6 Artists Pushing the Limits of Paper

Ariela Gittlen
Apr 23, 2018 7:52PM

Ah, the blank page! It’s been both the ultimate symbol of possibility and the scourge of writers and artists everywhere since paper’s invention in China around 105 A.D. Paper is the most humble and the most ubiquitous of artists’ tools; nary a sketch would happen without it. And for many of us, it was an essential material in our first experiences making art, taking a crayon, pencil, or marker to the page.

Although most artists only consider it in two dimensions—a surface that can be used to display photosensitive chemicals or watercolor paints—paper has a vast potential as a material for sculpture. It’s extremely versatile: It can be featherweight and translucent like tissue paper, or heavy and rigid like papier-mâché. (“Nuance” is a word artists often use when explaining paper’s appeal, a surprising quality to attribute to such a workaday material.) Perhaps most importantly, it’s non-toxic, cheap, and more or less accessible to everyone.

Below, we share six artists who are exploring paper’s radical potential, promoting it from acting in a supporting role to shining under the spotlight.

Roberto Benavidez

B. 1973. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

“The greatest influence on my recent work is the piñata,” explains multidisciplinary artist Roberto Benavidez. His papier-mâché and crêpe paper versions of beasts and demons plucked from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1450) have become something of a viral sensation.

Piñatas are usually considered a throw-away amusement, designed to be hung from a tree and smashed up by kids at a birthday party, but Benavidez treats the form seriously. His Bosch-inspired sculptures—faithful 3-D reproductions of the painting’s strange characters—are elegant, funny, and a little frightening. The larger piñatas in the series are the size of small children, with delicate layers of crêpe paper covering their bodies like fur or feathers.

Benavidez, who identifies as mixed-race, feels a cultural connection to piñatas as a sculptural form that has been a part of Mexican Catholic traditions since the 16th century. “By drawing from Western art imagery and incorporating Italian crêpe paper in my work, I’m touching upon the craft’s history, as well as highlighting its parallel to my own identity,” he explains.

Benavidez appreciates paper for its accessibility, and hopes that others will see his work as an inspiration to explore the medium. “It’s a practice that’s very obtainable,” he says. “No kiln, foundry, or harsh chemicals necessary.”

Nate Lewis

B. 1985. Lives and works in New York and Washington, D.C.


At first glance, Nate Lewis’s work looks like it’s been adorned with embroidery, rather than paper and ink. His tender portraits and images of protesters gathering in the streets are sliced, scored, and punctured in such dense and precise patterns that their surfaces resemble beadwork.

“Latent Tensions,” a recent series based on photographs taken during the the 2017 presidential inauguration, shows protesters filling the streets. In one image, Lewis has almost entirely obscured the faces of three young men wearing “Fuck Trump” baseball caps, giving the protesters total anonymity and lending the scene an added layer of psychological weight. Like a tattoo, these marks read as both wound and decoration, reminders of the body’s beauty as well as its vulnerability.

Trained as a registered nurse, Lewis approaches the medium with empathy. “It’s about assessing the paper, responding to it, and giving it what it needs,” he explains. “My approach is to treat paper like a complex organism with a dynamic, hidden life.”

Lewis is currently using a residency at Dieu Donné (a paper-making studio and gallery in the Brooklyn Navy Yard) to continue his exploration into paper’s staggering variety, as well as its expressive potential. “It’s just a simple material,” he says, “but at that same time, the variability within the many kinds of paper is nuanced and vast.”

Li Hongbo

B. 1974. Lives and works in Beijing.

“The Chinese saying ‘life is as fragile as paper’ has left a deep impact on me,” explains this Beijing-based artist. Li Hongbo—who has also worked as an editor and a book designer on titles like The Complete Anthology of Chinese Buddhist Prints and Decorations of Chinese Ancient Books—is intimately familiar with paper’s technical possibilities and cultural function.

His sculptures only require two materials, paper and glue. He creates them by stacking sheets of paper into a block one-by-one, then gluing them at specific points to create a honeycomb pattern. (Paper decorations for festivals in China are often constructed using this technique.) Li then uses a woodworking saw and an angle grinder to carve the paper block the way another sculptor might cut away at a chunk of stone.

Li’s Bust of David (2012) is an homage to Michelangelo’s marble youth, but unlike the original, which merely feels poised to move, Li’s sculptures are kinetic. Although they appear as solid and static as marble at first glance, their honeycomb construction allows them to expand like an accordian, taking on new shapes that distort their classical beauty into surprising and occasionally grotesque shapes.

The artist’s choice of subject essentially began as a practical solution to an age-old problem: living models have trouble sitting still for hours. When he first began studying art, Li’s professors would ask the students to sketch from sculptural busts instead, and it’s an exercise he remembers fondly. “The busts became patient friends and mentors of mine, and to this day, I remember the time I spent sketching them,” the artist says. “To breathe new life into old memories, I have recreated these tools of study using my own mode of expression: paper.”

James Morrison

B. 1959. Lives and works in Melbourne.

James Morrison uses papier-mâché to create ink drawings that explode into three dimensions. His small but complex sculptures show monochrome scenes of nature and animal behavior, which seem to have been cribbed from a naturalist’s notebook. In Colour Green (2007), a bird hides behind a thicket of branches, while a big-eared predator lurks nearby, baring its teeth.

Using a traditional papier-mâché process to shape his sculptures, Morrison combines strips of paper with a starch-based glue, and develops dynamic forms through repeated layering. “It’s such a simple process,” he notes. “The glue is just starch and water cooked on the stove. It’s very safe, even edible.” He models and occasionally carves the paper to achieve the desired shape, then draws on its surface with ink, creating a sort of hybrid of sculpture and drawing. He admires paper’s tactile qualities, the subtlety of its colors, the softness of its shadows, and the way papier-mâché seems to absorb light.

Inspired by botanical illustration, science fiction, and the highlands of Papua New Guinea where he spent his childhood, Morrison’s explorations of the medium are driven by a sense of inquiry and playfulness. “I view my paper work as a playground for ideas,” he explains. “I can explore without being too self-conscious, the way I feel when I make paintings.”

Lauren Clay

B. 1982. Lives and works in New York.

For Lauren Clay, paper’s reputation as both functional and dull is the better part of its appeal. “I like the fact that paper is a neutral vessel,” she says. “It’s something that we use to present proposals and ideas.” In her hands, paper covers walls in wild, swirling patterns, or it becomes entrancing, tubular sculptures.

To construct her solid sculptures, Clay uses a mixture of plaster and paper pulp; the latter gives the substance bulk and texture, and makes it easier to shape the forms by hand. Beginning in 2015, Clay began installing these sculptures atop vinyl wallpaper, adding a new use of paper to the mix. She creates the wallpaper using a mix of collage and traditional marbling techniques, which gives it the undulating appearance of variegated stone.

Marbled paper—commonly found in antique books—is typically dismissed as a decorative craft, but Clay makes it feel epic. She scans the marbled paper with a high-resolution printer and blows up the images many times their original size. What begins as a small paper collage becomes an immersive environment, with the original surface texture of the paper magnified and visible on the walls.

It’s an approach that Clay says has deepened her interest in architecture. Even her sculptures have begun to change. Her newer work resembles architectural features like windows and arrow slits (a feature commonly used in medieval castles). “The enlarged marbling pattern distorts and manipulates space,” she explains. “I’m interested in using images of paper to create an illusion that alters the viewer’s perception of real space.”

Val Britton

B. 1977. Lives and works in San Francisco.

Val Britton’s monumental sculptures made from cut paper, ink, and thread look like maps that have escaped from the page and taken flight. Cascade (2013), an installation that hangs suspended between two floors at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters, seems poised mid-tumble, made from 500 pieces of paper connected by thread.

The theme of connection, which is central to this body of work, is also a personal one for the artist. Britton began referencing maps in her work as a way to feel close to her father, a long-distance truck driver who died when she was young. “My work evokes a sense of physical space through these invented landscapes,” the artist explains, “and of psychological space and time through the layering of paper.”

Britton, who studied printmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design, is fascinated by classic printing techniques and by paper’s ancient history. However, she also employs contemporary technologies like laser cutting to create many of her installations. “I’m particularly interested in the unique and sensitive mark-making potential of printing on paper,” Britton says. She’s still exploring everything paper can do. “This interest has extended to the way paint is absorbed by paper and the endless ways paper can be drawn on, cut, embossed, and manipulated, both two-dimensionally and sculpturally.”

Ariela Gittlen