By Dr. Mark Levy, Professor Emeritus of Art History, California State University, East Bay

On Paula Pietranera’s solo art exhibition “Connection” at the San Francisco Zen Center – August 2019

Renzuru is a traditional mode of origami that involves folding a single sheet of paper into multiple cranes connected by fragile bridges of wings, beaks, and tails. These bridges are punctuated by open spaces that are necessary to establish the crane shape in multiples between two and many hundreds. Although Renzuru requires great skill and concentration -one mistake and the entire ensemble is ruined- it still considered a folk art in Japan. Paula Pietranera has reinvented Renzuru into a highly sophisticated contemporary art form that goes beyond folk art in both style and content.

Trained as an architect in Buenos Aires in both new building design and the renovation and reconstruction of historical structures (her area of specialization) -her architectural work requires the use of computer programs in which she arranges three-dimensional shapes on a two-dimensional surface. It is not surprising then, that during a stay in Japan to study traditional and contemporary Japanese art, architecture, and culture, she was attracted to Renzuru and managed to study with a master of this genre, Tomita Mizuho. As actual three-dimensional shapes emerge from both a flat paper and a flat ground in Renzuru, the cranes magically come to life -a distinct change from trying to render three-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional computer surface.

Moreover, as a meditator in the Zen tradition, Pietranera understands that beyond discreet separation of entities in the phenomenal world, there is a deeper and more real connection between things, which is referenced in Renzuru as the cranes have to be connected. And there is also an intimate connection between things and “empty” space in Renzuru- If there were no spatial gaps in the paper, the form of the crane would not emerge.

In No Other World, a work displayed in her recent exhibition “Connection” at the San Francisco Zen Center where she resides, 70 linked cranes cut from single sheet of map paper are suspended in regular intervals over a blue background with grid lines in a shallow box frame. The cranes seem to fly diagonally in the blue space toward the upper right corner yet the whole piece can be rotated and hung in any direction. This is supported by the words on the map paper cranes that veer off in multiple angles and by faint impressions made by a chop or signature seal placed upright, tilted, or upside down near the edge of the four quadrants. In effect, the cranes fly everywhere and nowhere to all the places written on the map at the same time. Furthermore, the eye can switch between blue space between the cranes and the cranes themselves although these realms cohere together on one horizontal plane. Or, as we read in the famous Buddhist Heart Sutra, “Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is form”.

Indeed, In No other World Pietranera has configured an interconnected omnidirectional world in multiple dimensions that goes beyond normal time and space but still has references to the phenomenal realm of discreet objects. Non- ordinary and ordinary reality exists simultaneously. In Buddhism this is referred to as “one taste”, an experience that is very difficult to describe in words but is experienced in meditation and glimpsed in this piece. There is literally and figuratively No Other World.

Pietranera’s immersion in meditative practice is also figures in this exhibition in other ways. In meditation one pointed concentration is necessary to shift from ordinary conceptual mind to a deeper level of consciousness in which all the senses are open to full awareness in the present. In Buddhist and Hindu art, a series of concentric circles known as the mandala is often used to focus the mind and help facilitate this change of consciousness. In traditional Renzuru it is not unusual to have connected cranes in the overall shape of a circle or concentric circles, but I think Pietranera intention here is to have a meditative effect on the viewer. It is highly appropriate in the context of the Zen center setting that she has employed the mandala more than half of the pieces of the exhibition. Also, unlike many traditional Renzuru makers who just view Renzuru as as a kind of puzzle to connect cranes in different two and three-dimensional patterns, Pietranera is firmly committed to exploring the aesthetic effects of her configurations.

In Journey for example, there is a subtle visual interplay between the concentric red cranes, the red/ brown frame, and the flat black and white vertically aligned characters of a Japanese newspaper -the ground for the connected cranes. In The Path the cranes take the form overall shape of labyrinth inviting the viewer to arrive at a center (his or her own) in another way than Journey. Here, a very simple connection of just beaks and tails creates a thin and wavering line through the configuration. And the colors of the cranes vary in both value and intensity, producing a fade out effect. For me, the overall feeling of this piece is commensurate with the fragility and tenuousness of the labyrinthian path to the center.

Pietranera also enjoys playing with irregular patterns in a manner that is unlikely to be found in traditional Renzuru. In Dawn, there is a seemingly random configuration of cranes punctuated by random intervals of varying size. Some of the cranes are even completely detached from the rest and float freely on background space colored in delicately shifting gold tonalities The asymmetrical placement of natural elements on an essentially flat gold background is more in keeping with exquisite 18th century Japanese screens than traditional Renzuru.

In Mother, Pietranera has placed another erratic array of cranes on a computer motherboard. Not only do the metallic tones of both the cranes and the board match but also the computer board wiring as well as the constellation of cranes have no apparent order. Of course for the mother board to work it must have a precise order. Perhaps there is no disorder in nature as well. From a Buddhist perspective, disorder is simple a judgment that we have because we cannot know the true underlying causes and conditions connecting everything in the universe.

Pietranera has also included in this exhibition an example of her ongoing sumi-e work entitled “Connection.” Here she depicts two cranes with their beaks touching. Needless so say sumi-e black ink brushwork enables her to work more spontaneously and simply than Renzuru. Yet the theme is obviously the same and the consummate fine art workmanship that informs Renzuru is also found here, albeit of a different kind than in the main body of the exhibition.