There is a world inside the world that you see: The Work of Anna-Bella Papp

Nasher Sculpture Center
Nov 5, 2014 8:09PM

Art fairs are tough. The throng packs the space, buying, browsing, chatting, dealing.  The art is there, too, of course, either screaming for attention itself or hidden among the klatch of bodies.  Chaos and cacophony abound.  Physical and mental space are scarce.  It is, perhaps, the single worst environment in which to experience art.  In March 2013, at The Independent art fair in New York, Stuart Shave/Modern Art gallery from London dedicated their entire space to the work of a young, unknown artist, Anna-Bella Papp.  The exquisitely restrained works of unfired clay cut through the tumult of the fair, creating a quiet space of their own.  Occupying tabletops or mounted to the wall, the sculpted reliefs were intimate in scale yet suggested objects and spaces many times their size.  All rectangular, and none much more than 12 inches long in any direction, many of the works recalled low-relief architectural models or site plans for minimalist earthworks. They also called to mind modernist reliefs by artists like Jean Arp, Alberto Giacometti, and Ben Nicholson. Although relatively flat, the works were resolutely sculptural, often worked on both faces and even, at times, their edges. In their spare, rectangular format, subtle inflections and minor surface articulations took on surprising power.

Born in Romania in 1988 and currently living and working in Rome, Papp’s Sightings exhibition at the Nasher Sculpture Center is the first solo museum presentation of her work.  In fact, she has only been working in clay for just over three years. At the time of the presentation at The Independent, Papp was completing her second year at the prestigious artist residency program, de Ateliers, in Amsterdam.  The program of guided independent study is similar to a graduate program in studio art, but affords artists a generous studio and allows them to pursue their own work, with studio visits and critiques by renowned visiting artists.  The rage was for technology and video, which Papp dabbled in, but she kept returning to clay.  Her introduction to the material had been fortuitous: having returned in 2011 to her home in the little burg of Chisineu-Cris, Romania, with little to do, she happened upon a bag of clay in her father’s house. Papp was drawn to the tactility and malleability of the material, the physical engagement that it required.  Yet her experiments with the material, which continue today, are unlike most known expressions in clay, or works of art of any kind. 

Shunning expressionistic flourishes or methods used to make functional ceramics, Papp adopts a mode of experimentation akin to that of minimalist artists of the 1960s.  Artists like Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt, and Carl Andre restricted themselves to serial explorations of standardized forms and materials (the box, the cube, and firebricks, respectively) in order the see what esthetic and expressive potential could be wrought from such limited means.  Papp similarly limits her experiments to a roughly rectangular, approximately one inch-thick slab of clay.  Rather than aligning, stacking, or assembling multiple units, as her minimalist predecessors would, she explores the volumetric potential of each clay rectangle, not through grand gestures, but through subtle nuance and variation. 

Like architectural models, Papp’s work tends to suggest spaces and structures much larger than themselves.  Sculptures exhibit interesting geometric forms carved lightly or deeply into their surfaces.  Yet these engraved designs suggest a vastness that expands beyond the borders of the slab, as if they were plans for landscapes or earthworks.  In this sense, Papp’s work resonates with the bird’s eye view of enormous land art projects, such as Michael Heizer's City in the Nevada desert.  These slabs, which can be envisioned on a much larger scale, as if seen from a great distance, also recall the work of Isamu Noguchi, who designed landscapes as works of art, including the unrealized, visionary earthwork, Sculpture to Be Seen from Mars.

Although Papp’s sculptures may call to mind far larger realms, they are not made as architectural or landscape plans.  They are fully realized works of art meant to be experienced as they are at this modest size.  They are not intended as earthworks, but rather as intimate, tabletop objects.  Few artists have claimed that territory for their art.  One significant exception is Giacometti, who in the early 1930s created slab sculptures at a similar scale.  Works such as No More Play were meant to be experienced as intimate objects.  Recalling both a game board and a cratered landscape, Giacometti’s sculpture engages the viewer at a personal or domestic scale, yet evokes an imagined space far larger than itself.  Although Papp’s sculptures do not come equipped with moveable pieces like Giacometti’s No More Play, they do call to be touched.  They are, after all, about the size of a book, and, with their engraved surfaces, recall cuneiform tablets. One wants to be able to pick them up, feel the cool clay, its heft, its delicately textured surface.  She has, in the past, made relief sculptures that mount to the wall, but most of her work is meant to be displayed on a table and seen in the round.  In fact, some sculptures, such as untitled, are worked on both broad sides and have to be picked up and turned in order to be fully understood.

Papp’s work is at once abstract, yet highly suggestive, the most recent work drawing on literature, poetry, and life in the Eternal City, Rome, where she now lives.  Several works make explicit reference to the legacy of ancient Rome still manifest in the city.  An untitled work from 2013 has a classic pilaster carved into its surface, as if excavated from the slab itself.  Another includes what looks like shards of a broken tablet with curious hieroglyphs laid next to the ghosts of their forms (with one additional ghost suggesting a missing piece).  Papp’s works themselves, with their rectangular format and truncated patterns, have the feel of architectural fragments, suggesting a larger context in which they fit yet mysteriously incomplete.  One deeply carved sculpture seems to derive from the complex pattern of an ancient Roman mosaic discovered in the excavation of Via Nazionale, now installed in the floor of one of the galleries of the Museo dei Conservatori of the Capitoline Museums.  Yet Papp cuts a channel through the pattern of the monochromatic engraving confounding the clarity of the design and sense of depth found in the mosaic.  The addition of the indented triangular header also makes Papp’s sculpture look more like an ancient architectural fragment than a floor mosaic.

There is something uncanny about Papp’s objects.  One relates to them bodily: they have the intimacy of a book, and one can imagine holding them in one’s hands, feeling the weight of the cool, hard clay.  Like architectural models, one always seems to read or intuit them as symbolic of something larger and can imagine what it might be like to occupy those spaces.  This produces physiological responses, as well.  Suggesting ancient fragments, poetic narratives, or imagined landscapes, Papp’s work affirms the power and mystery of art: that simply looking at modest slabs of clay can evoke a panoply of thoughts and sensations, linking the remembered and the imagined with the here and now.  There is a world inside the world that you see.

--Jed Morse, Chief Curator

Nasher Sculpture Center