Road Maps by Foon Sham

Looking At Where We Are

Foon Sham’s work reveals meticulous hand-formed articulation with an obvious joy, but his ongoing interest in road maps also seems relevant to the nature of his work. Scanning the surface of a map is similar to exploring the surface of his sculptures. Both experiences guide you in a pattern of understanding—guidance on a journey with all the essential clues, nuances, choices, and especially personal intuitions for exploration.

Donald Judd writes about “specific objects” in which he tries to describe and account for the changing ontology of painting and sculpture. A major concern for sculpture, for Judd, is the experience of size. This premise is also true for Sham, since his art is critically involved in his ambition to portray the individual body within the realm of its perceptual grasp of scale. He accomplishes this neither by spectacle nor illusion but by subtle, layered meaning emitted by selected materials and by the work’s interactive requests of the viewer.

In 2001, Sham came to the studios of Pyramid Atlantic by means of a Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation grant. He was interested in exploring paper casting with his carved wood forms to see how sections of information within the forms could be pushed toward further multiplicity and utilized in installation works. Working with resident paper artist Alta Price, Foon used layers of paper to investigate organic life. He first explored opaque cotton fiber formed into sheets that were layered over his small experimental wooden sculptural forms. He wanted to see how bright white opaque fibers would mimic his relief concepts. By covering small modular relief forms of wood, Sham sought to cast and explore embossed surfaces. He expected he would release the dried paper from his wooden forms and see rich embossments that would track his carved marks with added intrigue.

However, finding cotton a less than satisfactory material to articulate his carved markings, the artist was guided to a higher shrinkage material of flax fibers beaten into paper pulp that allowed a paper skin to be drawn taut over his wooden forms. This process of a thin material shrinking like taut skin resulted in a more exciting, ambiguous covering that seemed to express what Sham was looking for, a sense of (in his own words) “where we are” for what we know. Sham’s intellectual journey and technical prowess were being stimulated by the hand methods of papermaking.

As in his multi-layered sculptures, Sham soon found himself using thin, layered sheets of hand-formed flax paper, incorporating transferred map imagery as a note of local reference. The trials evoked a remarkable skin-like tension. He enjoyed the new expansion and construction of surface through the unexpected rate of shrinkage that flax gave to his explorations.

Metaphorically Sham has been searching for a looking back, a way to salvage and reconstruct. In using a high-shrinkage material, flax, the works took on an ability to transfer delicately colored roadmaps without revealing all of the information concretely. Only certain words were revealed and others were blurred and obliterated, and that delighted Sham. He found a surprising quality in materials previously unknown to him that allowed a new sense of sculptural construction. The expansion of wet paper, which greatly transformed in unexpected ways in the drying process, was an unexpected consequence: paper shrinkage revealed a non-conventional way of constructing information. As the paper layers created new surfaces, Sham began to look at the experimental aspects of creating images of islands and glaciers, sites he had experienced in his travels. A new experience of skin as information guided the imagery, from the abstract to the descriptive.

Some sections of maps that interested Sham were from local Riverdale Hills and others were from Spain and other terrains. The intuitive travel in the works depicted a place where we are, not as reality but as symbol or metaphor. The sculptures began to speak of rooftops, windowpanes, wrappings, joints, and head coverings. Specifically Sham expressed protection of the self when he cast flax over a wooden carved head form, and he elicited travel and protection when he drew paper tautly over a block of land formation or an architectural element. In every case he waited for the paper to dry to reveal the next step.

Clarity of form has always been Sham’s modus operandi, and allowing wood to lead the way has been his chosen path. Now with hand-formed paper, a new plane of excitement was forming, and the nature of new choices provided suggestions to the artist about how to proceed. Sections of maps were taken from color photocopies and carefully transferred to wet sheets of paper that had been pressed. The scarifications of his wood carvings were further advanced by these transferred map markings shrunk over various sized wooden blocks, giving a sensitive rendering of our visual experience of place.

In these explorations, Foon Sham used all of his highly selective abilities to align the readable and not readable into the intuitive travels that have always fascinated him. The artist’s mastery of materials spilled back into his choice to make every part of the whole a testament to his understanding that sculpture is an interactive experience relying on spatial conditions and a triangular relationship between the spectator, self, and organic materials—be they wood or paper. This understanding guides Sham’s vision on his sculptural journeys.