Art People: Peter Zierlein / paper-cut artist

Last modified: Monday, March 11, 2013

As Peter Zierlein sees it, many relationships — at least in theory — are built around a balance of power. Equality, he says, comes when groups or parties meet one another halfway, in one sense or the other.

But, the Belchertown illustrator notes, life isn’t usually that clear-cut, and in fact it often revolves around a struggle for power — a great topic, he notes, from an artistic standpoint.

For the last few years, Zierlein, a native of Germany, has been creating an extensive body of intricate paper cuts on that very subject. Like much more complicated versions of a classic children’s art project, in which cuts to a folded piece of paper reveal a snowflake pattern, Zierlein’s work creates mirror images that play against one another in often humorous ways.

“The symmetry of the cuts is where you find a real balance of power, where neither side has the upper hand,” says Zierlein, who came to the U.S. in 1991 to study art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y. “You’re freezing it forever, at just that point.”

His quirky images — he mentions cartoonist R. Crumb and medieval German engraver and painter Albrecht Dürer as influences — range from human caricatures to abstract forms, often with a satiric take on social issues. Case in point: “Road Rage,” in which two drivers gesture angrily at one another from the same vehicle, a misfit car with two hoods and two steering wheels, both front ends pointed in opposite directions.

Then there’s “Celtic Warrior,” a roughly circular mass of flowing, sculpted hair and beard, at the center of which a mustachioed face peers out. Zierlein says he was taken by accounts he read of such ancient warriors who spiked their hair with lime to make it stand up, while also battling naked — the better to shock opponents with their wild appearance. His tools are straightforward: an X-Acto knife and various types of paper, of different thicknesses.

“I use whatever I have lying around,” he says with a laugh. When he began making paper cuts, about three years ago, he used a pencil to sketch his designs before cutting them. Now, though, he’s gained enough experience that “the knife is the drawing implement.”

“That really helps me focus,” Zierlein says of the technique. “You have to concentrate very hard. Every decision is an incision.”

His interest in paper cuts represents an evolution of the work he’s done for years. He’s a longtime illustrator for newspapers and other publications, both in the U.S. and abroad, often contributing conceptual drawings for op-ed pages.

Zierlein, who just opened an exhibit of his paper-cut art at Northampton’s Center for the Arts, also teaches at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley College, and he’s designed T-shirts, posters, and book and CD covers. All of that work, he notes, is of a piece: “I try to find an artistic way and a humorous way to look at the world.”

On Feb. 24, Zierlein’s “Under the Knife” exhibit at the Northampton Center for the Arts will feature an artist’s reception from 2-6 p.m., with special events including a paper-cutting workshop and a lecture on the history of paper-cut art. Free.


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