The Chinese were printing on paper with woodblocks over a thousand years before most Europeans even knew what a piece of paper was, and before they were printing on it they were cutting it. So begins an ongoing history with styles and techniques developing independent of one another across continents and hemispheres, yet all inspired by a bounding line created from a deeply contrasting, shadowed edge and the sheer dramatic impact of the silhouette.
Paper cutting emerged as an art form in its own right during Japan’s Edo period (1615-1868 – the same era which saw the rise of the Japanese woodblock print) in folded folk art pieces called mon kiri (which served as precursor to the symmetrical folded, cut, and unfolded snowflake made in countless grade schools at Christmas time.) With paper’s arrival in the Middle East, shapes were cut for the popular shadow theaters, an entertainment that provided endless variety and boundless possibility. Jewish and Muslim communities developed talismanic paper cuts to ward off the evil eye, serve as devotional objects in the home during holidays, or commemorate the dead. With the arrival of paper in Europe, dozens of localized customs developed throughout – the decorative wycinanki of Poland; the Scherenschnitte (literally “Scissor cuts”) of Germany (used by love-lorn fops to create unique, über-sentimental love letters); and elaborate Swiss bookmarks called marques are only a few examples. By the late 17th century, paper cutting arrived state side as Lancaster County in Pennsylvania became a center for the craft in the colonies. In 19th century Victorian portraiture, the silhouette was an immensely popular alternative to drawn or painted portraits, due both to its affordability and the ease with which less skilled artists could could achieve some competence in the medium.
The Scissor Drawings of Jennifer Koch involve no preliminary sketching, but are cut directly from black paper which is then applied to pages that have been removed from a 1925 Funk & Wagnalls Practical Standard Dictionary (while the random charm of the early 20th century illustrations are clearly appealing to the artist, Jennifer explains that it was the book’s name that initially attracted her.) This technique is consistent with many of the historical methods described above, although in this case the book’s text and pictorial illustrations add an incidental commentary to the work as information for the artist to both build on and obfuscate. The subject matter is at once limited but infinite, seemingly arbitrary yet obsessively focused. Sharks, revolvers and abaci (as in the plural for abacus) are portrayed in endless permutations as by turns anonymous, iconic (albeit menacing), mass-produced and wholly unique.
Interviewed by Lauren Pazzane for The Weekly Dig, Jennifer says “the scissor drawings are compulsive but not cathartic. Over explaining the art often shortens the life of the work and I choose to leave enough room for multiple interpretations. I arrive at images through a process of exploring a new set of conditions to create the work.” The life of this work seems perpetual, however, as it seems to exist in multiple times at once both in its references and its medium (nods to Victorian silhouettes; early 20th century illustration; the cool of 1960′s mod style); and the contemporary concern with appropriating a humble folk craft into fine art. This is to say nothing of the psychological implications of blackness (the negation of reason that overcomes us in our sleep during the night and ultimately, as in Goya’s print, “produces monsters”) or shadows (particularly in the Jungian sense) portrayed in literature as the malevolent doppelgänger in countless narratives from Hogg’s “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner” to Dostoevski’s “The Double” to Superman nemesis Bizarro.) The frequently threatening or anxiety-provoking subject matter in these drawings (predatory fish, guns and clumsy, archaic counting devices) further punctuates them as literal shadows of our darker unconscious. As a result, these works become unanchored in time and exist in perpetua, both in their use of a timeless method of paring down of technique, and as an acknowledgment of the darkness and anxiety that exists in us all.
For the first part of this blog entry, I heavily referenced Natalie Avella’s excellent introductory essay in Paper Cutting: Contemporary Artists, Timeless Craft.