Fall Exhibitions 2018 @ Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center

The Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center kicked off its 2018 fall season with contrasting exhibitions by Dick Goody and Anne Gilman. 

Dick Goody exhibition at the BBAC main gallery, Install image. 2018

At the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center, in the Kantgais / DeSalle Gallery, Dick Goody, Professor of Art and Chair of Oakland University’s Department of Art and Art History, serves up expressionistic painting that continues along on his path of depicting a universe of figures, landscape and still life that feel at times autobiographical. The oil on canvas works are flat, nuanced, ambiguous and reflect a somewhat consistent color palate, especially his repeated use of his selected color of red.  What has left his subject matter from previous work is the direct use of words and writing passages, that in the past work would often dominate the composition.  In this exhibition, The Garden City, Goody’s painting seems like a cross between early figurative work by the English artist David Hockney, and the black outlines used by the German expressionistic painter Max Beckmann as in his work Quappi in Grey, 1948.  These Goody paintings are not copied from any reality, but rather are a style of painting where the artist seeks to express an emotional experience reflecting his environment: cutting the grass, reading a book, playing the piano, observing an object or having a meal.

Dick Goody, Haberman Cutting the Grass, Oil on Canvas, 54 x 36″, 2017

In the painting, Haberman Cutting the Grass,  we see Goody’s persona, Haberman, cutting a small patch of grass,  maybe in an English village, or an older Detroit 1920’s neighborhood, perhaps fueled by nostalgia from growing up in England. There is a real economy of form and color that accompany this figure-centered composition. With the character’s mouth open, we wonder what he is saying. Not that it matters.

Dick Goody, Zeilwand Lieb, Oil on Canvas, 82 x 65″, 2018

Clearly, these images are figments of an imagination that is autobiographical and asks the question: Can you ever really get beyond yourself? In the work, Zeilwand Lieb, the character is sitting at the piano in a theatrical form of “white face” while spring trees shed their pedaled flowers, Goody’s figurative persona ponders a musical manuscript. He selects his objects carefully and adds a touch of serialism to this expressionistic picture.  Inside or outside… or both?

I sat down with the artist and asked a few questions.

Ron ScottHow would describe your interest in painting from an earlier age onward?

Dick Goody – When I was a kid – I loved old sailing ships – like the ones Admiral Lord Nelson commanded at the Battle of Trafalgar. I spent hours and hours drawing rigging and sea battles. Out of the blue, when I was eight, I did a painting of popsicles: primary colors outlined in black – really, if you think about it, not a lot has changed – and the teacher put it on the wall. I remember it because things like that never happened.

At the art school interview, they said: “Tell us about your vision?” I had difficulty being serious about being serious. So I stared into space and said I wanted to do horses and astronauts. At the end, they said: “Ah, so you’re a history painter. “My first painting was of Clint Eastwood against this brutalist architectural background. My tutors hated it. They said: “Chill out and loosen up.” After three years of this I ended up doing simplified paintings of aeroplanes, but the moment I graduated I started doing scenario paintings again, pictures of food or people. I did a huge painting of a hunk of Stilton followed by a small roll of toilet paper picture – bought, incidentally, by an art historian, of all people.

Ron Scott – What kind of personal experiences best inform your work?

Dick Goody – All sorts of things. I mean it’s my life. Someone asked me why there’s an ironing board in one of the paintings. I live in a 1920s Tudor in Detroit and I saw this photo of David Bowie in his first house, Haddon Hall, which was a large Tudor revival in Kent, and there’s an ironing board in the living room and it made me remember how people in the UK do their ironing wherever there’s a TV. There’s a piano in several paintings and there wouldn’t be if I didn’t have one. There’s another painting of two people having dinner called Too Many New York Dinners and it’s about the whole adventure of dining out there, which after a while becomes no adventure at all, just something that’s going to eat up three exhausting hours.

Ron Scott – A few years back when we had lunch, you mentioned to me that you thought painting was “dead”? Am I right about that and has that idea undergone a change?

Dick Goody – If it was before 2006, I may have said that, but I can’t remember. It’s a stupid thing to say. Painting is immortal, isn’t it? But sometimes we go through periods when it seems to be on life support. Right now, it’s full of life. So yes, it’s changed, but it’s always changing. There’s a lot of diversity in painting right now in every sense.

Ron Scott – Do you see any relationship between your curatorial work and your painting?

Dick Goody – Don’t do both on the same day. I wouldn’t want to defuse a bomb when picking up my brushes either. In the studio, I shut everything else out. There has to be a firewall between the two things. Curating is about the macro; it’s all-encompassing. It follows protocols. There are all sorts of systems in place and multiple external reasons for one’s decisions. Painting is like getting in a car in your painting clothes without a clear idea of where you’re going – let’s just say that when I’m painting I’m not thinking about the skill and discernment it takes to organize exhibitions – I only care about the paint and the action in front of me. Truly, in the studio, on any given day, I have no idea where I’m going to end up.

Ron Scott – Could you explain more about the environments that you create in this universe of yours. ? 

Dick Goody – There are not that many things: reading, playing the piano, a long evening meal, work, my house, the garden, traveling. It’s a very narrow universe, but it has to be. But the universe of one’s paintings is an immense region and full of digression, hidden pathways and side trips – and adventures, infatuations, and fixations.

Dick Goody, What are you taking about?, Oil on Canvas, 36 x 48″, 2018

As the artist explores his Garden City with its landscapes, personas, domestic norms, and objects of interest, he has created this imaginary world.  The work, now void of literary statements, books, and characters from his dystopian novella, Goody has turned introspective, and I contend, nostalgic. Strong compositions, are supported with vivid color palette and black line.  In the work What are you talking about?, Goody has his painting, Haberman Cutting the Grass,  inside the composition and a target on his back, where he becomes the center of the universe, asking the female character, what are you talking about? They’re talking about art.

Dick Goody earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Slade School of Fine Art in London. He also holds a Post Graduate Certificate in Art and Design Education from Middlesex University. Goody’s own paintings have been featured in nine solo shows and over forty group exhibitions in London, New York and Detroit.

 

Anne Gilman – Up Close / in the Distance / Now,  Conceptual Works on Paper

Anne Gilman, BBAC Robison Gallery, install image, 2018

As part of the opening season at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center, the Robinson Gallery hosts the work of Anne Gilman, a native of Brooklyn, NY whose work is made up of drawing and writing on large sheets of paper where she displays her thoughts and feelings combined with color patches that in some cases reflect a mood or psychological state of being.  These works could be described as maps that delve into personal explorations of the artist combined with events in the outside world.

Anne Gilman, Boiling Point, Ink, pencil, on Mulberry paper, 2018

What this viewer experiences in the piece Boiling point,is a combination of literary expression, a confluence of material, and a concern for composition and color. The work on paper is often monochromatic in that there is a preference for a red theme, or blue theme that combines horizontal line work with cursive writing, intentionally not legible.

Gilman says, “I often work on paper that is larger than my body so I can sit on top of it and become immersed in its space. I rule out lines for extemporaneous writing and create confined spaces that contain layers of color, texture and tape. I use my own response to personal, political, and social concerns as the starting point for creating a mapping of information, thought, and emotion. Keywords and phrases reference ideas that emerge as I work while large expanses of texture reference an inscrutable landscape or atmosphere that I create as a safe or calm space.”

Anne Gilman, You might wait forever, Pencil, graphite, ink, BIC pen, tape on paper, 2018

 

Often her work is triggered by an event, be it political, social or personal, where she makes her selection of color and writing, where the mapping of information is secondary to the layout of space, color and composition. I refer to the work as conceptual in the open, meaning work where the concept or idea behind the work is more important that the finished art object, but this work could be easily described as drawing / installation.  Her concerns as an artist address her concerns as a person that seems to be launched based on a psychological state of being.   What is added to this exhibition alongside each work is a passage where the artist articulates background information that takes on an educational component designed to inform the work.  Here is an example of what accompanies this work of art, You Might Wait Forever.

“This drawing was made after a protracted illness, so much of the text is a referencing to a reorganizing of priorities.”

An excerpt from Gilman’s extemporaneous writing:  “Thinking about the degree of calm or letting go I had when I was sick, the paradox of finding some strange peace or knowledge that there was no fighting the state I was in.  I was able to finally enter a non-doing state, a place where I gave into each moment and had complete clarity of what my limitations were.  When you are that sick, there’s no more pushing and thinking of all the “shoulds.”  When you are that sick, each moment has a particular kind of clarity about what is needed or not needed. Maintaining that clarity as you get well, that is the hard part.”

Anne Gilman, The Place of possibility, Pencil, paint, tape on paper, 2016

More abstract than others, Gilman”s The place of possibility, conveys as a reminder that you never know the end of a story. More open space, perforated line, less color,  and various text that addresses the steps taken to achieve clarity, perhaps at the center of the piece.

Anne Gilman earned her BFA/Painting, State University of New York at New Paltz and MFA/Drawing and Painting from Brooklyn College, NYC.  She teaches in the graduate and undergraduate programs at Pratt Institute, NYC.

Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center current exhibitions run through October 11, 2018.

Obsession @ Met Breuer, NYC

Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection

The exhibition Obsession at the Met Breuer Museum in New York City is both a revelatory exploration of early 20th Century modernism and a fascinating study of frank portrayals of female nudity by Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Pablo Picasso.  The Met Breuer is housed in a landmark building on Madison Avenue and East 75th street that was once the home of the Whitney Museum of American Art from 1966 to 2015, and is now leased for ten years by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in an attempt to provide needed space for contemporary exhibitions. The building was designed by Hungarian-born Marcel Breuer (1902 -1981), a former student and teacher at the Bauhaus who first specialized in furniture design and then went on to devote himself to architecture and immerse himself in the new developing technology of concrete and plate glass.

Gustav Klimt, Serpents II, (Women Friends), Oil on Canvas, 32 x 57”, 1906

These paintings, as in Water Serpents II, were considered unconventional for the times, depicting nude women together in attitudes of pleasure.  Many of Klimt’s paintings included small symbols, lines and objects and often used a metallic oil paint that sets the space around the figure in abstract fields of color and design.

Gustav Klimt, The Bride, Oil on Canvas, 65 x 75”, 1917

The oeuvre of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) consists of two hundred paintings and more than four thousand drawings, most of them devoted to women.  His fame as a draftsman rests on works executed after 1905 and his earliest depictions of the nude body was for the ceiling at the University of Vienna which already illustrated a break with conventions and taboos.  After 1912, Klimt made numerous independent drawings, including many erotic compositions showing lesbian couples or masturbating women.

Gustav Klimt, Reclining Nude with Drapery, Graphite on Paper, 1913

The drawing, Reclining Nude with Drapery, belongs to a group of fifty Klimt drawings showing women pleasuring themselves. With her eyes closed, the model seems unaware of both her surroundings and the viewer.

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait, Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, 1911

In the course of his brief life, Egon Schiele, (1890-1918) created more than three hundred paintings and some three thousand drawings and watercolors.  He was known to draw constantly and everywhere: in his studio, on trains, in restaurants and in nature.  He looked to Gustav Klimt as a friend and a father figure.  He became well known for his ethereal contour lines and made over 170 self-portraits between 1908 and his death in 1918.  In this early work, he reduced his already thin body to skin and bones, and poses naked in front of a large mirror in his studio. In these seemingly decaying bodies, Schiele is posed in a sexually exhibitionistic way, displaying his groin and genitals.

Schiele’s nudes are more explicitly and provocatively erotic in this exhibition.  In his insatiable curiosity about the female figure, he showed no restraint, sometimes veering toward the clinical as in the watercolor Observed in a Dream.

Egon Scheile, Observed in a Dream, Watercolor and graphite on paper, 1911

Contented after masturbating, the model keeps her vulva open with bejeweled hands. The exaggeratedly large genitals in a reddish-orange hue echoed in her nipples and generous lips, evoke a carnivorous plant.  From the title, she may have existed as an epitome of the sexual object, and the viewer is led to believe this is something that lived in a dream.

Egon Schiele, Standing Nude with Orange Drapery, Watercolor, gouache, graphite on paper, 1914

By 1914 Schiele had replaced the tense bodies with fuller and more relaxed ones as in this watercolor. He probably drew her while she was lying down, but the placement of his signature turns her upright.

The heavy graphite drawing depicts the titillating nude touching herself from a slightly elevated position.  During the final two years of his life, Schiele made hundreds of these drawings, mostly female nudes that appear more facile than his previous work.  His erotic drawings lost some of their intensity, and gradually his work became more baroque.  In the autumn of 1918, the Spanish flu epidemic that claimed 20 to 50 million lives in Europe reached Vienna. Edith, his wife, who was six months pregnant, succumbed to the disease on 28 October, followed by Schiele, who died only three days after his wife. He was 28 years old.

Pablo Picasso, Erotic Scene, Oil on Canvas, 1902

The earliest work in this exhibition is Erotic Scene 1902, an imaginary re-creation of Picasso’s sexual initiation in a Barcelona brothel. He made this work during what became known as his Blue Period, a bleak phase during which he painted the poor, outsiders and beggars.

Pablo Picasso, Youth in Archway, Conte crayon on paper, 1906

What followed in the years around 1906 were drawings that displayed bodies with ease and unselfconscious classicism.  Art historians trace the figure and the pose of this youth to antiquity as well as to Michelangelo. Although the boy’s features reappear in many other works, there is some disagreement about the intent of this pose.  Innocent nudity or strangely voluptuous?   Much, if not all of the work during this period took place in the remote village of northern Catalonia, high in the Pyrenees and close to the border with Andorra, at Gosol, where it was recommended he would find “good air.”  The artist visited the town with his lover at the time, Fernande Olivier and stayed at a lodging house surrounded by a romantic environment that influenced the work.

Pablo Picasso, Boy Leading Horse, Oil on Canvas, 1906

While Pablo Picasso’s work had been shown in the United States, Gustave Klimt and Egon Schiele were unknown in this country at that time, but eventually became known throughout Europe and then this country. Much of the exhibition is drawing, and these works on paper have rarely been exhibited because of the exposure to light over time.

The curators responsible for Obsession:Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection, for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are Sabine Rewald, Jacques and Natasha Gelman, all part of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso through October 7, 2018.

 

Beyond Borders @ UMMA

When colonial powers carved up the African continent, borders were drawn that indiscriminately sliced through culturally similar people-groups, and the inhabitants were subsequently viewed by Europeans to live in distinct, monolithic “tribes,” each of which lived in relative isolation.  Beyond Borders: Global Africa, on view in the University of Michigan’s spacious Taubman Gallery, emphatically makes the point that cultural exchange across African societies and between Africa and the West is and always has been fluid.

Gleaned largely from its own collection and supplemented by works on loan from the Mott-Warsh Collection in Flint, the art on view ranges from 19thcentury through contemporary, and spans across a diverse array media.  Collectively, as Laura De Becker articulates in the exhibition catalogue, they “illustrate moments of encounter throughout history, complicating the colonial idea that the African continent is made of up ethnic groups or nations with starkly defined, impermeable boarders, or that it stands at one end of a dichotomy comprising Africa and the West.”

Artist unrecorded, Kongo peoples, Vili group, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Republic of the Congo, Nkisi(power figure), ca. 1800, wood, tukula powder and kaolin. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern, 2005/1.180.

Several sets of carved sculptural objects demonstrate thematic similarities that transcend colonial-era borders.  A selection of Minksi (Power Objects), though varied in form—ranging from representational to highly abstract—demonstrate the widespread belief that the sculpted figure could be spiritually potent and even intercede on behalf of the living.

Many of these works synthesize local traditions with European elements.  A pair of ceremonial shoes decorated with beads, for example, alludes to trade between Nigeria and Europe (most beads were imported from Venice). Furthermore, the beads create a mosaic of the British Crown, and it’s ambiguous if the reference, ingloriously appearing as it does on shoes, is understood to be a respectful homage or a wry and subtle insult to the colonial power.

Seydou Keïta, Untitled, 1956-57, gelatin silver print.

European faces make cameo appearances, carved into a Chokwe chair, for example, and European coins are inventively repurposed to decorate carved boxes and wooden figures.  Commerce and cultural exchange are addressed directly in a series of black and white photographs by Seydou Keita, hailed by many as the “father of African photography,” depicting anonymous residents of Bamako, Mali, posed with imported consumer goods that reveal the country’s rising middle class in the latter half of the 29thcentury.

Omar Victor Diop, Jean-Baptiste Belley (1746-1805), 2014, pigment inkjet printing on Harman by Hahnemühle paper. Courtesy of Mott-Warsh collection, Flint, Michigan and MAGNIN-A Gallery, Paris, © Omar Victor Diop

In a powerful pair of confrontationally large photographs, Omar Victor Diop recreates images of historically significant figures from the African diaspora.  Like the ever shape-shifting Cindy Sherman, Diop stars himself in his works, assuming varied roles.  Here, the artist recreates Samuel Miller’s portrait of Frederick Douglass, but modernizes it by brandishing a plastic referee’s whistle.  Sports paraphernalia invariably appears in his work, addressing the discrepancy between the celebrity status African athletes enjoy in Western countries and the xenophobic attitudes expressed by people in those same nations.  In a second photograph, the artist recreates a painting by Trison, posing as Jean-Baptiste Belley, a former slave who won his freedom after service in French army, and subsequently became a vocal abolitionist.  The soccer ball Diop poses with serves as a foil to his otherwise convincing 18thcentury regalia; just the same, the image, replete with the subject’s gentle contrapposto, really does seem uncannily as if a portrait from the Louvre has nearly come to life.

A painting by Kehinde Wiley lends a jolt of young and energetic star-power to this exhibition.   Known for his paintings that present works of art from the Western cannon reimagined to star black protagonists, here the artist borrowed the pose of a statue of Chief Obafemi Awolowo—a key figure in securing Nigerian independence from Great Britain—and transforms the figure’s outstretched hand into a black power salute.  Wiley’s work consistently manages to be emphatically contemporary, giving a fresh spin to the old masters, and giving the lie to the notion that traditional figure painting is dead.

Kehinde Wiley, On Top of the World, 2008, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Aishti Foundation, Beirut © Kehinde Wiley

Beyond Borders succeeds in offering a cross section across mediums and across time, demonstrating in small part the extent to which cultural exchange happened in Africa and continues to occur today through its diaspora.  Furthermore, the national conversation in recent years has increasingly placed borders (and walls) at the forefront of political discourse, giving the show a timely relevance.

UMMA  –  Beyond Borders runs through November 24.

Dustin London @ Holding House

Exterior, Holding House Gallery, 2016

Heading west on Michigan Avenue in Detroit, about five blocks past I-96 you will find the Holding House Gallery on the north side of the street, almost invisible in this older urban neighborhood. Those are glass blocks you see covering the front of the building (void of any signage), providing beautiful interior illumination that diffuses light evenly. It has an appeal unto itself.

Dustin London, Installation image, Oil on Canvas, Courtesy of Holding House, 2018

As part of Detroit Art Week, the gallery opened with the abstract work of Dustin London, Daybreak, an artist who also is an Assistant Professor in the School of Art & Design at Eastern Michigan University.  Holding House Director Andrea Eckert says, “Signals of information marked with repeated intervals of paint shows London’s preference for mesmeric processes. London presents the value of accumulation in a series of chromatic oil paintings. Through planned layers of color, the paintings resolve into a playful landscape of shape and form.”

Dustin London, Palindrome, 52 x 62, Oil on Canvas,

When I first experienced the work, especially the painting Palindrome,I was attracted to the forms and color combinations.  I immediately did a mental search for a broader context. The first thing that came to me was Russian Constructivism, circa 1920.  Artists like Paul Gadegaard, or Alexandra Exter, who did their work nearly a hundred years ago. Compared to London’s abstractions, there are similar elements you would find in Russian Avant-Garde Constructivism, recently on exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, 2017.

London’s overall green-based composition contrasts shape, line and form.  Standing at a distance, the viewer gets a hard edge that defines the shape, something like Frank Stella, who used tape to create the edge, but upon closer observation, London’s edge is produced using a brush in a very consistent square stroke of oil paint. The circular gradation is created by the line work.  Lines are solid and perforated, while the picture plane is divided in half.  The foreground on a light green background juxtaposes to this olive green background, both engulfing an amoeba-like shape.  What is powerful is that we are left not sure what we are seeing or where it fits into our universe, often referred to as original.

Dustin London, Oil on Canvas, Detail, 2017

When asked in a recent interview in Artspace 2013 why impermanence is important to his work, London answers, “Just before I started making these I was interested in ephemeral visual moments but was making paintings on canvas that were essentially descriptions of experiences. For example, a simple line may have referred to a shape caught out of my periphery while walking my dog. At a certain point, it seemed more appropriate to cut out the middle-man, as it were, and allow the work itself to become impermanent rather than refer to impermanence through a rather concrete form. This corresponded to an ongoing desire for freshness and openness in the work, never wanting to close anything down. It seemed appropriate to shift the work to a place where it was more about a process, where a piece became an action or decision in a specific place and specific time, inseparable from me as a living, breathing human being, where the piece also had a certain lifespan. Documenting these actions just felt natural.”

Dustin London, R-A-T-Q, 70 x 60″, Oil on Canvas, 2017

Constructivism was the last art movement to flourish in the 20th century as a modern and influential movement in Russia.  It evolved just as the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, and its purpose was to replace traditional composition with a focus on the construction of materials. Concerned with the use of ‘real materials in real space,’ the movement sought to use art as a tool for the common good, much in line with the Communist principles of the new Russian regime. Many of the Russian Constructivist works from this period involve projects in architecture, and bled into typography and graphics, ultimately having an effect on Western art.

This journey into abstraction goes back in time and comes out new.  This is the way of visual art, hence the saying “there is nothing new under the sun.”  The vastness and variety of visual art today is a reconstitution of our past, whether a thousand, hundreds or even only ten years past.

Expressionism, Impressionism, Cubism, Minimalism, Figurative, Landscape, and Abstract art live on in time as demonstrated here by the work of Dustin London.

Dustin London’s work has been exhibited at venues including NURTUREart in Brooklyn, Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati, Emily Davis Gallery at the University of Akron, the Untitled Art Fair in Miami Beach, and TSA Gallery in Brooklyn. He has been an artist-in-residence at Yaddo, Willapa Bay AiR, Jentel, Vermont Studio Center, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. London is a recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and his work has been featured in New American Paintings, Fresh Paint Magazine, Paint Pulse Magazine, and The New York Times. He received a BFA from Michigan State University and an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania.

Holding House –Dustin London,  Daybreak,  Solo Exhibition, July 22 – 28, 2018

 

Mirrors and Intersections @ Grand Rapids Art Museum

Anila Quayyum Agha (American, b. Pakistan 1965). Intersections, 2013. Laser-cut wood, 6.5 x 6.5 x 6.5 feet. Courtesy of the Artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha’s ethereal sculptural installation Intersections is likely the most photographed work of art in Grand Rapids at the moment, surpassing even the city’s iconic, blazing-red Calder.  At Artprize 2014 (the city’s annual public-art festival), Intersections won both the People’s Choice and Judges’ Choice awards, and now, through the end of Summer, it returns to the Grand Rapids Art Museum where it made its auspicious debut.  It was a work calculatedly fashioned to appeal across social and cultural demographics, and if Instagramability is a worthy criterion of a work’s public appeal, then the artist certainly succeeded.

The work is the star of a pair of closely related solo exhibitions on view in adjacent gallery spaces, one showcasing Agha, and the other featuring Iranian artist Monir Shaharoudy Farmanfarmaian. There’s a thematic continuity between their distinctive styles that make the pairing work almost as a single show. Both artists apply sophisticated tessellations and kaleidoscopic patters so characteristic of visual culture in the pan-Arab world, and both artists explore the visual possibilities of reflected light and cast shadow.  Their works are also both—to some degree– participatory and interactive.

Monir Shaharoudy Farmanfarmaian, Installation image, Courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum

The first exhibition space contains Mirror Variations, Farmanfarmaian’s luminous glass sculptures which represent an inventive fusion of traditional Persian art mixed with the American abstraction the artist encountered during her formative years in New York between 1945 and 1957, where she met art-world luminaries like Willem de Kooning and Louise Nevelson.  (In 2015 her work came full circle; New York’s Guggenheim awarded the artist her first solo American show—perhaps a curiously late honor for an artist and socialite of such import that she and her husband once played host to President John and Jackie Kennedy in Tehran.)

Inspired both by Arabic architecture and by principles of Sufi geometry, Farmanfarmaian’s work applies repetition and progression of simple shapes.  Like mosaics in 3D, her sculptures comprise tens of thousands of individual glass components which reflect light, diffusing fragmented geometric shapes across the gallery walls, ceiling, and floor.   One pentagonal sculpture—though prohibitively stowed behind glass on a pedestal—reflects light onto the ceiling and into the viewer’s space, directly involving the GRAM’s architecture into her work.  The lack of artisans in the United States able to help execute such detailed cut-glass work as this is partly why the artist eventually returned to her home country in 2004 after over 20 years of exile initiated by the Iranian Revolution.

Monir Farmanfarmaian (Iranian, b. 1924). Tir (Convertible Series), 2015. Mirror, reverse-glass painting, plaster on wood, 63 x 63 x 6 inches

These stately, ordered sculptures might seem the polar opposite of the often noisy, raucous world of the Postwar New York School, but some of her hanging sculptures invite a certain relinquishment of control that seems to parallel the likes of Robert Rauschenberg—particularly his playfully interactive Synapsis Shuffle (incidentally, a series of paintings which the GRAM exhibited in this very room back in 2012). Her Convertible series explores the myriad of varying geometric possibilities that can be created with a set of identical, interlocking shapes.  Each polygonic component is a fairly complex work in its own right, but the specific way they are arranged on the wall remains entirely fluid, ever-changing wherever they happen to be installed.

The second major gallery space is entirely devoted to Agha’s Intersections.  The work is a suspended black cube (about 7 feet square) crafted out of laser-cut wood, and inside a high-power bulb blasts the form’s intricate geometric shadows onto the gallery’s walls, ceiling, and floor, transforming every cubic millimeter of the space.  Its patterns derive from architectural elements of Spain’s Alhambra,the famed 14thcentury Nasarid dynasty palace and fortress.   It’s visually striking, but the work is conceptual as well.  Agha states that growing up in Pakistan as a female, she was not allowed to enter mosques, and with Intersections, wished to create a work which was open and accessible across all demographics.  Indeed, there’s something democratic and participatory about seeing yourself silhouetted on the gallery wall alongside the shadows of other visitors, all invariably with phones drawn, ready to share the moment on social media.

Video interview with Agha

In an auxiliary exhibition space, viewers confront a final bit of shadowplay.  A circular sculpture comprising  hundreds of identical triangular shapes is affixed from a wall and tactfully illuminated from three different angles.  The shadows it casts resemble a mash-up of a Venn-diagram and a series of tessellations by M.C. Escher.

Together, Mirror Variations and Intersections both manage to tactfully translate centuries-old Arabic visual culture into the language of 21stCentury abstraction.  And both artists manipulate light to transform a gallery space, creating works that transcend the beautiful and perhaps approach the sublime.  Their works slow us down—even in an art museum, after all, one is tempted to rush through to take everything in, spending, according to one study, less than 30 seconds in front of each painting.  But here the artists invite us to linger, and these exhibitions suppress our impulse to hurriedly move on the next thing.

Grand Rapids Museum  – through August 26, 2018