In Paper: A Reversal or a Renewal?
Natalia Mela – hereafter “Nata” – began working “In Paper” a few months after the big retrospective exhibition of her work at the Benaki Museum, in 2008. She had just recovered from the cooling-down and inertia phase, which follows events of such moment, and she wanted to focus and re-connect with her creativity. She herself admitted to me that her workshop – a space where metal processing takes place, and heavy machinery demands the daily presence of at least one workman –, did not seem to her appropriate for the mild approach she had in mind. Paper and scissors, which, in Nata’s hands, acquire almost infinite expressive potential, seemed to be the ideal material for her new venture, while allowing her to work, every day, in her more familiar surroundings. She knew how to handle both well, ever since she had discovered that with them she could ‘draw’ even better than with a pencil. This was after the completion of the Spetses landscape-collages. For the construction of these pieces of work, Nata first decomposed her picture into simple flat shapes. Then, she cut these shapes out of newspaper and colored them. Finally, she glued her ‘clippings’ on to a firm surface. The transparent watercolours allowed the newspaper fonts to show through and created interesting textures.
However, Nata’s “In Paper” objects are not two dimensional pictures. The scissors had, now, to ‘draw’ in space, like a chisel, in order to produce three dimensional sculptures, capable of holding their shapes. Therefore, newspaper could not be used as the main material. It was replaced by semi-hard Canson carton papers. In fact, Nata calls her “In Paper” objects, “all-round structures”. I ask her what she means exactly by that, and she explains that they are made of paper, which is adjusted on a souvlaki-sticks framework, which, in turn, is re-enforced by styrofoam or plaster. Importantly, in the more recent pieces, Nata has replaced the souvlaki-sticks, with metal wire.
The “In Paper” themes draw on Nata’s very special animal “universe”, which is known to us from her previous work: goats and billy goats, cocks and cockerels, owls. Now, new members have been introduced to this ‘universe’: a squirrel, a hedgehog, a kingfisher, a swan, a peacock, and other birds. Nevertheless, apart from changing the material used ‒ switching from metal to paper ‒ there is a more substantial difference between this new work and Nata’s previous animal forms. In the previous forms, one could behold the unexpected: a composition of unrelated and autonomous metallic objects, lamina, and rods. The recognition of a specific form did not result directly but indirectly, through a game of ‘contemplative adaptations’. Surprise, allusion, visual transference and comparison effectively led to recognition. This process was reinforced by the monochromy of black or minium – red lead – that predominated in Nata’s work, with the exception of some ‘assemblages’ of machinery, in which the industrial color of the mechanical parts constituted an autonomous component of the work. In her new work, Nata goes for a more direct representation, a ‘realistic’ depiction of her models. She herself agrees with this comment, and adds, “Yes, they are very figurative, realistic. There is no abstraction at all”.
With representation, then, comes colour. Now, each animal is made of paper in its own conventional or, as one would say, ‘natural’ colour. The cartons are either bought in colour or else colored by her, as in the owl or the peacock’s neck. Sometimes, they are just white or black, like in the white and the black rooster, the swan, the duck, the black little goats. The magpie, the one with a head made out of an Ajax bottle –an intentional visual transference –, or the hedgehog with the toothpick-thorns, are a conjugation of Nata’s past and present work.
Evidently, realism is not new to Nata’s work. After her studies and the early work of her youth, it appears, pronounced, in her monuments. It can be spotted in the statue of Pavlos Melas and in the full-length Bouboulina sculpture. Also, a singular form of ‘realism’ revives in some works made during the period, which preceded the big retrospective – in the depictions of gods and mythical heroes. These figurative forms bear a strong element of abstraction in their geometric, or, rather, stereometrical structure. Nata’s current work continues in this direction. This is made evident in the three-dimensional nature of the frameworks. Nevertheless, this new work is completed in terms of a more ‘conventional’, or realistic representation. “Embedocles”, who seems somehow to intrude among the “In Paper” objects, is directly related to the mythical heroes of the previous phase. Nata, with her characteristic knowledge of the ancient Greeks, explains that this piece of work depicts Embedocles, who, crowned with a wreath and dressed in the “porphyra”, recites his philosophical poem in Olympia, during the games. In this work, abstraction is evident and, consequently, colour is arbitrary. I would suggest that, in the particular case, colour functions symbolically: purpura – scarlet – for the whole form, and gold on the wreath, in order to highlight the importance and sanctity of the particular performance.
Nata, in every one of her creative cycles, does not confine herself to intentional statements. She communicates with the whole body of her work. She travels throughout its width and depth both in terms of form and content. As she herself says, she does not have ‘phases’ in her work. The continuous contact with the living cores of her creativity provides her work with the solidity of endurance while, at the same time, guaranteeing the conditions for an inner renewal.
Alecos Vl. Levidis
* From the catalogue of Natalia Mela’s exhibition “In Paper”, Skoufa Gallery, Athens, 2012.