What do we think about when we think about paper? Maybe the scent of our morning newsprint, the cash in our back pocket or the wrapper around our fish and chips. Perhaps it's the bills that fall through our letterbox with alarming regularity or possibly our favourite magazine (no prizes for guessing, cats). I wonder if we think about art when we think about paper? Not so much? Art’s all stretched canvases, marble and bronze. Expensive materials that require some patronage and some muscular manhandling to get them to behave. Despite Da Vinci’s work as artist and draughtsman on paper, we’re led to his canvases because they feel more permanent, more artistic, even. Paper’s the poor relation.
A good starting point, then, for the Saatchi Gallery to reassess the medium and show off some of its own pulp product. Those white halls that have so often been decked with bigness and bold abstraction seem a little different when displaying works on paper and works of paper. The medium seems to suit the figurative a little more: there are pictures of things and people and there’s a comic-strip element to more than a couple of the works. What does paper do to people’s heads? Do they conform to notebook sketches and love notes? Is paper ephemera? Not likely, baby. This is no timid show of sketches.
Dominic McGill’s rangy six-metre frieze is a Bayeux tapestry of (relatively) recent history riffing on terrorism, communism, barbarism, civilisation, historiography and the once-mooted view that the appearance of a McDonald’s in a country was a sure sign that democracy finally ruled there. McGill’s pencil-on-paper monolith of modern mores is very deliberately not a tapestry or oil on canvas. He’s an artist interested in the codification and commodification of art, so what happens if you use the most common materials - pencil and paper? “No matter how much you think I’m worth, I’m just a bit of paper,” it seems to be saying.
Colombian Miler Lagos puns on his nation’s largest national daily, El Tiempo, for his “Fragmentos del Tiempo” (“Fragments of Time”), 15 tree branches rendered in painstakingly piled and carved newspaper. This is the weirdest-looking book you’ll ever flick through (actually, perhaps you’re not supposed to). What do trees become when they become newspapers? Just so many rings, descending into the mists of time. You know it.
Annie Kevans gives the lightest medium a heavy treatment: dictators as kids, wrought in ghostly pale oils. Can you read any evil in a sad-looking little Hitler? Radovan Karadžić looks like a jolly little team player; Mussolini a sensitive, feminine child. Oh well. Sparing with the marks but heavy on the lessons of history, that’s paper (sometimes).
Lest we forget, paper’s also playful because it’s so foldable, so easy. José Lerma and Héctor Madera have made a mega-size paper “marble bust” of the clowning journeyman boxer Emanuel Augustus that is funny, striking, disrespectful of the material it pretends to be and nicely naïve. It’s only old Emanuel the funny boxer – chill out! Rebecca Turner’s made a gravity-defining moon in paper that looks as heavy as one of Lucio Fontana’s floor-bound boulders, but this one just floats next to the wall like a lunar Malteser spilt from its wrapper.
Paper is a show that makes a show of the lightness of the stuff – there’s a confederation of kites and a flock of cranes like a nursery mobile, too – but at its heart this new Saatchi exhibition is a slightly crumpled note to remember to respect that most everyday yet unexpected of materials.
Robert Bound is Monocle’s culture editor. 'Paper' runs until 29 September.