Paper is the grist of society—and also its refuse. Before the digital age and the ubiquity of email, nothing would have gotten done without it: From presidential memos and top-secret messages to grocery lists and love letters, nearly every action was accompanied by something written down. On the other hand, paper has recently become a major problem for the City of Boise and America at large. When China instituted strict new standards for recycling in January, the 650 tons of paper waste Boiseans produce each month became logjammed, forcing the city to cough up monthly checks as high as $100,000 to keep it and other recyclables out of the landfill. The search for a solution is still underway.
All that is to say—paper is piling up everywhere, and silently begs to send a message. The seven artists who used it to create pieces for the traveling exhibition Pulped Under Pressure, which is on view at Boise State University through Thursday, Oct. 25, saw that potential and gave it a voice. Through them, recycled paper became a gallery-filling discourse on the local food movement, climate change, pollution, women's rights, mortality, and even gender and cultural identity.
"You can use [paper] as a platform for really pressing commentary," said Virginia Commonwealth University Professor and artist Reni Gower, who worked with Melissa Potter, a Columbia College Chicago Associate Professor and papermaker, to curate the exhibition. It features their art as well as work by five other women connected with the Columbia College Chicago's Center for Book, Paper and Print: Jillian Bruschera, Julia Goodman, Trisha Oralie Martin, Marilyn Propp and Maggie Puckett.
Stepping into the dimly lit Hemingway Center gallery at Boise State, the activism behind the art isn't immediately obvious, but a handful of pieces stand out. On the front-facing wall, Potter's piece "Craft Power: Tusheti Rug 2," glows softly blue thanks to an electroluminescent wire buried in its sheet of patterned flax paper. It looks innocuous enough, but the star and triangle designs hint at Potter's time in the Republic of Georgia, part of her mission to explore "the radical history of women through their traditional handicrafts, gender rituals and untold personal histories," and share that exploration in her art. Nearby rest pieces of Potter's collaboration with local food advocate Puckett, part of a series called Seeds InService showing paintings of and quotations from female fieldworkers. It chronicles, as Potter put it in her artist's statement, the history of "corporate agriculture as the ultimate metaphor of the patriarchy."
Around the corner, Bruschera's Rules for Grammar series fills a wall like a string of stepping stones. The two-dimensional, handmade paper pieces, studded with objects like fabric-encased zippers and pencils, bear seemingly nonsense questions like "When can an -ed not be through?" and "Does an -ing always move?" Gower said that those visible words veil a deeper type of questioning regarding the labeling of sexuality and gender identity.
"[She's] using the rules for grammar to kind of redefine what some of those labels mean," Gower explained. In her artist's statement, Bruschera writes that her influences include the "global lesbian and gay liberation movements" and "subvocal queer histories."
Puckett and Propp both tackle environmental issues in their pieces, which burn brightly in contrast with the subtle tones of the other artists. Puckett's "Psyche-Anthropocene Projection" is a handmade paper tryptic showing a black and blood-red animal form—A phoenix? A dragon?—soaring across a green and violet background. Spots of bright white, crusted with glittering grains of what looks like sea salt or ground glass, suggest fires, and hair embedded in the paper layers underscore the "anthro-" in its commentary on human-caused climate change. Nearby, Propp's flotilla of sea turtles streams along another wall of the gallery in shades of pink, pale yellow and blue-green. The turtles share space on each round of handmade kozo and cotton paper with woodblock prints of machine parts: Lengths of PVC pipe, gears and screws evoke the trash currently floating in Earth's oceans.
Gower's pieces are understated, but feature perhaps the most universal message. Using paper hand-cut into intricate, repeating designs, the SmPapercuts series plays on her fascination with sacred geometry: the repetition of shapes like triangles, circles and squares across countries and continents.
"I think people universally ascribe certain meanings to these forms that are recognizable across all kinds of cultures, and partly it's because these are the ratios embedded in our universe, embedded in our bodies," she said.
For Gower, these universalities, represented in her paper, have an important message for American society, which of late has felt increasingly divided on racial and cultural lines.
"I'm trying to create private spaces within public spaces. Quiet spaces. Contemplative spaces. But also to recognize our shared humanity instead of always pointing out the difference," she said.
There's nowhere better to reflect on that sentiment than in a gallery, surrounded by the substance that once raised cross-cultural communication to new heights.