Tres y uno, 2020. Cut amate paper and drawing, 60 x 170 cm. Photo: Paola Herrera

Inner Space: A Conversation with Laura Dalton

Laura Dalton has had a love affair with paper for decades. A meticulous, obsessive, and patient artist, she constantly seeks new ways to rework her material, which ranges from maps, sheet music, photographs, and book pages to traditional bark paper and ordinary white sheets. Sometimes she creates objects and installations that project out into space, and sometimes her manipulations pierce the two-dimensional plane, generating layers of depth and producing a sort of inverted low relief governed by the interaction of light and shadow. Nature, observed and reimagined, manifests itself in many of Dalton’s works, echoing the flora and fauna of her garden. Under cover of glass, the fragility of the paper stands out, along with its strength and endurance.

Jardín vertical, 2019. Books and flowers, 100 x 80 cm. Photo: Paola Herrera

María Carolina Baulo: You convert a variety of found paper sources into material to be folded, glued, cut, torn, and combined with other substances. Could you talk about your decision to use paper and why you sometimes combine it with organic matter and glass domes as in the “Objects” series (2013–19)?
Laura Dalton:
For me, paper is not a simple, silent support. It has its own meaning and is a decisive influence on the meaning of what I produce with it. I find revelations when experiencing its infinite variables—when I use the secrets of its texture, impression, weight, and weft to give sensations of transparency, sustenance, and fragility, as well as when I explore its volumetric possibilities and use it to re-create nature with actions such as invading three-dimensional space. I produce my work from old family letters and photographs, maps, books, and music sheets inherited or found, as well as any other element made on paper that I can bring back to life and re-signify. In the “Objects,” flowers and plants—executed with music sheets, book pages (sometimes in incomprehensible languages), or old maps—poetically coexist with paper birds, butterflies, and dragonflies. By arranging small gardens under the special atmosphere of the domes, I intend to point out the ephemeral and the vulnerable, the fragility of the environment.

MCB: Works from the “Cartographies” series (2011–12) combine collage elements, including altered photography, colored pencil, graphite, and watercolor, with maps. And today, a decade later, you sometimes work directly on map sheets.
The series “De la Misteriosa Buenos Aires” (“About the Mysterious Buenos Aires”) was inspired by Jorge Luis Borges: “And the city, now, is like a map / Of my humiliations and failures…We are not united by love but by fear; / That is why I love her so much.” In these works, the openwork, cut-paper plan of the city takes on another dimension, generating a different geography in which light and shadow become the protagonists—a cartography transformed into a labyrinth that invites viewers to lose themselves in the tangle of graphite or perhaps discover the many cities within the city. The individual titles refer to songs and poems about Buenos Aires in a way that perhaps declares love and torment when the city is lived and traveled, revealing loneliness and nostalgia as qualities of the urban. 

Geographical satellite photographs are the ideal material and support for the “Argentine Butterflies” series. I release the butterflies so that they “fly,” describing a sensitive landscape that moves and a mobile geography that leaves behind the traces of their exodus. The map reveals the migratory nature of some species of butterflies while focusing on those species in danger of extinction through missing or hollow silhouettes. The Lepidoptera community is threatened not only by the human desire to collect, but also by the disappearance of native flora and excessive deforestation, the use of pesticides, the introduction of exotics and invasives, and atmospheric pollution. 

Ten years later, in the series “Native Trees,” I returned to the theme of nature at risk, using reproductions of old maps—of Patagonia or the Pampas, for example—as a support for the tree species native to each area. Knowing that these species were there long before those maps were made, I am focused on preservation and safeguarding. As products of biodiversity, we have the obligation to respect and protect all species of flora and fauna, thus guaranteeing the balance of the ecosystem and our own future well-being.

A través del bosque, 2015. Cut amate paper and drawing, 100 x 120 cm. Photo: Pablo Sabogal

MCB: Other subjects also recur throughout your work. In the “Tales” series (2008–19), you create a playful narrative context in low-relief scenes with clear allusions to storytelling. Could you discuss this series, together with the music stand works, which can be deployed as spatial installations?
LD: In the “Tales” series, I remember old stories repeatedly told by my mother and grandmother. I rescue Little Red Riding Hood, various princesses, and others to tell new stories with the characters that fueled my childhood imagination. These stories were my first approach to literature, which has accompanied me ever since. My reading is integral to my work, and I also use it as a strategy when thinking about imagery and titles. 

In the music stands, gardens of paper grow, climb, and intertwine across the surface of the scores, overcoming the support. The flowers tear the paper, peek out of the corners, dance alone or in groups, seemingly hearing the music created for them. The music stands proliferate through the surrounding space, inviting viewers to become immersed. I use old music sheets, trying to employ visuals to give a different “musicality.” 

MCB: The “Forests” series (2015–19) goes a step further in breaking up the plane, not necessarily entering the spectator’s space but generating a deep internal space—layer upon layer, the weave generated by the openwork allows the gaze to penetrate the space of the work. Could you discuss the various ways that your work communicates and interacts with space?
LD: Forests, which are the home of fairy tales and full of allegorical content, have always had a special attraction for me. They are populated by legendary bandits, witches, fierce wolves, and all kinds of imaginary characters; there are dangers and charms. These forests are full of eventualities. They hold the secrets of nature; entering them represents the symbolic journey of leaving childhood, passing the test, and reaching the other “shore” of adulthood. In my forests, I often create dark, scary backgrounds that place viewers on the threshold and then entice them to cross over and meet the unknown, to penetrate the inner space of the work with their gaze. 

The music stands, on the other hand, take over their environment; surrounding space is part of the work. They invite you to walk around them and feel the music. In this case, the observer doesn’t position himself in front of the work as in the “Forests,” but within its internal space.

Valzer dei fiori, 2018. Music stand, sheet music, and flowers, 125 x 70 cm. Photo: Paola Herrera

MCB: In the “Amate Papers” series (2020), your distinctive figuration becomes completely synthesized with the materiality of the paper. This series, named for a type of paper made from bark, shows a more violent hand. Emptiness is forcefully present, with gaps and tears in a sensitive material. What is the process like in these works?
LD: I discovered amate paper during a trip to Mexico some years ago. It’s perfect to create my forests, trees, and roots since it seems to have their essence, their “soul.” This paper has its origins in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, where it was used for codices and sacred ritual ceremonies. Today, it continues to be handmade with the bark of certain trees. These works begin without a preconceived idea; I let the material indicate the way forward. First, I look closely at the area to work, then I cut or tear its surface, generating grooves where it looks more porous and thin; later with pencils, pastels, and charcoals, I draw my lines on the reliefs, concavities, and sinuosities, highlighting their particularities and trying to reveal their secrets.

MCB: I wouldn’t want to omit the importance of the conceptual in your work. What is the relevance of the idea?
I believe in Federico Peralta Ramos’s phrase: “Art is about making people laugh and think.” I am interested not only in producing visual and playful enjoyment—the aesthetic—but also in sensitizing the viewer, generating concern about certain subjects that I want to point out. I intend to take the viewer’s attention beyond the work, sometimes with irony or humor, trying to generate a reflective point of view. For me, the concept or the idea is inherent in the creative process—they go hand-in-hand—and the concept is present from the very first moment when my work is born. In many cases, it is the materiality of the object itself, the paper, that questions the idea we have of it.

Origen oscuro, 2020. Cut amate paper and drawing, 80 x 60 cm. Photo: Paola Herrera

MCB: I would like to delve further into the question of space. How important is the spatial context of your work in terms of viewer circulation, route, and being able to move around some pieces and enter their micro-worlds?
The space in which the objects are installed plays a determining role in their dynamics. In some of the pieces from the “Objects” series, for instance, it is essential to be able to walk around them; some are mounted on bases, others hang, and others are supported on the music stands. On the other hand, in certain works from the “Territories in Isolation” series, I try to put the viewer at a superior and vigilant distance, like an intrusive observer of these micro-worlds.

MCB: “Territories in Isolation” (2020) was born during the social isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic. New ingredients appear here, unthinkable in another context, though the works are also linked to the “Amate Papers” series. Could you explain a bit about this new body of work?
LD: In the first stage of isolation, I subjected my craft papers to rituals of hygienic purification using a diluted bleach solution, the same cleansing ritual that we were using on most household surfaces. This process caused erosion and deterioration in the paper, producing eruptions, indentations, and discolorations. The first “Territories in Isolation” work arose from these signs of damage, or perhaps “discoveries” in the “skin” of the paper. 

In the second quarantine phase, I had no more reserves of raw material, so I had to adapt to using the limited resources available, such as white paper and a pencil; that was how the “White Territories” were born. The archaeological experience of revealing the secrets of paper with no other tool than the sensitivity of my pencil allows me to discover another space, perhaps a “heterotopic” territory as Michel Foucault termed it. This kind of space is “perhaps thoroughly fantasmic…The space of our primary perception, the space of our dreams…there is a light, ethereal space, transparent space, or again a dark, rough, encumbered space; a space from above, of summits, or on the contrary a space from below of mud.” 

Experience translated into cartographies and maps as objects representing imagined territory—the revealed illusory space—are inherent to the paper itself, which I expose, overcoming its planimetric character. Real and apparent textured volumes, chasms, and imaginary constructions are isolated in glazed boxes, containing portions of these territories. There is also a glimpse of continuity between fragments as parts of a whole. In this way, I put the viewer at a cautious distance, providing an aerial vision without the optical paradigm of linear perspective that floats safely from these isolated territories.