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Media Adds Meaning

Xiyadie Burn The Tradition 2011

Xiyadie, "Burn The Tradition" 2011

This week, my son sent me a news story he had come across about a Chinese artist who uses cut paper for cutting edge (pun intended) artworks. It made me think about how artists choose and use materials for expressive purposes.

Cut paper is a traditional media in native cultures on both hemispheres and above and below the equator. Wikipedia describes different traditions in different countries around the world.  The article asserts that the craft originated in the 6th century in China. I am guessing that there may have been earlier examples but that they haven’t survived. The earliest archeological evidence of paper comes just before the time of Christ.

Paper was a revolutionary new material for writing, drawing, packaging, or covering. Eventually, it replaced papyrus, silk, and parchment because it could be produced more cheaply and easily. It was also more versatile than those materials.

Human creativity being what it is, new decorative arts also developed and established traditions. In addition to drawing and painting on the surface, shaping the edges and cutting negative shapes from the interior of pieces of paper is easy. It is also possible to construct three-dimensional objects from paper like lamps and origami. This cheap, ubiquitous material was perfect for artists.

If we go back to our communications model,  we need to consider the artwork in terms of the medium, technique, form, content and context. If we take each of those into account, we learn something about how the pieces communicate.

Except as a traditional craft, cut paper has not been used as an avant-garde medium very often. With cut paper the options for artists are quite limited because there are only a few ways that the materials can be manipulated. Using the “Art as Communication” model, here is an analysis:


  • Paper


  • Paper textured or smooth
  • Torn, cut, or non-molested


  • Flat or 3-dimensional
  • Colored or white or natural
  • Usually small scale


  • Because the materials are traditional to cultures, the artworks carry those associations with them
  • Because this medium is not customarily used for fine art, exhibition in a museum, gallery or other art exhibition space surprises viewers


  • The content in folk art is traditional motifs

Artists need to be aware of how these conditions impact the reading of their artworks. The medium itself can be very important, especially if it is handled in an unusual way or the subject matter is really unique for that medium.

Some contemporary uses of cut paper provide good examples.

On May 13th the LA Times reviewed a new exhibition by Xiyadie,an artist from Mainland China. He uses cut paper to illustrate homosexual sex acts along with more traditional subjects. A taboo subject in China, the artist uses a medium and technique rooted in his cultural history. Born in a village in the countryside, the artworks marry his cultural traditions with his artistic expression and that relationship adds layers of meaning to the work.

Kara Walker, an African-American avant-garde artist  began creating cut paper silhouettes almost two decades ago while she was in graduate school. She adopted the medium because it is in keeping with her narratives about life in the Southern States during the 19th Century. As the descendant of slaves, she appropriates the craft to create what look like sentimental souvenirs but suggest complicated representations of racial interrelationships. The cartoon-quality of the depictions contradicts the seriousness of the content.

Both Xiyadie and Walker are using a folk medium to add meaning to their artworks. In their own ways both artists depict shocking content. The simple medium that is intrinsic to the cultural histories of both artists reminds us of who they are and supports their credibility. Walker has been widely criticized for portraying slaves as relational participants rather than victims.  Xiyadie is a rural husband and father, but also an openly gay Chinese man in a society that isn’t sympathetic. The cut paper is a good medium for both their works.


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