The imaginary perspectives of a sheet of paper

Popel Coumou constructs works using layers of paper that are positioned over and alongside each other. The visual effect is graphic and playful. Her lines, surfaces and colours join forces in an organic way, while also imparting a certain tension to the image. Although the work is built up using layers of paper, the result is a photograph. Its smooth surface nevertheless displays a kind of relief, as if the layers of paper were right beneath this surface and pressing upwards. Her images resemble diorama-like spaces: shadowed rooms, sunny window openings, and subdued landscapes composed of taut lines or geometric volumes. The works are organized by type and ambiance in chronologically numbered series, each of which comprises five to ten photographs. The multiplicity of combinations and variations strengthens their flowing, fluid character. Their most astonishing aspect, however, is the way that these simple paper shapes transform into three-dimensional spaces. The moment we take a little distance from the work a space opens up, one inside which we can easily find ourselves. Is this the effect of perspective alone, or are the powerful harmonies of form and colour also deceiving the eye? The simplicity of Popel Coumou’s materials dispenses with any possibility of fakery. It is an illusion, certainly – but how is it done? Examined close up again, these interior and exterior spaces obediently re-conform to the qualities of ordinary paper. You notice the cut edges, the minute detail of the surface structures, the slightly out-of-focus photographs of a vista, and here and there the transparent quality of a film. Her work is made of no more than this. But take a step back to look at the work as a whole, and a realm of space and light immediately reappears. A paper space, yes – but so constructed that it is all but impossible to perceive the work as a flat surface.

The playful ease with which Popel Coumou presents her spatial improvisations is ambiguous. On the one hand she draws us into a fragile paper world that first fascinated with its fairytale elegance but which has grown stronger and clearer in colour and cut over the years. It is as if she were to propose an alternative world whose purpose it was to playfully undermine our routine references. Simply by looking at what light does to photographic paper one can, in fact, surprisingly enough, briefly interrupt today’s continuous flow of photographic imagery. For a while, photography is lifted out of its well-worn rut and returned to a photographic zero point. But to what purpose? The answer will be a little different for each viewer, and for each work. Perhaps just to stimulate the individual imagination, and to free the eye for a moment?

But then there are the works themselves, whose material form is just as minimalistic as the illusions they create. Individual differences in expressiveness, intimacy, or monumentality do not effectively detract from what appears to be the underlying mission: the search for the most potent spatial harmony between paper cut-outs. In this regard Popel Coumou employs numerous strategies to allow a flat surface to prompt three or more dimensions. Besides the exceptional dexterity with which she imposes her will onto an ordinary sheet of paper, she shows a remarkable use of colour. It is as if, when cut in this way, the coloured paper brings a monumentality into the composition more powerfully than colour rendered in pencil, ink, or even the hues within an ordinary colour photograph. Both these skills might seem simple, but they are not; they require years of rigorous practice, testing, and experimenting with your material, until paper and colour work together as harmoniously as they do in these imaginary constructions in plano. What remains is the retinal after-image of a fragile volume under extreme tension; of form and colour interacting with the utmost precision. Was it not counter-intuitive to employ such virtuosity to ensure simplicity?

In her recent work, the emphasis is on the dynamism of diagonally-cut forms. Spaces are created solely by fields of colour, or by coloured lines against a white background. The relationships have been given new dimensions. They evoke the suggestion of an interior as a landscape – or conversely, of a vista having open doors or windows. There is also work that consists solely of several layers of white paper, cut so as to create the illusion of lines in space. What pleases me most about this new work is that it makes space for paper assemblages pur sang. They bring paper and light even closer together, and grant us a glimpse beneath a surface that used to protect the work like a skin.

Popel Coumou’s work breaks ground but it also looks back. It links a logical, geometrically determined flat world with an intimate experience of space and place – such that the paper surface seems to unfold before our very eyes, to reveal either a magnificent space or a token of home, of security. And her work looks back in that it restores the close and historic affiliation between paper and light. When the first photographs on paper appeared, around 1850, they had a mesmerizing effect on many people. It is striking that these fragile, so-called ‘light drawings’ of the past still stir the imagination more strongly than a great deal of the photographic images that followed. The industrialization of paper and film is certainly one reason for this, just as mass production is invariably at the cost of tactile and material qualities, but more has been lost than this alone. In Popel Coumou’s idiom, the dominant properties of paper – including photographic paper – are transparency and space. She sweeps the narrative and documentary properties of the medium more or less aside, recognizing that it is not the image, but the sheet of paper which possesses materiality and dimension. By way of experiment, in the daily tussle with her material, she has shown that paper and light still share a special magic. She transforms flat paper forms into autonomous, pictorial constructions, with no recourse to figurative overlay, a ‘window on the world’, or a photographic narrative. It turns out that paper offers more than enough possibilities on its own. These are fragile constructions, certainly. But they bring us close to the everyday experience of being aware of a place, and to the ephemeral imaginative power that can saturate a personal space. More than architecture or theatre could ever do.  

Els Barents, 12.06.2020
Translated from the Dutch by Ralph de Rijke