Sea of Love: Tahiti Pehrson’s larger vision

[Tom Biederbeck] You won’t see Tahiti Pehrson’s installation Sea of Love in this article — not all of it. The work, now on public display at the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery, is too big to be shown onscreen in entirety (it’s also behind glass). But when I spoke with the artist, he provided more than enough details to build a mind’s-eye view of this complex and protean work in hand-cut paper.

I first saw your smaller pieces at Press: Works on Paper in San Francisco. This commission is enormous.
There are 33 three-dimensional pieces in it, but some of them have double layers, so it’s actually more. I use these giant rolls of paper that are 5 feet high and 20 yards long, and three of them went into the installation.

What’s the significance of the title, Sea of Love?
This is public art, and I want it to be appealing to the public. On one hand, it’s just a pop title. On the other, I listen to a lot of astronomy radio when I’m working, and I think that bled into the work a bit — there’s a nebulous quality, with concentric, spiraling shapes in spatial interactions. I’ve also been reading about symmetry, and thinking that things on a really small scale are similar to things on a really large scale: All the same physical rules apply.

That’s comforting to me — there’s a synchrony on every level that shapes things graphically. It’s natural for artists to come to this place, where nature, science, art and math all meet. When you’re trying to confine the world with marks, you inevitably look at the way nature makes marks itself.

Tell us a little of your story.
I’m from Nevada City, Calif. My dad was an art teacher. Everyone in my family is an artist in some way — it’s like a family business. My younger brother [Gaylen Pehrson] is showing right now at the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art in James Franco’s Rebel show. [Galen Pehrson’s contribution is an animal animation titled “El Gato.”]

Our father never really taught us anything technically about art, but that art is a way of seeing more than a way of making things.

How did you come to work in paper?
I went to college as a painting major, but I was taking classes in everything but painting. I got into street art, working with stencils and stickers, which I’d always done. In my closet, I had all these stencils tacked to the wall in layers. I photographed the layers and saw they were better that way. I was offered a gallery show and decided to show the stencils. It worked. I kept going, and it evolved into 3D work.

Would you talk about your technique?
The end justifies the means. I do design things on computer. I used to draw out everything by hand, but it was a waste of time — it took me longer to draw a piece than cut it out.

I make a pattern on the computer, then I find other patterns and draw them in pencil on top to make secondary patterns. I can’t plan it all on a computer. It has to grow, and I can’t know how it’s going to look at the end. If I “see” it all the way to the end, it’s not worth doing.

How do you cut the pieces out? And how many cuts does each piece have?
I use a no. 11 X-Acto blade. A few years ago I had some pieces fabricated out of metal, and those averaged about 3000 holes in each. Each hole is comprised of several cuts. At this point, I’m sure I’m doing at least twice that level of detail — definitely thousands and thousands of cuts go into each piece. Lots of razor blades, too. They only last a few seconds, and I go through hundreds of blades on each piece. I have them all — they’re formidable on their own.

Why not laser cut?
I want each piece to be mine, and I want it to earn it. I’m taking it into the physical world, and I know every cut and part that I’ve made.

What’s the effect you’d like to have on the viewer?
Looking at the completed object, you start to get a breakup where you can’t see either the design or the patterns, and it becomes a pool of light and shadow. The paper disappears, and it becomes that breakup of light and shadow. Each flat layer becomes a side of an object. People say, “I’d like to go inside that.” And maybe that’s the next step for me, to create objects that people can go inside.

We always look for the patterns that make up life. We’re rewarded for finding patterns, because that’s predictability and it’s a way of survival. Everyone is constantly searching for the next algorithm, the next pattern. That’s our human quest — to look for something bigger.

The San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery is located at 155 Grove Street. Pehrson’s work can be viewed there 24/7 through July 22, 2012.

Tahiti Pehrson has been hand cutting intricate paper works for over a decade. The works are often done in monochromatic white layers. Finely cut images cast light and shadow through dramatic scenes, creating a breakdown of hard edges and echoing images and patterns. Homage is paid to Guilloché patterns, a system used to produce complex geometrical patterns seen on currency throughout the world. The fragility of connectedness is expressed in physical structure. Some works are burned to illuminate transitory nature and finite beauty.

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