Anna-Bella Papp, Untitled, 2014, clay, 12 1/8 × 11 1/8 × 1 1/8".

Anna-Bella Papp, Untitled, 2014, clay, 12 1/8 × 11 1/8 × 1 1/8".

Anna-Bella Papp

Stuart Shave Modern Art

Anna-Bella Papp, Untitled, 2014, clay, 12 1/8 × 11 1/8 × 1 1/8".

Occasionally I hear a sublime new song with a melody so perfect and infectious, I feel that, surely, this music must have existed before. Impossible for such timeless harmonies to have been invented only now! Anna-Bella Papp’s small, flat sculptures provoke the same sensation. Some artist or other must have previously landed upon the irresistible idea of these tile-like slabs of unglazed clay, laid out on smooth white tables, with unique markings that produce a singular world in low relief. The longest edge of each of the twenty-six works in her recent London exhibition measures about twelve inches; the reliefs—mostly Untitled and all dated either 2014 or 2015—are almost square, but none perfectly so, and each is about an inch thick. In unadorned shades of gray, brown, beige, and off-white, they might suggest Ben Nicholson or even Carl Andre; but Papp owes less to modern art than to ancient floor patterns, or the fossilized remains of leaves petrified in stone. Some contain images: three blades of stylized wheatgrass, a leafy branch. Most are more abstract, with broken lines suggesting the tracks of a hopping bird. Another is smooth, with just a square notch cut neatly from each corner, producing a kind of expectant, framed blank. Some have been laboriously worked to create arched geometric forms with deep regular shadows, reminiscent of the Pantheon’s coffered ceiling in Rome, where Papp, born in Romania, now lives. Some point toward 1960s mottled linoleum flooring, with multicolored clays inserted like marquetry to produced a seamless surface. In the piece I found most beautiful, Papp seems to have braided the clay into itself, as if weaving ribbons of the soft material to produce a delicate frieze, that suggests a fragment of magnificently decorated plaster, fallen from the ruins of a vast architecture.

Left unfired, each sculpture feels uniquely precious and unrepeatable; if one of them got wet, it would dissolve back into the shapeless clay Papp started with, vanishing forever. I had a strong urge to pick one up, in order to feel its bony texture and examine the hidden verso. Their tabletop size and low-tech manufacture suggest a domestic art, a slow and studious making that requires only a clean, dry place for a sole worker: the artist. The impression is that each must have been completed in one sitting—like reading a short story, rather than a drawn-out novel. Set out on their tables, they recall open books; the impression of paper is literalized in the scrolls of rolled clay that peel and curl along the edges of one of them, hinting at trompe l’oeil. “I have always imagined paradise as a kind of library,” Jorge Luis Borges once wrote; mine would be lined with Papp’s tablets.

Comparisons to music, nature, literature: I am guilty of every art cliché to analogize the delights of Papp’s almost Neoclassical art. To make matters worse, I commit the critic’s worst error: confusing artwork with artist, projecting a presumed authorial personality onto these inanimate things. I know that art can tease and lie in stupendous ways, but I trust these modest yet marvelous sculptures unreservedly.

Gilda Williams