PictureCaged Lovers: Rob Ryan

Whether stamped, signed, printed, typed or scrawled on during lectures, paper will undoubtedly have formed part of your day. In the past few years a number of artists have been exploring the artistic possibilities of this ubiquitous material. One such is Su Blackwell, a British artist who creates dioramas inspired by the worlds of fairy-tales and by the literary worlds of Narnia, Alice’s Wonderland, the Secret Garden, Neverland, and Wuthering Heights. The castles, trees, birds, lampposts and moons of these stories are cut out from the pages of the books themselves, whilst the characters are often cut from Victorian illustrations, so that the scenes seem to be emerging from the open pages of dusty old hardbacks. 

Su Blackwell uses comfortingly familiar literary characters and scenes, whilst the text wraps around the white landscapes creating a dreamy and enchanting atmosphere, entirely different from any two-dimensional illustration. The delicate paper of these ‘book sculptures’, as Su Blackwell explains on her website, reflects the ‘vulnerability of childhood’ and ‘the fragility of our life, dreams and ambitions’. The ephemerality of paper is also an interesting contrast to the enduring literary sources she works with; many of which are still immediately recognisable, despite being well over a century old. Su Blackwell’s work celebrates the pleasure of reading: of creating new worlds from only ink and paper.

Imagination is also prominent in Rob Ryan’s beautiful paper cut outs. Each of his intricate designs is cut from a single sheet of coloured paper, sometimes only held together by incredibly delicate branches or chains. His work often depicts two lovers surrounded by a mass of birds, leaves and branches or, particularly in his more recent work, against a night sky with hundreds of tiny star-shapes cut out from the paper. These ‘papercuts’ are not just impressive in their craftsmanship, but are made romantic and charming by the phrases that are included in many of them. Rob Ryan’s large-scale paper cut outs for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (2009-10) centred around the phrase ‘You Can Still Do A Lot With A Small Brain’, for example, and one of the mugs recently designed by him features the slogan ‘Believe In People’. This refreshingly un-cynical approach to modern art and life is reinforced by the folk-art style of the hand-cut and imprecise shapes in his work and by the bright, bold colours.


PictureOut of Narnia: Su Blackwell

This idea of paper art being both modern and traditional has made it a popular choice for advertisers. The list of companies Su Blackwell has worked with includes Nicole Farhi, the Green Party of Sweden and Volvo, whilst Rob Ryan has worked with, among others, Paul Smith, Fortnum and Mason and Carol Ann Duffy, whilst both have created work for Elle and Vogue. This range of commissions reflects their ability to turn paper into something that represents luxury, craftsmanship, fashion, Green ethics, tradition, and poeticism. Su Blackwell and Rob Ryan strip paper of its associations with the tedious grownup world of bank statements, receipts, exams and take-away flyers and remind you of the beauty and inventiveness of children’s toy theatres, pop-up books and paper snowflakes. 

Sophie Lealan