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

Desire as Politics @ Valade Family Gallery

Eight Video Installations at Valade Family Gallery at the College for Creative Studies

Installation image of Desire as Politics, Valade Family Gallery CCS 2018

The staging of the current exhibition at the Valade Family Gallery creates an enigmatic equation. Eight separate, strategically arranged, large-screen video installations by eight renowned video artists occupy the darkened gallery. Like the theory of “intersectionality” itself, which holds that all issues of gender, race, and class are interconnected, each video performs a drama of identity construction issues that might face the LGBTQ community; and each has extraordinary dramatic value with captivating characters and stories. Thanks to Exhibitions Manager and co-curator Jonathan Rejewski, the Valade space is perfectly articulated to allow for quiet, meditative viewing, but at the same time demonstrates, like a Venn diagram, the overlapping issues from piece to piece, from artist to artist, of sexual, racial discrimination, homophobia, and class elitism. The layout is a compelling stage for one of the most compelling issues of our time. By the same token, “Desire as Politics” performs a galvanizing a vision of the crippling emotional effect of our dire human landscape.

The eight artists were selected by College for Creative Studies assistant professor Scott Northrup of the Entertainment Arts faculty. As an artist and experimental filmmaker himself, whose own work is concerned with identity construction, Northrup’s selection covers a period in which the language and politics of sexual identity have undergone radical changes. From the catch-all term “queer,” to “gay or lesbian,” to LGBTQ, from basically 1985 to present, the shift from a binary language (queer or straight) to a nuanced dialectic has broken down the binary into open forms, and has become part of mainstream culture.

Cecilia Dougherty speaking in “Gay Tape: Butch and Femme,” 1985

 

The earliest video, Cecilia Dougherty’s 1985 “Gay Tape: Butch and Femme,” is a strikingly complex and even, in retrospect, humorous documentary, for its diverse representation of lesbian identity. Shot in Ollie’s Bar, “a lesbian dive on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland (CA),“ it features five women’s impromptu statements about their sexual identities. At one point Dougherty herself bemoans the need to “validate our homosexuality” while heterosexuals don’t have that pressure. What is borne out in the work is the complex semiotics of the old terms of “femme” and “butch.” At one point a black woman who self-identifies as butch does a veritable standup comic routine on the semiotics of butch and femme clothing, behavior, and mores. It is brilliantly detailed and really funny how much, like a semiotician, she has paid attention to the difference between herself and “femmes.”

Like any social critique, each of the videos is complex and supports multiple readings. Filmmaker Matt Lambert’s “His Sweat,” 2016, is a four-minute, erotic exploration of sweating male nudes, and while homoerotic in style, could be seen as simply an exploration of the sculptural beauty of the male form. It’s in that difference that “Desire as Politics” is a polemic as much as a collective documentary on sexual identity.

Ira Sachs, “Lady,” 1994, 28-Min. and Matt Lambert, “His Sweat,” 2016, 4-min

 

Even more complicated is Ira Sachs’ “Lady” (1994), an engaging, 28-minute narrative portrait of a female “actress” who rambles from one identity to another, from lesbian portraying a gay man, to playing a gay man portraying straight women. We really are never sure of the psychic make up of the speaking subject. Emotionally “Lady” is suffused with a strange, unresolved longing for something, for a satisfaction that is stalemated by indescribable forces. The piece prefigures Sachs’ later film, Leave the Lights On (2012), that develops this frustration into a critically acclaimed feature, where uncertainty of sexual identity between two male characters is the prevalent dynamic.

While seemingly humorous, “Women’s Size Eight” (2017), a four-minute video by College for Creative Studies’ student Zachary Marsack, portrays the torturous effort to “shoe-horn” a battered “male foot” into a dainty, spike-heeled shoe. The physical torture notwithstanding, the metaphor of fitting a masculine-assigned figure into a feminine form is perfectly and simply stated. Marsack’s video is the only one projected on a TV, which appropriately sits on the floor where feet belong.

“Desire as Politics” executes an amazingly astute, while very human, analysis of our hybridized sexual landscape and, by so doing, suggests the deep critical readings of the so-called heterosexual landscape as well. Because of the dazzling collection of images and voices, the most eye-opening video is Rashaad Newsome’s “Stop Playing in My Face,” 2016. The title was taken from a performance by transgendered Samantha James Revlon and, through a video collage of baroque jewelry and architectural elements, Newsome designed a head-shaped sculpture and video that speaks of the patriarchy of straight life and the desire and need to break it down. In this he has employed the voices of various feminists, such as bell hooks and trans activist Janet Mock, to speak their critiques from collaged mouths in the sculpture. The selection and arrangement of videos in and of itself creates a stunning deconstruction of our gendered landscape.

Group installation view, Valade Family Gallery, 2018

“Desire as Politics” at College for Creative Studies’ Valade Family Gallery – through March 10, 2018.

Cooper Holoweski @ CCS Center Galleries

Copper Holoweski presents Basement Cosmos at the College for Creative Studies Center Galleries

Cooper Holoweski, Cannibal Universe, Video loop with sound, 4min 30sec, 2016

The Detroit-based multimedia artist, Cooper Holoweski has a solo exhibition of work that opened at the CCS Center Galleries September 15, 2017. Curated by the director of the galleries, Michelle Perron, the exhibition is comprised of two large projected video loops that include an audio track and three sculptures that Holoweski made in collaboration with his three-year-old son, Cassius Oak. The exhibition space is painted entirely black to contrast with the two – wall to ceiling – video images, Cannibal Universe, and Food, Clothing, Shelter. These video loops of images contrast, as one seems to focus on the universe’s celestial night sky with a large variety of imagery and the other illustrates a short series of images from materials that are part of our experience in the natural environment.

Holoweski says in his statement, “One thing that tends to bind my work is a quality of “tension” or “contradiction.” In the past, I have used digital 3D modeling to create piles of virtual garbage. The idea being that 3D modeling is typically used for prototyping new objects; so the medium represents the beginning of a life cycle, while the junkyard represents the end. With the work in Basement Cosmos and my piece in Dlectricity I’m taking on some grandiose subject matter (the creation of the universe, the origin of consciousness, the infinite and the unseen), things that many, including myself, hold quite sacred. With some exceptions, I’ve generally used very banal materials and processes to depict these things. For me, this counterbalances the grandiosity of the subject matter, makes the work more inviting (and sometimes humorous even), and creates a bit of that tension by coupling the sacred with the every day.”

Cooper Holoweski, Food, Clothing, Shelter, Video loop with sound, 3min 28sec, 2017

It was just recently upon my visit to the Venice Biennale 2017 that I experienced video artwork that was an integral part of many countries exhibitions. I mention this because the popularity of video as an art medium seems to grow each year and it is within this context that I energetically viewed the Basement Cosmos installation. Tracing its origins to the birth of video art in the 1970s, it has increased in popularity as production technology has become more readily accessible. Today, video installation is ubiquitous and visible in a range of environments—from galleries and museums to an expanded field that includes site-specific work in urban or industrial landscapes. The only requirements are equipment, electricity, and darkness (for projection). It would be a guess, but the video work on display in this exhibition could have been originated in one’s basement and then projected on a large wall that amplifies the scale. Having a traditional art practice myself, all of this has forced me to better understand video artwork as a fine art, and where fits into the universe of visual art. The best I can do is to perceive video pieces much in the same way I see performance art: a fleeting experience, like a ballet or a stage play (that can be re-performed) for an audience, but not purchased to be placed in a domestic living room, but yes, part of a museum collection. One may think of video screens as a new type of canvas with moving images.

Cooper Holoweski, Cannibal Universe Video loop with sound 4min 30sec 2016

If you have a passing acquaintance with video art, you’re probably familiar with The Clock (2010), by Christian Marclay, which is perhaps the most hyped art video during that period. The premise was deceptively simple: it ran for 24 hours and was a mash-up of movie scenes featuring either a clock face or a reference to the time that was synonymous with the actual time. Other video installation artists include Pipilotti Rist, Cory Archangel, Hannah Black, and Ryan Trecartin. Some of these artists have a narrative; others are purely visual in their use of video imagery.

This review comes on the heels of an exhibition at Oakland University Art Gallery, where I mention the role of a university exhibition space, and now at CCS where they can pursue new ideas without a concern for commerce: a much-needed function in the Detroit Art Community, and acknowledgement of those curators who take full advantage of this position.

The exhibition Basement Cosmos includes three sculptures: Mobius Strip, Cala-bi-Yau Manifold, and Ouroboros Ghost Worm Eating its Own Butt and represents a form of eternal cyclicality. It is not clear how these works fit into the video displays of work and seem like somewhat of an after thought or perhaps humorous relief. Cooper Holoweski earned a B.F.A from the University of Michigan and an M.F.A from the Rhode Island School of Design. He lives and works in the Detroit area and participated in this year’s Delectrity 2017.

Center for Creative Studies, Center Galleries           Basement Cosmos, runs through October 21