A group of eight artist, apprentices and fellows out of the Dieu Donné contemporary art studio are laying bare the essence of bodies through time and space using the medium of paper.

The exhibit, entitled Present Bodies: Papermaking at Dieu Donné, opened at BRIC on December 5 and is on view until February 2, 2020.

Noel W. Anderson, Lesley Dill, Candy Gonzalez, Lina Puerta, Paul Wong, Saya Woolfalk, Tricia Wright and Swoon are the featured artists in the exhibit. All have used papermaking to realize an array of creative interpretations that draw a connection between present bodies, ancestral bodies, how we relate to one another and pass down history.

BRIC’s Opening night of exhibit Present Bodies: Papermaking at Dieu Donne
Photo: BK Reader

There’s a lot of papermaking in the world, but not enough is known about the craft of papermaking,” said Jennifer Gerow, the show’s curator. “A lot of the artist that we chose for this exhibit was to show a diversity of voices, which is really important to BRIC– thinking not only about the craft, but also a chance to address the different experiences of artists of color in a different way.” 

Founded in 1976, Dieu Donné is a non-profit cultural organization that supports and develops established and emerging artists through the creation of contemporary art using the process of hand papermaking. The studio fosters experimentation to teach a new visual language through the use of paper, often leading to artistic breakthroughs.

“Paper Poem Dress (The Thrill came slowly like a Boon, E.D.), 1995; Wire embedded in linen paper, by Lesley Dill
Photo: BK Reader

Paper’s earliest recording was 500 A.D., used primarily for written word or held as an offering.

“So just understanding paper and how we use it as a tool of communication, as part of ritual… ” said Gerow.

The exhibit at BRIC hopes to amplify art’s intentions by exploring its origins and looking at one of the very first mediums used to communicate art: paper. What happens when the artist simultaneously must conceive both mode and medium for communicating?

The past works of Ireland native Tricia Wright, for example, were books embedded with cotton paper and pages made out of abaca, a kind of translucent paper from banana trees, wrinkled to replicate skin– a reference to preserving, embalming. Like almost a connective tissue, she was interested in showing the connection between stories to the body, said Gerow.

Sculptor Lesley Dill incorporates texts by such authors as Emily Dickenson or Pablo Neruda, suggesting an affinity between language and clothing as either concealing or revealing the soul.

Dill’s eight-foot exhibit at BRIC, Paper Poem Dress (The Thrill came slowly like a Boon, E.D.) was created at Dieu Donné in 1995 and takes its subtitle from the title of an Emily Dickenson poem. Suspended almost weightlessly in mid-air, the clothing implies a haunting presence in the absence of the physical body.

Artist Paul Wong, a Chinese-American who grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, is a master papermaker who has worked with paper for more than 30 years.

Wong likens his paper lamination technique to an archeological excavation, featuring different, layered opacities– a literal “stratification of artifacts in time.” In his installation, Death of Gautama, Wong has suspended layered sheets of paper from a bamboo armature to resemble a shrine to Buddha. Pensile images of funerary objects are distored in wavy movement, suggesting the illusion of a transcendent rather than physically fixed object. In this way, Wong connects the installation to the Buddhist practice of meditation, as a release from reality.

“Deat of Gatama,” 2001=2019; laminate cast abaca paper on found objects, tissue paper and solvent transfers on Chinese joss paper embedded in abaca paper, by Paul Wong
Photo: BK Reader

Inspired by Mexican altar artist Ofelia Esparza, Candy Gonzalez taps into a similar form of ancestral communication, crafting a paper altar honoring her own body and mourning the trauma she has endured. Her installation employs pulp painting, a process that uses pigmented paper pulp as a painting medium. The pigmented pulp is applied, freely or through a stencil, onto a freshly formed sheet of handmade paper.

Gonzalez’s three large-scale pulp paintings feature abstract and figurative iterations of her own body, all celebrating unedited textures such as stretch marks and folds of skin in a palette based on mid-ton brown flesh hues.

Artist Candy Gonzalez
Photo: BK Reader

“I had been taking self portraits and writing poetry that was centered around fatphobia and the negative spirits we internalize about our bodies,” said Gonzalez, a Dieu Donné fellow. “I was looking at a lot of textures in nature that I found on my body so a lot of the textures you’ll see are reminiscent of stretch marks, you know, things that people want to hide… But things that I think are beautiful and that I want to showcase.”

“I live in Philly and I met two life-long altaristas from California, and through speaking to them and learning from them, I realized I wanted to honor my body. And bring in that altar element, which I’m very connected to through my culture and my own practices. It’s something that keeps me grounded to my heritage and to my spirituality.

“So bringing that here was important to me.”

Present Bodies, the exhibit, features artists from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and practices with master papermakers. The exhibit honors this mix of artists at various stages in their creative careers in hope of fostering a similar sense of wonder and possibility to what is held within the walls of the Dieu Donné, currently in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

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C. Zawadi Morris

C. Zawadi Morris is an award-winning journalist and a Chicago native who moved to Brooklyn in 1997. Ms. Morris holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration (and a minor in Spanish) from...

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