22 March 2016
More than 25 years ago, when Richard Gorman first visited Japan’s “paper village”, Echizen, and met traditional Japanese paper-maker Iwano Heizaburo, he immediately wanted to work with the kozo paper he produced. The fibres of the kozo plant, or paper mulberry tree, make for very strong, stable paper, even as fine tissue, but its production is labour-intensive and calls for skill and experience.
Gorman wanted large, robust sheets in which the texture and character of the paper were fully apparent. “I had no idea of the cost,” he recalls. Initially he thought he would buy 100 sheets and ship them back to his studio in Milan.
He asked how much it would cost. “It was eye-wateringly expensive.” So he revised his expectations and ordered 10 sheets. Eventually, back in Milan, he undid the parcel. “There were 20 sheets of paper,” he says. It was an auspicious beginning for a fruitful partnership. Not only did he return many times to Echizen for paper, he developed a method of integrating the process of paper manufacture in his own work, putting himself in the thick of things at Heizaburo’s studio.
As a painter and printmaker, he is know for making elegant abstract compositions of regular curvilinear forms in flat colour. Looking at the way thick sheets of kozo paper were made, he realised that he could create carefully designed dams with steel hoops and introduce areas of pre-dyed paper. In the finished sheets, in other words, the coloured areas would be an indelible part of the fabric, not applied to the surface. The results are hybrids, and he likes to exhibit them unframed so that observers can appreciate their combined painterly and sculptural character. Doing so also highlights another duality: they come across as being both strong and fragile.
Last year, an intriguing commission led him back to Echizen to produce his largest paper works to date. In diptych format, each piece is well over 3m wide. The colours are bright and good-natured, and besides simple circles, the dominant, waisted form, which he calls “Squeeze”, has a buoyancy to it. Encountered in the gallery, the works are amazing, physically imposing yet playful in spirit.
Sadly, Heizaburo died earlier this year, and Gorman has calld this body of work Iwano in his memory. Following on from Heizaburo’s initial generosity, the artist discovered last year that Heizaburo had, ever since, thrown open the facilities of his paper-making studio to him at a fraction of the actual cost. At the end of May, Gorman plans to mark his 70th birthday with a major exhibition at Castletown House in Co Kildare. Until May 7th, kerlingallery.com