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