Anyone who wants to learn anything from art will agree that convention centers are awful sites for its display. Yet our present art market insists on these slapdash venues, convinced that the next great finds will be buried in such bazaar-like environments. Under these circumstances, I find myself back at the entrance of Pier 36 — a 70,000-square-foot facility that also plays host to Seltzerland, “the nation’s premier hard seltzer festival”; K-Expo, “a celebration of everything 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.
Entering, I brace myself for the worst: the din of cocktail party chatter amplified ten-fold in the cavernous pit; the vacant, hawkish gaze of suited dealers; gauche outfits I would never wear in a million years yet which still make me want to evaporate. For the sake of my own sanity, I assign myself a simple task for the evening: to learn something new about paper. I admit that there is something redemptive about paper as a medium — and a fair that is loyal to it.
A preliminary survey of the fair gives me my first insight, one shared by several murmuring fairgoers huddled not inside the booths but in the central walkways. The most eye-catching, surprising pieces on first view are sculptural. Draping like a massive gossamer scroll from the ceiling is a tapestry assiduously woven with lengthy strips of shredded paper. Titled “Warp and Weft #05” — a reference to the vertical and horizontal weaving technique that turns thread into fabric — each strip is inscribed with words from crime and welfare bills from the 1980s and ’90s or state bills limiting abortion access. Complementing the paper tapestry is a series of photographs the artist Bang Geul Han staged going about everyday life wearing it in various unexpected ways (i.e., reading with the bamboo mat-like object covering her eyes). Not far away from Han’s piece is a summer-dress-white arrangement of perpendicularly hung labyrinthine cutouts. The maze-like pattern on each sheet in two dimensions, layered against one another and taken together, produces the illusion of infinite recession in three.
“Three-dimensional works are particularly fascinating. Paper is two-dimensional, but turning it into three dimensions takes it to another level,” a man named Jeff, who is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and carrying a reusable Target tote bag, says to me.
Most impressive to me of the sculptural works is Shanthi Chandrasekar’s “Entropy: Macrostates & Microstates.” Near the top of the hanging piece are a set of large circular disks populated with holes of varying sizes. Hanging from those disks are smaller disks made from the punched out holes — and the disks hanging off them subsequently iterate accordingly.
Chandrasekar, who didn’t formally study art but studied physics and psychology, says that from a young age she was drawn to the quotidian delights of the hole punch. “I loved the leftover negative space,” she explains.
“The more I worked, the more I got to understand the medium, in terms of not using pencil or anything else other than a piece of paper and a hole punch. I loved every bit of the paper I was punching,” she says, relating her process and the finished product with entropy. Meticulously saving each piece of paper that she punched out, she says, “is entropy at different levels; change happening. It’s the disintegration of a sheet of paper — dissipating energy.” As I follow that dissipation to the ground, I note the piles of infinitesimal debris at our feet. “It all comes down to this. After this, you can’t go any further,” Chandrasekar laughs.
“It’s also a remnant of my childhood — growing up by the sea, and 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” have the tendency to “go wild.” Critical to the sculptural pleasure (and attendant creative envy) of these works is the pleasure of intricacy in a familiar medium that many of us engage with only haphazardly and instrumentally.
Shortly after I find myself surrounded by Dave Eggers posters in an unexpectedly immersive and satisfying booth set up by San Francisco gallery Electric Works. Noah Lang, owner of Electric Works, was initially skeptical when Eggers approached him with his drawings.
“I’ve seen some drawings from people who are known for doing other things,” he says, before trailing off. But upon seeing Eggers’s visual works, Lang found them “beautiful” and “amazing.” Although many of the posters contain messages that are disturbing and depressive, the viewers who stream in seem largely charmed and humored. I tell a smiling woman taking photos that she looks gleeful.
“That exactly describes my feelings,” she returns. “It feels very accessible, which I really like.” She says that although she also loves abstract work, “the value proposition is a lot more obvious” with works like these. “The humor is very in line with absurdism, Douglas Adams-style,” she continues. She adds that she loves “the color palette, animals, and animals saying absurd things.” A second lesson, which serves as the inverse of my first, arrives: paper is all about ease, comfort, and approachability, and it’s gratifying when art on paper embodies these values.
I take some time wandering around the fair formulating critiques of it. There’s a lot that’s “fresh,” like Jeff says, but there’s a lot of sameness, too — as a disgruntled man looking desperately bored standing in line for drinks tells me. (At the front of the line, we discover that drink tokens are required. On my way out, I catch him again by the bar, still looking dour. “Make sure you write about how we have to pay for refreshments,” he says sternly, apparently struggling to make it through the night.)
Lots of works feature color combinations that might be considered “vibrant” in dimmed, transitional spaces like airports, and indeed, convention centers. That’s fine, of course, but given their so-called vibrancy, they have a remarkable ability to blend into their unremarkable surroundings. Fifteen minutes before closing, I embark on a wild goose chase to document all the uninventive works made on dollar bills, but it’s a fool’s errand: I can’t remember where any of the booths are.
That’s when Art on Paper gifts me a third and final lesson. Out of the corner of my eye, tucked away in a corner of Pan American Projects’ booth, I spot a substantial, vertical stack of yellowing papers bound 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 voluminousness — is immediately evocative to me. Contained in these papers is an essential truth about the dignity and futility of salvaging memory from obscurity. Paper is its own demise and the valor of persisting nonetheless. I let go of my anxieties about tracking down all the bad money art — a meaningless enterprise, I see now — and leave the fair, content that an event at Pier 36, of all places, has imparted me with these lessons.