16 January - 2 February 2014

Anna Howarth


16 January - 2 February 2014

Figures assemble around delicate heart-like constructions – less a parade than a fairy land menagerie unfolding like the tendrils of a fern. Figures familiar from vintage children’s books take shape – here, stands a young woman with nipped in waist, the bow of an apron or pinafore just visible, she is reminiscent of Peter Pan’s Wendy, or perhaps a young heroine lost in enchanted woods. Elsewhere, young children play with kites, others with balloons, while above, angelic figures fly overhead with trumpets. Children garbed in polka dots and stripes caper like circus performers or mischievous elves. Woodland creatures such as foxes, birds and rabbits appear on curling branches that become garlands, horses bow their heads and cats curl their tails amidst weird and wonderful exotic flowers in bloom. Every figure, every leaf and delicate frill on an umbrella is meticulously hand cut by artist Anna Howarth as part of her expressive large-scale paper cut works.

Laboriously created and assembled, each finished piece is a complex amalgamation of visual references and sign posts as well as mythology, folklore and fairy tales. Most often in monochrome, the figures are cut in dark colours against a white background, or inverted, crisp white shapes silhouetted against blacks, blues, greens and reds. At other times, the intricate paper cut landscapes take on a different quality, the figures carefully coloured in, with various colours blooming like flowers, taking the figures out of the world of shadow puppets and transforming them into altogether something else.

It was during her MA studies at Goldsmiths College, where Howarth was focusing on textiles, that she stumbled upon a book on Swiss paper cut artists featuring old images of rituals of daily life. This proved to be a watershed moment, and within these pages, an aesthetic clicked into place. This moment also prompted Howarth to change majors, going to Chelsea College of Art and Design to study Fine Art instead, from where she graduated in 2010. “There must have been something about the black paper on a white background that attracted me,” reflects Howarth. “Then there were the coloured collages – it was like reverting back to the excitement of my own childhood and the thrill of being fascinated by something. I loved that simplicity.”

This simplicity gives way to a strong contrast between light and dark – of the paper and the not-paper, where the space that is unoccupied by shapes takes on as important a role as that which is. “My work explores two contrasting themes,” she has said. “The visible and the invisible: the light and the shadow. The visible is my study of human nature, created from imagination and memories. The invisible explores the unconscious.” Indeed, it is tempting to draw a parallel to Plato’s Analogy of the Cave – for in creating her shapes in such contrasts, they take on an existence as silhouetted shadows, they are there but not there, somehow more real in this intangible form, affirming their presence through the stark contrast with negative space.

Howarth works with a scalpel, a cathartic and meditative process that nonetheless involves painstakingly cutting the paper and working with glue and paint to generate colour where needed. The various characters that inhabit her mythological realms have, over the last decade, taken on their own forms, body language and various archetypes. They hark back to images found in newspapers, photographs and the Internet, “anything and everything”, a composite of piles and piles of cuttings traced and adapted until they have evolved and metamorphosed into their own independent beings. Drawing inspiration from the works of Henry Darger, Howarth has created her own mythology, in a sense, for her works are drawn together by a common aesthetic, and familiar characters start to appear. “My characters, trees and animals are the same characters, in a sense,” Howarth says. “When I draw them, I am bringing them back into the story. They are characters that belong to me – to my world – and every now and again they are brought out into a picture.” Rather than creating new worlds or narratives each time, rather, what Howarth does is provide new glimpses into a rich narrative that is already playing out – we are simply allowed a peek at the next chapter, an update on the new adventures of her inquisitive characters.

Under her steady hand the blade slices through paper to leave behind it physical forms in smooth continuous lines – the almost-surgical action and precision revealing both the good and the bad, for with positive space comes the negative, and, as with all things, it is the duality of shape and theme that infuses them with life – with a humanness that reaches beyond the mere ‘black and white’ of factuality. “Stories, images and memories are brought back to life – all real,” Howarth says, “and I am reminded of past events, and all the various influences that have led up to these characters.”

Howarth’s works are at once intensely personal, lovingly and carefully crafted, and yet strangely independent, finished products that inhabit their own world, yet one that is a creation, and extension of, the artist’s mind, yet one that seems to have now taken on a life of its own. They are delicate, like filigree and lace, yet bold, like theatres of shadow puppets – a peculiar world of whimsy and contradiction that, like all good fairy tales, manages to hold something darker, just there, at the edge of sight, beyond the edges of consciousness.