From a personal perspective, the really unique aspect of the current exhibition of origami masterworks at the Parrish Art Museum is that it is one of the few times over the past 30 years that I’ve come across this underappreciated art form in a legitimate exhibition space, rather than in bars in Tokyo.

On more occasions than I can recall when I lived in Japan, at some point around 2 a.m., as I found myself staring goggle-eyed and capable of only the most rudimentary gibberish, one or more of my equally inebriated hosts would, with a delicate yet deliberate flourish belying their inability to walk, produce from folding a cocktail napkin a beautifully delicate crane, fish or flower.

I, in return, would attempt the same folding process and would find my efforts resulting in a rendering of the same figure as if it had been the victim of 
some horrendous accident with either misshapen wings or missing fins. It later occurred to me that if I’d ever tried it in a bar in Hiroshima, the comparisons would have been both immediate and obvious.

Given that I and my “teachers” were at pretty much the same level of uncoordinated incoherence, I began to realize that it had to do with, well, practice under sobriety, but equally important was the ability to comprehend the Zen nature of origami and the degree to which you have to let the medium determine the message.

Transcending the conceptual framework of western art, where the liberty of moving the image around the surface creates the visual effect, in origami, the artist ignores the separation between the image and the paper. The medium becomes, in effect, a physical component of the depiction, and is creased and folded until it becomes the image itself and not merely the surface upon which it is arranged.

First imported to Japan in the sixth century from China (as was pretty much everything back then), origami appealed to the same aesthetic as other traditional art forms such as tea ceremony or flower arranging offering, as the author, Kakuzo Okakura, noted a sense of “moral geometry, inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe.”

While originally the domain of the wealthy nobility, its popularity expanded in Japan throughout the centuries and, by the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, had become a popular pastime of rich and poor alike. This coincided with Japan’s opening to the West and, with the European fascination with Japanese aesthetics, its popularity expanded globally (although this isn’t the first incident of paper folding introduced to the West as the Moors had similar, though non-objective, art forms, which they brought with them when they invaded Spain in the eighth century).

As a result, throughout the exhibition at the Parrish, the overwhelming atmosphere is of a gentle, Zen sensibility with the understated presentation of the origami masking their remarkable complexities.

This measure of intricacy, a marriage of technique and an aesthetic understanding of mathematical structure, is made that much more impressive by the constraints placed upon the artists in constructing the works. Limited to only one piece of paper, apparently some pretty big ones judging from some of the larger animal shapes, neither glue nor cutting of any kind is permitted. This becomes particularly amazing when considering works such as Dr. Robert Lang’s “Black Forest Cuckoo Clock,” Tomoko Fuse’s “Whirlpool Pattern,” or Joseph Wu’s “Grand Dragon,” each of which is so intricate and so delicately complex that is nearly impossible to believe they were created under such rigid procedural limitations.

This measure of complicated density of form has, in fact, been expanding over the years with early artists working in, at most, 30 folds whereas today, many of the designs may now number in the hundreds. This has led to a greater understanding of mathematical principles in origami (Dr. Lang, for example is a former physicist whose foldings were featured on the Mathematical Imagery page of the American Mathematical Society), as well as the expanded use of computer models to aid in the construction of contemporary pieces.

The exhibition, titled “Origami Masterworks; Innovative Forms in the Art of Paper Folding,” continues at the Parrish through June 22.

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