Cut paper art has an immense history, going back as far as the 6th century in China and the 16th century in the West, yet despite its long existence stylistic developments have been rare. Even today, most papercutting tends to fall into two dusty categories: geometric decoration and bland narrative.
Kako Ueda is one of the medium’s rare innovators. While her works have the intricate, lacelike precision and obsessive detail of the best historical examples of the craft, Ueda also manages to imbue her pieces with a surprising amount of philosophical weight and formal inventiveness. In “Totem: New Paper Cut Outs” at George Adams, she presents a set of works examining the dense network of relationships that have developed between nature, mind and civilization over the centuries.
At first glance, some of Ueda’s works look deceptively traditional. Oracle (2008) initially seems to be nothing more than a delicate, nearly symmetrical 36-by-36-inch mesh of tendrils and flowers cut into gray paper. It is only upon closer inspection that one notices several fruits with faces, a primitive figure carrying a spear, and a stream that flows from the mouth of a disembodied human head and trails off to form the word “optimism” in reverse. What at first appears to be pure decoration is in fact an idyllic scene of perfect human communion with nature.
In other works Ueda expands the traditional limits of the medium by painting detailed scenes in opaque watercolor and colored pencil directly onto portions of the cut paper. Contemplation (2008), a four-foot-tall piece in black paper that presents nature as a huge, veined flask shooting forth both living plants and industrial waste, also features a large flat bubble with an intricately painted ecosystem that includes a red rose, a brown wildcat and a bright yellow beetle. Only a few drip-shaped areas of black are left uncovered around the circle’s edges to hint at encroaching pollution.
The most ambitious work in the show is a 9-by-12-foot installation in red paper that swallows one corner of the gallery. Starting with a central column of small animals and blood vessels, Totem (2008) explodes out in a profusion of appendages and loose elements that reads like one of Kara Walker’s wall tableaux invaded by a multi-species circus of the damned. Clowns, body parts, birds and demons mingle haphazardly; three-dimensional mushrooms and flames emerge from the floor; strings pour down from red paper cones jutting out from the wall. This is not the quieter meditation on humanity’s relation to nature seen in the other works on display, but rather the picture of an assertively chaotic and psychedelic universe that is far too complex to be explained by lyrical primitivism or positivistic science. Without the holistic but unhinged vision of the mystic, it may in fact be ungraspable.
The marvel of these works lies in how far they stretch the medium of cut paper both formally and intellectually via the simplest of means. Ueda hasn’t rocked the world of papercutting with these works—they still look fairly old fashioned in many ways—but she’s managed to infuse them with a sense of intellectual wonder and visual excitement without deadening the delicate beauty that is such a hallmark of the form. As a result, she’s made this oldest of crafts seem refreshingly new and surprisingly relevant.