Ramona Sakiestewa: Tangram Butterfly & Other Shapes

Richard Tobin | THE magazine - July 7, 2014

Ramona Sakiestewa, Tangram Butterfly/blue, lithograph, 28” x 22 1/2”, 2014

A tangram is a Chinese puzzle consisting of a square whose area is subdivided into seven geometric shapes—five triangles, a square and a parallelogram—that are disassembled from their containing square format and regrouped to create many different patterns. One such pattern—contrived by artist Ramona Sakiestewa—is the tangram butterfly, and its appeal relies on its ability to capture a biomorphic form while retaining the tectonic identity of its seven constituent geometric shapes. This formal dialectic at play in the puzzle serves as the leitmotif and aesthetic paradigm of Ramona Sakiestewa’s recent show at Tai Modern, Tangram Butterfly & Other Shapes.

Visitors to the show with no knowledge whatever of the tangram puzzle, or the source of the tangram butterfly design (the artist), or the choice of a chain link, a China gate, Southwest pottery, or even Sakiestewa’s intention in doing these series, arguably could come away with as much as viewers who availed themselves of the gallery press release and the artist statement containing such information. Sakiestewa’s papercollage monoprints and lithographs speak for themselves at the level of engagement—much as the haunting, pensive piano compositions of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies enchant listeners well before they learn to what the pieces refer or what influenced their creation.

That said, in a creative interaction familiarity breeds content. We cannot replicate Sakiestewa’s own experience as a child collecting pottery shards that she would, on occasion, rework by rubbing the edges against sandstone, and whose shapes and patterns would stay with her over the years. Nor do most of us likely share the artist’s abiding fascination with the ancient Chinese tangram puzzle game that led to her discovery of a new figure—the butterfly—among some 1,600 patterns already devised from the game’s square box of seven geometric shapes, or tans, concealed as silhouette puzzles to be revealed by a player’s correct arrangement of all seven pieces touching each other. Yet these contributing factors, while unique to Sakiestewa’s personal history, can inform and enhance the vicarious experience for the viewers of her prints.

The tangram puzzle owes its dynamic, generative quality to two features. First, its seven geometric shapes comprising a square are in fact reducible to a module embodied by each of the two smallest of the five triangles. We can express the seven shapes in terms of this module: the five triangles consist of four modules for each of the two largest triangles, two modules comprising the third triangle, and two modules for the last two triangles; the internal square is made up of two modules, as is the parallelogram. Thus a tangram square comprises sixteen triangles, which the game has already combined into seven geometric shapes.

One of those seven shapes—the internal square—is the second feature of the puzzle’s dynamic shape-shifting. It serves as the “gnomon” or generative shape whose diagonal becomes the side of a larger square, creating a spiral progression of squares, the fourth and (here) final of which is the actual, overall square of the tangram box. The progression of areas of the four squares, expressed in terms of the module triangle, is 2>4-8-16 (box). Likewise, the internal square among the seven shapes can be taken as that overall square, and the spiral can be reversed. That is precisely what the artist does.

Thus the great beauty of Sakiestewa’s lithographs of her Tangram Butterfly rests not only on her inventive arrangement of the seven geometric shapes to create her butterfly, but her decision (conscious or intuitive) to assign the butterfly’s scale and location so that its equivalent square format (comprised of its seven shapes) totals half the area of the internal square within which it is inscribed. Thus her butterfly becomes the new generative shape in the progression of squares leading to the overall tangram box square: 1>2-4-8-16-32. This generative or “gnomic” feature of rectangles dates back to Greek geometry, most famously expressed by the golden rectangle, but most appropriately expressed here by the square, whose ratio of side to diagonal generates a spiral progression of squares, each of whose areas is double that of the previous square. This snail-like spiral mimics the logarithmic spiral of cell growth in nature (enabling living organisms to grow without changing their shape) as well as a certain flight path of insects.

Thine eyes glaze over by now. And what do I know? Whatever Sakiestewa was thinking, what matters is that her artistry and creative intellect shaped a rich vicarious experience of what the artist herself felt as she informed the diverse patterns with universal, cryptic narratives that engage and move the viewer. The pottery shards of her childhood and the patterns of the tangram puzzle have informed the visual tension and counterpoint between biomorphic and tectonic forms that pervade the paired masses of her China Gate Shape and the elegant harmonies of her blue, red and black shape series, much as they do in the exquisite lines and delicate tapestries of her butterfly lithographs. It is left to the fortunate viewers to inform these emotive vessels with their own experience.

—Richard Tobin