Light and Dark, This and That

Exhibit by Andrew Benincasa

A collection of paper-cut compositions illuminated by lightboxes.

In my images, I take objects and put them into relationship with a system of things. Ornate gusts of air swirls around a woman and are transform in her body into song; a pair of hikers march through the snow, above them is the cosmos, below them is the earth and hibernating creatures; a father grieves over a dead son, a scene from a norse myth, and around them swirls the cosmology of the creation of the world and its destruction, wild imagery which echoes the father’s grief. The medium of paper-cutting lends itself to creating visually simple figures, like silhouettes. I use the simplicity of these forms as a way to highlight the complexity of the system they are a part of.

I think I can best way to talk about what I make is through an analogy: Paper-cut art is to realistic art, what folk stories and myth are to realistic fiction.
Folk stories and myths are told in the clear language of phrases like “Once upon a time” “There once were three brothers” and “A man once changed into a giant bug”, and though the language itself is simple, it can be used to build up a story that, far from being simplistic, is complex, moving, and beautiful. Some of these stories communicate ineffable depths and heights of experience (Orpheus, Oedipus, Job, Buddha). The stories can be light or dark, simplistic or profound, but whatever their content, the language itself is simple. The characters and actions are clearly drawn, and are used to create a meaningful composition.
Paper-cutting is a similarly a simple visual language – as simple as black and white, and light and dark, this and that. Also similarly, the focus of my paper-cutting is to create meaning through composing elements into meaningful relationships.
As an example, let me talk about how I made the composition choices I did for my piece ‘Winter Solstice’. My subject was the human experience of the winter solstice (the solstice is the longest night of the year, is caused by the tilt of the earth as it orbits the sun, and usually occurs on December 21st). The piece is split into three panels, top, middle, and bottom. The middle panel shows a winter landscape. Two humans are literally at the center of the piece, walking through a field of white (snow), below a field of black (the night sky). The world immediately around them is the first thing those people are relating to. The top panel shows the calendar and astronomical meaning of the solstice, and above them, the starry sea beyond our world. The top panel puts the earth’s solstice into a larger relationship with the cosmos; the bottom panel puts it into a much smaller, internal one. This panel is the underground world of winter, where three ground squirrels are in a burrow, huddled together for warmth. All together, the three panels of the composition make-up the heavens, earth, and below. There is deliberate symbol-making to this design, as well: the top panel is higher consciousness, in the meanings of reasoning and abstract thought (the calendar), and mystical experience (understanding are relationship to the cosmos); the bottom panel, with huddling, companionable animals, is the experience of the body and emotion, the realm of the animal. Also, important to my compositions, the different panels of my composition are connected, either by transgressing objects (the trees and root), or by the visual echoes (the moon above the snow, the earth beneath the sun). All these panels and objects of the composition are designed to create a meaningful system of relationships concerning those two people – those two simple silhouette paper-cuts of winter hikers.
When I make these compositions, I believe that the viewer feels, not just the objects and their relationships, but also the act of somebody relating them, which is the act of the imagination. As with folk tales and myth (and fantasy, too), my paper-cuts always have a second subject, and that is the imagination, which is both the human act of play, and of making sense of the world. It is the goal of my art to use that imagination to take aspects of our complex, messy reality, and to show them clearly.

Andrew Benincasa is a paper-cut artist and illustrator. He’s made lightbox set-pieces, animations, shadow puppet shows, album art, posters, cards, and a canopy of ornate paper-cut leaves for the artist Swoon. He currently teaches paper-cutting classes at the Textile Arts Center, and has a studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn.