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Looking Good 'On Paper,' This Exhibit Merges Mundane Paperwork and Fine Art

Brooklyn-based Jesse Chun deconstructs immigration papers and passports to get at the nature of belonging.
Landscape #10, 35 x 65 inches, by Jesse Chun. All images courtesy of the artist

From the bland terror of a tax form to the labyrinthian intricacies of customs papers, bureaucratic paperwork can elicit instinctive reactions. Brooklyn artist Jesse Chun’s new show On Paper, which hangs in New York’s Spencer Brownstone Gallery until September 17th, explores the beauty, dullness, humanity, and poetry of immigration and passport documents by deconstructing them. Featuring large landscapes made from the watermarks of passports and concrete poetry built out of form text, Chun distills the thoroughly “un-artful” into something clean, abstract, and even profound. Jesse Chun speaks about her work, her process, and the idea of a universal longing for home.


Blueprints, 11 x 8.5 inches each, installation view

The artist uses her background as a jumping off point in the exploration of her art. “My work explores the codes and constructs of belonging within the context of place, transit, and hybrid identity,” explains Chun. “A lot of this investigation stems from my own cultural background. I’ve moved around a lot, I lived in Seoul, New York, Hong Kong, and Toronto. So I think this trans-social background has affected the perspective I have.” Chun’s not abstracting for abstraction’s sake, instead she digs into the cultural subconscious of her materials. “On Paper is an investigation of the visual rhetoric that’s involved in travel, migration, and immigration. But what I’m doing in this work is transforming the bureaucratic into the poetic. So investigating these documents that are used to cross borders or to grant a new home, I transform them into metaphors about our collective transit.”

On Paper is divided in half between passports and immigration documents. For her Landscapes pieces, Chun used a high-DPI photo scanner to capture the watermarks on passports and turn them into large-scale images. “I re-photograph certain elements from the page, and crop out the travellers data, and retouch to rescale and to create pixels of things that are missing to create these large landscapes.” For Forms, Chun takes selections of the text from immigration forms and turns them into concrete poetry, and for Blueprints, “I completely delete all the text and abstract the boxes and lines that remain on the form.” She then prints layers of the boxes on blueprint paper, mimicking architectural designs.


Form #2 (diptych), 22 x 34 inches

The passport pieces lead to some interesting surprises, as Chun explains, “There were these groups of passports that had these beautiful landscapes, images of nature, and I was really interested in focusing on this group of imagery. These are all different countries, but aesthetically they’re all very similar. So despite our cultural, national, or political differences, there’s this universal longing and ideology and imagery of freedom and homeland.” Chun explains that she was also surprised by the sameness of the questions being asked on the immigration documents, no matter where one comes from or is headed, “It asks about your location (current and previous), your criminal history, financial standing, family, education, occupation.”


Form #4, Text close-up, detail

“This project really is about that universal longing for home,” says Chun. “To me, it’s interesting that these are paper documents that exist to validate our identity and mobility wherever we go. That's why I titled this work On Paper, because it’s also like ‘Oh that person’s great on paper.’ It’s really interesting that we all have to go through this paperwork, whether you’re travelling or immigrating, they exist to validate our identity, to show that we exist.”


Form #5, 22 x 17 inches

Check out Jesse Chun’s On Paper at Spencer Brownstone Gallery in person in New York City until September 17, 2016. To find out more about the exhibit, check the gallery website, here.


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