Paper Tale: Lofty Stories in Simplicity

Viewing Zarina Hashmi’s retrospective at the Guggenheim feels like engaging deeply with a contemplative mind. She thinks and rethinks each artistic exercise — reliefs printed from collaged wood printed in burnt umber, a needle pierced again and again on laminated paper, collages mounted on Somerset white paper — until she has a set that’s technically similar while each piece is emotionally unique. For designers, she reminds us that even if we have the same tools, the same constraints, the same media, our execution can create an end product that varies tremendously. Simplicity in style puts in relief the complexity of the idea behind it. In the case of Zarina: Paper Like Skin, the mathematical clarity of the artist’s lines, cuts and punctures, anchors the enormity of the subjects she’s depicting.

Installation view: Zarina: Paper Like Skin, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, January 25–April 21, 2013 Photo: David Heald © 2012 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
Zarina’s work has the calculated minimalism of Inge Druckrey, and one could learn something from their persistence. In Zarina: Paper Like Skinthe Indian-born American artist conjures five decades, more than a dozen cities and whole range of human emotions, usually in paper.
Zarina Dividing Line, 2001 Woodcut printed in black on Indian handmade paper, mounted on Arches Cover white paper, 40.6 x 33 cm, image; 65.4 x 50.2 cm, sheet, edition 16/20 UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles Purchased with funds provided by the Friends of the Graphic Arts Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
In a series of woodcut prints called “Home is a Foreign Place,” Zarina tackles separation in meditations on text in Urdu that includes  “Distance,” “Border” and “Time.” Similarly in another print called “Dividing Line,” the artist imbues a snaked line with the loss inherent in national boundaries.
Zarina, Kabul from These Cities Blotted into the Wilderness (Adrienne Rich after Ghalib), 2003 One from a portfolio of nine woodcuts with Urdu text on Japanese okawara paper, 41.3 x 36.2 cm, edition 16/20 Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
More granularly, her woodcut series “These Cities Blotted into the Wilderness (Adrienne Rich after Ghalib)” maps out war-ravaged areas: Sarajevo, Beirut, Baghdad, Jenin—curiously—New York. In the “Homes I Made / A Life in Nine Lines” series, she abstracts her many homes over the years — Bankok, Paris, New Delhi, New York (she married a diplomat) — as simple floor plans made with etchings printed in black on handmade paper. It’s hard to make straight lines look like home, but with the wavering weight of her hand she does so with aplomb.
Zarina Kiss, 1968 Relief print from collaged wood, printed in black and burnt umber on BFK white paper, 76.2 x 51.8 cm, edition 3/10 Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
Indeed, despite their abstract nature, it’s clear Zarina has a very complicated and personal relationship with the concepts — shown through title, design and, less successfully, through text — her works represent. The pieces and their attendant concepts are outwardly evocative as well, tapping on a collective heartstrings, if not collective memories. The pieces in Zarina: Paper Like Skin are about place and one’s relationships to them, told through the painstaking process and the unique voice of one’s hand. Zarina: Paper Like Skin Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Through April 21, 2013 Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter

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