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Review: Zarina Hashmi imprints herself in paper

The Indian-born American artist explores the world while making herself at home in the power of an infinitely amenable material.

November 21, 2012|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Installation view, "Home Is a Foreign Place," 1999, 36 woodcuts with Urdu text.
Installation view, "Home Is a Foreign Place," 1999, 36 woodcuts… (UCLA Hammer Museum )

For Zarina Hashmi, an Indian-born American artist who often goes by her first name alone, a sheet of paper is a place as much as it is a thing.

In the retrospective exhibition of nearly 45 years of the printmaker's work now at the UCLA Hammer Museum, a black-and-white 2001 woodcut is completely abstract, but it manages to picture a place while also being one. A thick, erratic black line meanders down a sheet of off-white handmade paper from the upper right to the lower left, dividing it in two. You can't tell just by looking, but the jagged line describes a section of the long, contentious border running between the secular state of India and what became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, created at the end of colonial British rule in 1947.

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Look closely, and the prominent line has been formed by gouging out the wooden printing plate on either side, then inking what was left behind. Faint cut marks surrounding the line are still visible, as if a violent flurry of gashes across the surface has left behind a dominant scar. The division is a remnant of loss.

Yet all is not bleak. In removing hundreds of small nicks, slices and bits of wood, the artist's unseen blade also allowed light into what would otherwise be a murky, all-black place. The mostly unprinted portions of the sheet are lively and spirited, bristling sites of teeming activity. And the printed sheet is tactile, even somewhat coarse, revealing the individuality and lovely eccentricity of handmade paper.

Look more closely still, and Zarina's woodcut turns out to be mounted on top of a second sheet of paper.

The warm, white sheet underneath is smooth and clear — even elegant. (It's Arches Cover paper, a high-quality, industrially milled cotton-paper produced since the 1500s in France and prized for many types of archival printing.) Quietly but unmistakably, the subtle layering of two different papers heightens the sense of physical division — the jagged black line operating in two dimensions, the layered papers in three.

Titled "Dividing Line," Zarina has made a nominal map. Like something by Jasper Johns yet wholly her own, the print is at once a picture of a thing and the thing itself.

The artist, daughter of a university history professor, was born in Aligarh, India, a sizable city southeast of New Delhi in the region of Uttar Pradesh. She was 10 when the partition of India and Pakistan happened. Just over a decade later, her comfortable family moved to Pakistan, where their Muslim faith encountered less resistance. Soon she married a diplomat and moved away.

Zarina has since lived and worked in Thailand, France, Germany, Japan and the United States — first Los Angeles, then New York. No wonder ruminations on place are a central consideration of her prints: A sheet of paper functions as her portable but constant home

The Hammer show, which features 56 works, some composed of as many as three dozen elements, is her first L.A. solo exhibition since 1976. The engrossing survey begins in the late 1960s, after Zarina studied in Paris with the highly influential British printmaker Stanley William Hayter. (Artists as diverse as Kandinsky, Picasso, Pollock and Rothko worked with him.) From Hayter, she seems to have learned conceptual as well as technical knowledge of the medium.

The imagery in the show's first works derives from the material. Paper is typically made from wood pulp, and Zarina printed simple designs from inked fragments of wood. While remaining non-figurative, the grainy compositions suggest fences, screens, walls and pens, or else the shapes seem to fold back in on themselves. She's corralling the space.

Allegra Pesenti, curator at the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, astutely notes in the show's thorough catalog that Zarina's abstractions are built on traditions of European Constructivist art, while they also echo Robert Ryman's 1970s Minimalist conviction that the medium and the image are inseparable. It's as if paper's essence needs to emerge. In these works, the sheet of paper is in the process of being conceived as a unique and distinctive place.

The show's first riveting work is a group of 20 untitled "pin drawings," nominal prints made in 1977 by repeatedly pressing a sewing needle into sturdy sheets of BFK — another popular, highly refined white printing paper. Each time the needle pierced the paper, it pushed up a small mound of pulp around the tiny void. Dense rectangular fields of these tiny bumps recall microcosmic skin and macro-cosmic galaxies.

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