Maki Tamura’s recent exhibition at James Harris was both lovely and disconcerting. On the walls, Victorian-style wallpaper featured wreaths and medallions, some painted in with animals or human figures. Domestic pleasantness, however, was undercut by scorched and torn edges that reduced the wallpaper to patches resembling continents on a vast map. Several delicate paintings represented not the stately family portraits that would have suited the wallpaper but various animals and a few colonial-era explorers in a lush New World. Some of the animals were portrayed only as sentimentally exoticized carousel figures. Dodo Manege (all works 2010) is a painting of the ready-to-assemble elements of a paper toy merry-go-round. The gallery also contained festive hanging structures recalling chandeliers. One, Falling Stars, composed of stars and paper chains, suggested primary-school decorations. Another, Garden Redux, evokes birds in a Victorian cage, but the cage has no bars, just fine chains, and the birds are not three-dimensional but small painted-and-framed portraits.

The exhibition seemed to represent a world that had uneasily gone wrong. Yet the pessimistic mood was alleviated when one realized that the wallpaper was hand-printed, and the hangings consisted entirely of hand-worked paper—a sense of doom offset by evidence of an artist’s skill and ingenuity. If the show’s theme was loss, the works themselves were poignant consolation.

The Kyoto-born, Seattle-based artist, who had her first solo show in New York a decade ago, lived in Indonesia before coming to art school in the U.S. Her earlier works sometimes took the form of Asian scrolls featuring depictions of European decorative objects in a cultural mélange. Those scrolls were of attention-grabbing length and more specific in their references than the works here. But at least one current motif was unequivocal: framing. On the wall or free-hanging, all the paintings were mounted in handmade paper frames. Some of the paintings take frames as their subject. Drift Away, for example, presents an arrangement of lacy wrought-iron-framed mirrors or plaques in black and white, drifting against a watery blue-gray background. A snake, a feather and a butterfly hover among them, hinting at the Fall or ephemerality. The whole notion of framing might imply the complicity of art in our damaged world: framing saves the memory, not the actuality, of nature. Perhaps Tamura is simply calling attention to the coexistence of nature and artifice. It seems meaningful that her medium is both recyclable and derived from a renewable resource. (Paper art is also associated with her native Japan.) While the mix of details in this complex show may indicate that Tamura is in a transitional period, these mournful relics pack a punch.


Photo: View of Maki Tamura’s exhibition, 2011; at James Harris.