Paper Japonism

Kirié artist Shu Kubo applies an old art form to a new era.

By Alexandra Jones
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 16, 2010

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Photo by Shu Kubo

Watching Japanese artist Shu Kubo at work, it’s clear that he’s a master craftsman. He seems part architect, part sculptor—and, with his tiny, meticulous knives, perhaps a little bit surgeon.

“The type of cut that I was intrigued [by] only could be approached by the blade, not from the pencil or pen or brush,” Kubo says. “It’s a special edge.”

Kubo’s craft is kirié, pictures formed from cut and layered paper that look like illustrations when viewed head-on, but more like sculptures from other angles. His Paper Japonism, on display at Drexel, has a fascination with tradition and how it exists in the shapes of our modern world. Along with representations of samurai armor or centuries-old temples, there are city pieces with items for sale at market, or soba noodles for lunch—even tourists checking out the Liberty Bell.

History, instinct and a bit of happenstance drew Kubo to paper as a medium. Traditional kirié originated centuries ago in Japan as a byproduct of kimono textile design—printing the beautiful patterns on silk in the pre-industrial age required meticulously cut lacelike stencils from sheets of thick paper. But Kubo fell in love with paper as a medium as an architecture student, making building models out of cut paper. He says that since happening upon that magic medium, he’s been cutting paper pretty much every day.

Kubo’s collection takes its name from the French term Japonisme; roughly, “the Eastern sensibilities’ influence on Western art.” Though his primary inspiration is his home country, many of the pieces in Paper Japonism flip the East-meets-West sensibility. Indeed, it's the everyday scenes of U.S. cities, paralleling Kubo’s renditions of fruits and octopus at Japanese markets, that draw attention to the versatility of kirié as an art form and of Kubo as an artist.

In addition to being a renowned contemporary artist, Kubo’s an official cultural ambassador for Japan, and there’s also a great deal of commercial demand for his work—his paperscapes are the clean, modern stuff that Apple and Ikea dreams are made of. But his approach to his art—and his subject matter, when he’s not carving out right-angled buildings—places tradition and history at the fore. His treatment of traditional subjects can create the same out-of-time feeling as examining actual artifacts. “Yoroi” puts samurai armor on display with the kind of dramatic lighting you’d see in a history museum, and the richly colored boxes and pots of “New Year Dishes” might as well be in a fiberglass cube.

The modern-day subjects Kubo takes on are often less overtly clean and dignified, but the simplicity of his cuts sheds light on how complex and cluttered our current surroundings can be when compared to the past. “Overlooking Manhattan” incorporates New York’s famous buildings as a backdrop, but a decidedly unglamorous station wagon squats in the foreground. “Bagel” features a cute, almost cartoonish sandwich poised to be consumed by the viewer; the lunch cart where it was purchased and a yellow cab fill out the scene. Seaside markets, city streets or larger-than-life tourist-trap monuments—they all get the treatment.

It’s no surprise, then, that Kubo was taken with Philadelphia, a city whose identity is linked so strongly to its historical context. His “Liberty Bell, Philadelphia”—one of the few works that includes people—places the one-time noisemaker in the foreground, with two tourists in the background, admiring the view of Independence Hall.

These hallowed spaces and places become the focus for the viewer and the people in the work. Cobblestones have to come before high-rises. And what is created—be it paper, glass or stone—should be made to last.

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