping paper as a active material regardless of whether it is blank, fixed or fluid.
 Licht, Jennifer. “An Interview with Dorothea Rockburne”. Artforum, March 1972: 34-36
at Blum & Poe, Tokyo
until 17 June 2017