Explorations in Wood @ Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum

Installation image, Center for Art in Wood, 2020

A traveling exhibition from the Center for Art in Wood, based in Philadelphia, opened January 24, 2020 at the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum with a selection of 70 objects that range in size from an egg to a motorcycle, and are extraordinarily rich in the variety of wood types. The works come from all parts of the globe and have been gathered for over a forty-year period. The decision to bring the touring exhibition to the MFSM was made by the now retired director Marilyn Wheaton two years ago and in addition to the Henry Luce Foundation,  was made possible with support from the Michigan Council For Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Ted Hunter (Canada), Once Upon a Sandbank, Cherry, 1985

From the CAW museum’s collection of over 1,200 objects, this exhibition was curated by Andy McGivern who says in his statement, “Our dependence on – and love for – wood cannot be overstated. It’s integral to our very existence in a range of ways, encompassing our man-made environments as well as both utilitarian and decorative items. The organic qualities of wood, our ability to manipulate its shape, its abundance, and its renewable potential are among the reasons wood permeates our culture – including the art world. The seventy objects  comprising Explorations in Wood are a small sample of the work held in the collection of Philadelphia’s Center for Art in Wood, gathered over a forty-year period.”

Hugh McKay (United States) Tripot #5, Spalted Maple, 1995

These works stem from a love of wood and display a rich variety of wood types. Processes are varied including wood-turned vessels as well as more sculptural forms. Many celebrate the natural beauty of wood, evident in rich warm-brown tones and assorted grain patterns, typical of materials gathered from around the globe.

Carl R. Pittman (United States) Welcome to the New Paradigm, Silver Maple, white milk paint, waxed linen, steel wax, 2011

While many of the artworks might beg to be touched due to the enticingly tactile nature of wood, it’s the design and form of each that were the basis for selection. Variety and handling also were criteria, noting that some artists, after maximizing the manipulative qualities of wood then use paint to highlight an object’s form. Others combine multiple wood types, creating forms with contrasting colors or manipulating shapes to expose varied natural and machined textures. These approaches and others highlight the diversity and unlimited potential of wood.

Mark Bishop (Tasmania) Muti Layer Sphere I & II, Wood, bleach, dye, 1997

Little known to most, Dorothy Arbury of Midland, Michigan studied with the famous Marshall Fredericks when she attended Kingswood School when he was invited by Carl Milles to join the staffs of Cranbrook Academy of Art and Cranbrook and Kingswood School in Bloomfield HillsMichigan. It was she and her husband who were on the founding Board of Control at Saginaw Valley College in 1965, and worked together to establish the fine arts facilities that included the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum in 1988.

Marshall Fredericks’ “The Spirit Of Detroit” sculpture, sits in front of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, in Detroit, Michigan on JULY 21, 2012. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum is a free and open to the public museum which features a unique collection of more than two thousand objects that span the 70-year career of Detroit-based public sculptor Marshall M. Fredericks (1908-1998). He is known nationally and internationally for his impressive monumental figurative sculpture, public memorials, and fountains. Most Detroiters will immediately recognize the Spirit of Detroit by Marshall Fredericks without knowing the vast body of work that exists throughout Michigan and beyond. “To me, Sculpture is a  wonderful and exciting thing, vital and all absorbing. I want more than anything in the world to do Sculpture which will have real meaning for other people and in some way inspire or give them happiness.”

Sculpture Marshall Fredericks, standing next to clay model for his portrait of John F. Kennedy

Center for Art in Wood on exhibition through May 16, 2020

Hours: M-F 11:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.,  Saturday 12:00 – 5:00 p.m.

Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum, Saginaw Valley State University, 7400 Bay Road, Saginaw, MI

 

 

Useful and Beautiful @ Flint Institute of Art

Installation image, Two bowls, and silver setting

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” urged the great designer and social reformer William Morris to an audience in 1880.  Hardly just making a quip about interior design, Morris was being a counter-cultural thorn in the side of the Victorian capitalist and industrial establishment, whose factories churned out mass-produced artless products, and whose workers were accorded little more status than that of the machine.  Morris argued that there was a better way, and even established a workshop that taught people skilled trades in the applied arts, in which workers could harness their creative agencies while earning living wages and producing objects of quality and beauty.  This launched the Arts and Crafts Movement, the reverberations of which were felt on both sides of the Atlantic.

Paul de Lamerie, English, 1688–1751. “George II Oval Cake Basket,” 1742. Silver. 14 7/8 x 11 7/8 x 11 7/8 inches. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William L. Richards through the Viola E. Bray Charitable Trust, 1984.23

Not all the works that comprise the show Useful and Beautiful on view at the Flint Institute of Art are the products of the Arts and Crafts Movement (though some, like those produced by Liberty & Co. or  the architectural studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, absolutely were), but they all stand in the tradition of skilled artisan craft that seamlessly integrated functionality with exquisite design.  Collectively, this diverse ensemble of work voice a triumphant rebuttal to Oscar Wilde’s quip that “all art is quite useless.”

The chronological and geographical scope of this smallish exhibition is impressively broad.  Spanning a 500-year breadth, the show presents examples of decorative arts ranging from a lavishly decorated 17th century wheellock pistol to stained glass by Frank Lloyd Wright.  A sizeable number of these works hail from non-western cultures (Asian and American Indian, specifically) which never drew a line between the fine and applied arts, as did the Western/European world.  Everything on view comes from the FIA’s permanent collection, and the FIA really is the perfect venue for this exhibit: in addition to a muscular collection of traditional “fine art,” the museum now boasts a newly opened wing that displays a world-class collection of ceramic and glass art, much of which fudges the boundary between the beautiful and the functional.

Artist Unknown, German. Fullstock High Art Wheelock Pistol, ca. 1680. Wood, steel, ivory, and mother of pearl. 16 7/16 x 4 13/16 x 1 7/8 inches. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. George H. Greidinger, 1976.

These artifacts are diverse and sometimes surprising.  A pair of engraved golden cigarette cases from Japan possesses the lavish attention to detail that we might expect instead from devotional artifacts belonging to a Constantinian-era emperor, or perhaps something unearthed from a Viking burial.  The same could certainly be said of a Celtic-inspired bowl designed by Alfred Knox for Liberty & Co. Usually the largeness of a work of art seems to grab people’s attention, but in the case of six finely-crafted tiny salt and pepper dispensers (imagine a set of tiny witch’s cauldrons, but made of silver and about the size of a thimble, replete with a tiny serving spoons), it’s precisely the smallness of this set that makes it such a tour-de-force of applied design.  A tiny pair of Sioux children’s moccasins, adorned with meticulous beadwork, is similarly arresting for their petite size.  Perhaps the most unexpected objects in the show are the set of streamline 1930s-era Art-Deco silver cutlery, custom-made exclusively for American Airlines, and intended to stress the point that travelling by airplane was the fabulous and luxurious modern way to travel (contemplate this as you attempt to pry apart your next airline meal with a semi-functional plastic spork).

Liberty & Co., British, founded London, 1875. Bowl, ca. 1900. 3 1/2 x 7 1/8 x 7 1/8 inches. Gift of Janis and William Wetsman, 2016.

Many works on view, beautiful as they are, were produced by anonymous artisans who likely never imagined their craft would one day appear in an art museum—decorative Pueblo pottery, for example, or a pewter flagon from Germany.  Nevertheless, this show does boast a selection of art-world heavyweights.  There’s a decorative ceramic bowl created in collaboration with the famed American painter Andrew Wyeth.  Viewers will also see one of the stained-glass windows designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for a home at Midway Gardens in Chicago; heavily inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, Wright famously custom-designed every component of a building, including light fixtures, furniture, silverware, and windows.

Artist Unknown, German. Flagon, n.d. Pewter. 12 9/16 x 4 5/16 x 6 ¼ inches. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Keith Davis, 1972.

This exhibition rhetorically asks if there really is a meaningful distinction between the fine and decorative arts, and playfully blurs the boundary between these two categories.  It’s a question perhaps best posed by a bronze doorknocker crafted by Renaissance sculptor Tiziano Aspetti, which features a Greco-Roman inspired Venus standing in elegant contrapposto, directly quoting the famed Aphrodite of Knidos, one the most copied sculpture of classical antiquity.  At this level, distinctions between the fine and applied arts become, in the final analysis, a bit petty.

Collectively, these works serve to break down some unnecessary distinctions we’ve created to categorize the arts, but there’s an understated social element to this exhibit as well.  This show wistfully looks backward to a time before the Walmartification of culture, which invariably takes material culture down toward the absolute lowest threshold of quality and craft that people will settle for.  In its quiet way, this show suggests that technological advancement is not necessarily always progress forward, and that perhaps we shouldn’t always be so quick to sacrifice beauty for the sake of efficiency.

Useful and Beautiful exhibition at the  Flint Institute of Art through July 26, 2020

 

Michigan’s Great Lakes: Jeff Gaydash Photography @ DIA

Installation View: Michigan’s Great Lakes: Photographs by Jeff Gaydash, Installation photograph by Olivia Gilmore, 2020

Michigan’s Great Lakes: Photographs by Jeff Gaydash at the Detroit Institute of the Arts on view at the de Salle Gallery from November 16, 2019, to May 3, 2020, presents nearly a decade of Gaydash’s work. A succinct retrospective, the exhibition documents his excursions to the Laurentian pools of the upper mid-east region of North America and their contiguous landscapes. His photographs, pristine, black and white prints, depict both natural and man-made phenomena in and around the largest aggregate of freshwater lakes on Earth, by total area. They possess a certain duality; a romanticism found in early landscape photographs of the late-nineteenth-century by photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, synthesized with the industrial photographs of the mid-twentieth-century by photographers such as Charles Sheeler and Margaret Bourke-White. Gaydash simultaneously elevates the natural while he depicts a landscape peppered with man-made structure and industry. Something particular about what Charles Baudelaire once said of beauty stands out in this dichotomy of forms:

              “Beauty is made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose quality is excessively difficult to determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be, if you like, whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions.” (Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, Painter of Modern Life (Penguin Book Ltd 2010),p.494

An ethereal softness of the natural—the water, land, and trees—juxtaposed with the temporal structures of the age—lighthouses, defunct concrete slabs, and active refineries— make for beautiful images. Perhaps beauty is, “always and inevitably of a double composition,” as Baudelaire theorized. To qualify: Baudelaire’s opinions in mid-nineteenth century France were at times utterly erroneous, but that is another story and this theory of beauty as something dual-natured is worthy of examination.

Jeff Gaydash, Rockport Ruins Rockport, Michigan, Lake Huron, 2012 Carbon Pigment Print – 30”x74”

In “Rockport Ruins,” fog emanates from Lake Huron, both the water and the mist from a decrepit collection of what appears to be lumber, iron, and concrete to the right of the frame. Rockport was a limestone quarry, now it is a state recreation area. The pine trees on the distant shore of the harbor are hazy along the horizon line. The wooden stumps jut-out of the water like jagged teeth—sharp and uninviting; the remnants of industry sharply contrast against the placid waterscape.

Jeff Gaydash, Belle Isle Bridge Detroit, Michigan, The Detroit River, 2011 Carbon Pigment Print – 36”x36”

Both the water and the sky in, “Belle Isle Bridge,” have an otherworldly smoothness due to the slow-shutter speed Gaydash often utilizes in his process. When the shutter of the camera is open for a longer duration, the resulting image displays the passing of time represented in the slight blur. In addition, we see the grandeur of the Douglas MacArthur Bridge that connects Detroit to Belle Isle. Built in 1923, Gaydash’s chosen title evinces a sort of longing for the bridge’s original name as well as a time passed. The cantilevered concrete arched bridge feels as if it continues infinitely into what the vanishing point of the image.

Jeff Gaydash, Zug Island Detroit, Michigan, The Detroit River, 2010 Carbon Pigment Print – 36”x36”

In “Zug Island,” possibly the most striking photograph in the exhibition, the looming U.S. Steel refinery’s silhouette at night contrasts to the feat of human technology exemplified in “Belle Isle Bridge.” An industrial skyline is mirrored, albeit nebulously, in the eerily still Detroit River. If not for the reflection, the viewer might overlook the monochromatic flames which emanate from the plant, lapping at the thick murky air. Whether Gaydash intended to document an environmental issue or not, is perhaps beside the point; the photograph has a narrative of its own. Zug Island is nestled amongst multiple plants and refineries in the 48217 zip code of Southwest Detroit, known for being the most polluted in Michigan.

Jeff Gaydash, Solitude Metro Beach, Michigan, Lake St Clair, 2010 Carbon Pigment Print – 36”x36”

“Stranded,” feels antithetical to “Zug Island,” the tight framing of the tree branches in the tide of Lake Erie, in southwestern Ontario’s Point Pelee National Park, are a far cry from the industrial landscape. It exudes a sense of serenity and solitude, one discordant with the representation in the former photograph.  In this unfettered depiction of nature, the water and sky are a bright, silky grey, and blend together seamlessly. There is no horizon line, and if there were, it would be turned on its side. What the viewer thinks they see (an environment untouched by humanity) and what the reality is, is suddenly called into question.

The strength of Jeff Gaydash’s work lies in the cohesive, uninterrupted flow of the sublime landscape. His technically precise and masterfully printed images perfectly highlight the unique geographical feature that is the Great Lakes. Perhaps as viewers, we know not whether to celebrate the man-made as innovative or to critically examine our collective footprint in late industrialism. A similar ambivalence was captured in both the early and late landscape photographs of the modern era, as utopian images of the natural world gave way to the feats of human ingenuity, and eventually bled into more exasperating photographs of industry and environmental degradation. As viewers, we are invited to delve into this ambivalent, yet meditative space created by Gaydash. It is this with this paradox that we must contend. The exhibition, Michigan’s Great Lakes: Photographs by Jeff Gaydash does not heed a didactic warning of ecological doom, but rather is a nod—a poignant, cogent reminder—that the Great Lakes are a powerful yet vulnerable resource within a delicate ecosystem of which humans are a part.

Michigan’s Great Lakes: Photographs by Jeff Gaydash at the Detroit Institute of the Arts through May 3, 2020

Winter @ Cranbrook Art Museum: Craft Takes a Bow

Untitled II (for Ashgebat) by Christy Matson, 2016-2019, hand-woven cotton, linen, wool, indigo dye and acrylic on stretched canvas.

Contemporary craft is having a moment. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City recently placed ceramics by George Ohr next to Van Gogh’s Starry Night in their re-installed galleries. Taking a Thread for a Walk, an exhibit that celebrates weaving and fiber art in all its forms, both ancient and modern, will be on view there until April, 2020. Meanwhile, over at the Whitney, there’s a comprehensive survey of modern and contemporary American craft from 1950-2019, called Making/Knowing: Craft in Art.

Members of the Cranbrook arts community might be forgiven for asking what took so long; since its founding in 1922, Cranbrook has been a champion for American craft traditions. The museum seems to be taking a victory lap for its prescience right now:  4 exhibits on view through March carry the vision of craft as art forward while also looking back at important moments of its history, in Detroit and beyond.

Wireworks by Ruth Adler Schnee, 1950, ink on white dreamspun batiste

Ruth Adler Schnee: Modern Designs for Living

A major retrospective (her first) of eminent Detroit textile and interior designer Ruth Adler Schnee occupies the museum’s front gallery. Adler Schnee’s family fled Nazi German in 1939, settling in Detroit, where she attended Cass Technical High School. After earning a degree in design at the Rhode Island School of Design, Adler Schnee returned to Detroit to study architecture with Eliel Saarinen at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, graduating in 1946. She faced obstacles as a woman to a career in the male-dominated field of architecture, but immediately found success in textile design. Her memorable modernist cotton prints are on display and will be immediately familiar to anyone who feels an affinity for the recently resurgent interest in midcentury modern design.

Ruth Adler Schnee made it her mission to democratize good design for the post-war mass American market. “We are living in a democracy. Our designs for living must have social implications,” she states in her Cranbrook master’s thesis.    She worked extensively as an interior designer and textile designer with architects like Minoru Yamasaki, Frank Lloyd Wright and Eero Saarinen, as well as operating (for 30 years with her husband Eddie) Adler Schnee Associates, a retail design business in Detroit. She also worked with American car companies; for an amusing look at their symbiotic relationship and a historic overview of the importance of Detroit as a driver of design in the 50’s and 60’s you can view American Look, a 1958 promotional film sponsored by Chevrolet.

At 96, Adler Schnee continues to be a relevant force in textile design today through adaptation of her classic printed textile designs into woven fabrics and carpet design. Examples of both are on display in the gallery.

Designs Worth Repeating, Woven Textiles by Ruth Adler Schnee. Woven fabrics based on Adler Schnee’s mid-century modern prints, re-introduced for the 21st century.

Christy Matson: Crossings

Contemporary L.A. fiber artist Christy Matson is a multi-disciplinary shape shifter whose work occupies an esthetic space at the intersection of painting, weaving and collage.  Employing digital technology and a jacquard loom, Matson expands the formal parameters of weaving. She creates tapestries that incorporate organic curving lines and shapes unavailable via more traditional techniques and employs novel fibers and pigments added to traditional yarns and threads. The results are fiber artworks that have been aptly described as “painterly.”

Crossings, a solo exhibit of her work currently on view at the museum, consists of two large tapestries realized as a commission for the U.S. Embassy in Ashgebat, Turkmenistan, as well as several smaller, more intimate pieces that allow a welcome closer look at Matson’s technical means.

Matson has an expressed interest in the symbolism and the technical realization of traditional Turkmen textiles, as well as a kinship with the women who make them. The traditional costumes of Turkmenistan are deeply symbolic and incorporate imagery specific to the gender, social position and age of the wearer. Varieties of technical decoration in local costume, such as patchwork and embroidery, make a richly colorful and tactile pastiche that relates formally to Matson’s work.  The rugs for which the region is justly famous are woven by women from a variety of fibers dyed with a combination of synthetic and natural dyes, another point of correspondence with the artist.

Untitled I (for Ashgebat) by Christy Matson, 2016-2019, hand-woven cotton, linen, wool, indigo dye and arcylic on stretched canvas.

The two colossal tapestries that anchor the exhibition incorporate abstract pattern and stylized images of plants using long narrow woven panels joined two by two.  Untitled 1 (for Ashgebat) consists of stripes and floral motifs that are repeated and occasionally reversed and tilted to yield a roughly symmetrical counterpoint. A central stylized blossom anchors the composition.  Untitled II (for Ashgebat) flirts with the illusion of pictorial space.  The hazy vertical stripes on the left suggest grasslands, while the same lines reversed and repeated on the right suggest the fringe of a rug.  The stylized seed heads and blossoms on each panel create a satisfying rhythm without precisely repeating themselves.

The smaller pieces in Crossings allow a closer look at Matson’s art practice. Particularly illuminating is her Overshot Variation 1 which incorporates bands of painted paper using the overshot technique often employed in Jacquard weaving.

Overshot Variation I by Christy Matson, 2018, deadstock overseen linen, acrylic and spray paint on paper, Einband Icelandic wood

In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969

For artists who dream of an idyllic creative space where collaboration, mutual support and disciplinary cross-pollination are the rule, the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts represents a dream come true. The 90 pieces that fill, and threaten to overflow, the museum’s middle galleries recount the history of this important creative community from 1950-1969 for the first time.  The objects in the exhibit range from textiles to printmaking, ceramics, metalwork and painting, and even to jewelry making and glass art. By discarding ideas regarding the primacy of fine art versus craft, the members of Haystack approached a non-hierarchical egalitarian ideal. Many of the artists represented in the exhibit also had ties to the Cranbrook arts community during a particularly fertile period for craftspeople who lived and worked and created in this uniquely supportive creative environment.

Video still, from Dance of the Looney Spoons, by Stan VanDerBeek with Johanna VanDerBeek, 1959-1965, 16 mm black and white film transferred to video with sound, 5:20 minutes (Haystack)

Silver Road Runner by Stan VanDerBeek, 1954, assorted metal silverware (Haysta

 

Ancient People by Hodaka Yoshida, 1956, relief print on paper (Haystack)

For the Record: Artists on Vinyl

In the lower level gallery, you can experience the unexpected pleasure of 50 designs for vinyl records–some vintage, some recent– by a who’s who of artists comfortable working at the intersection of design and fine art:  Jean-Michel Basquiat, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Banksy, Shephard Fairey and Keith Haring, Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Motherwell, to name only a few. The square parameters of the vinyl record cover seem to have offered the perfect creative space for artists to create bite-size versions of their more ambitious works. It’s worth a trip down the stairs just to see Jean Dubuffet’s painting Promenade a deux from the museum’s collection, installed next to his lithograph Musical Experiences.

Promenade a deux by Jean Dubuffet, 1974, vinyl on canvas, matt Cryla varnish

The exhibits at Cranbrook right now, particularly the Ruth Adler Schnee retrospective, demonstrate some of the diverse ways in which craft and design have historically influenced America’s aspirational culture. The built environment of the country, though, has changed–is changing.  As the past gives way to the future, the times will require creatives that bring the same level of creativity seen here to new challenges like technological innovation and environmental change.

Winter at Cranbrook Art Museum: Craft Takes a Bow  through March 15, 2020

 

Labyrinths: Shiva Ahmadi @ Elaine L. Jacob Gallery

Installation view: Shiva Ahmad opening Photos courtesy of Elaine J. Jacobs Gallery

Shiva Ahmadi @ Elaine L. Jacob Gallery –  Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan

There was a palpable groundswell of pride and affection for Iranian artist Shiva Ahmadi from the audience when Grace Serra, curator of Wayne State University Art Collection, introduced her at her recent talk during the opening of her exhibition, “Labyrinths,” at the Elaine L. Jacob Gallery. Indeed, during her talk she reciprocated the feeling, referencing the faculty of Wayne State University’s art department and Cranbrook Academy of Arts, where she received an MFA in drawing (2003) and MFA in painting (2005) respectively. She honored faculty members who trained and nurtured her there. She remembered the late Professor Stanley Rosenthal’s energetic support who aided her in getting from Tehran, Iran to Detroit (enduring the United States own 9/11 nightmare) and into the WSU Degree program. The legends of Wayne’s art department faculty showed up to celebrate Ahmadi. John Hegerty was there with hugs. Jeffrey Abt leaned over and whispered “Shiva was a marvelous student.” Marilyn Zimmerman sang praises from the audience. Dora Appel exclaimed, “Her work is wonderful.” As an artist, she appeared strong and resolute and as a human being filled with gratitude for what Wayne’s art department had done for her. It was a proud moment for Wayne State University.

At the Opening: Professor John Hegerty and Shiva Ahmadi

Shiva Ahmadi was born in Tehran, Iran in 1975, just before the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah and the Iraq-Iran war that wreaked bloody mayhem on both countries for years and still continues. An estimated million people were slaughtered. As a child, Ahmadi witnessed and lived through that bloodshed. It’s the prime mover of her current body of work.

Shiva Ahmadi, “The Wall,”2016, Watercolor and ink on paper, 40” X 60”

In a mix of water color, ink, acrylic, and video, Ahmadi’s “Labyrinths” engages a meditation on the dynamics of capricious power, mindless loyalty, blood and oil economics and war. Inspired by the tradition of miniature paintings of Persia, stunningly drawn, large scale watercolor and ink drawings establish an index of characters—animal and human figures— set in a haunting landscape. Ahmadi’s tableaux usually situated in walled or gardenlike landscapes, insulated interiors, controlled by an often-empty throne. The large watercolors, “The Knot,” “Mesh,” and “The Wall,” 2016, establish and illustrate the cosmology of Ahmadi’s world. And she can draw. Always beguilingly lyrical, her faceless figures (parody of Islamic aniconism?) float aimlessly, in her magical but existential emptiness, waiting.

In these remarkably executed watercolors, a captivating choreography of Ahmadi’s characters pay mindless fealty to elaborately decorated thrones (Persian history), signifying 2500 years of history. Ahmadi’s primate-like, docile minions carry out the job of salaaming the throne and among other things, seem to be processing uranium for operating nuclear reactors, and like graceful automatons, juggle beautiful bubbles into bombs. In “Minaret,” (2017) four interconnected minarets, towers used to call the faithful to prayer, are represented as nuclear towers for nuclear energy and bombs. Like the Persian miniatures, Ahmadi’s palette of colors is composed of rich earth tones punctuated by a background of transparent watercolor wash. They are elegant yet they are drawn with purpose as if from memory.

Shiva Ahmadi, “Minaret,” 2017, Watercolor on paper, 20.5” x 29.5 “

If Islamic miniatures are the main inspiration for Ahmadi’s iconography, the modern cartoon seems to have also played its part. In conversation Shiva alluded to her youthful preoccupation of watching cartoons. While most Persian miniatures are densely packed with a precisely drawn geometry of figures and architectural spaces, Ahmadi’s open spaced compositions read, cartoon-like, as sites of movement and action, suggesting metaphoric narratives. Some of the loose gestural watercolor figures resemble cartoon characters but the brush work comes straight out of abstract expressionism. The tableaux in “Green Painting” and “Burning Car,” employing aggressive brushwork of globs of paint, read as horrific attacks on the home and individual lives and the bloody gore, as if painted with human viscera itself, the nightmare of revolution. One cannot ultimately help but read them as a kind of personal exorcism of the nightmare Ahmadi has witnessed. Some of the works, like “Burning Car,” read as Biblical representations of hell itself with demonic human figures in combat rending others into bloody gore.

Shiva Ahmadi, “Burning Car,” 2019 Acrylic and Watercolor on Aquaboard, 36” x 46 “

Ahmadi has also translated pressure cookers, used in many terrorist attacks as bombs (including the 2013 Boston Marathon that killed three and maimed hundreds), into sculptures, filled with nails and adorned with intaglio hand-etching with Arabic script and Islamic decoration, becoming satires on sanctity Islamic culture. The brutal irony of the text that is etched on them is that it is what Muslims pray before they die.

Shiva Ahmadi, “Pressure Cooker #4,” 2016, Etching on Aluminum Pressure cooker 10 x 19.5 x 12 inches

Two videos animate Ahmadi’s drawings into mesmerizing narratives that critique the nature of political and religious power. “Lotus,” commissioned by the Asian Society Museum, proposes what would happen if the Buddha, a surrogate for God, loses his enlightenment, signified by the flight of the word for God or Allah in Farsi, snatched by a dove, leaving the throne Godless. Leaving the servile devotees without a spiritual center, the landscape is thrown into total chaos, populated by Ahmadi’s now meaningless, randomly dispersed figures and objects. The implications of Lotus are global.

Shiva Ahmadi, “Lotus,” 2013, Watercolor, ink and acrylic on Aquaboard, 60” X 120”

“Ascend,” is an animation that tells the recent, internationally read, news story of the life of a Syrian child refuge whose body was washed up on the shore of Turkish coast, after his family attempted to flee war torn Syria, hoping for a safer life in Europe and eventually Vancouver, Canada. The video is painfully lyrical, composed of Ahmadi’s animal figures frolicking together with bubbling toys which ultimately leads to the young boy’s drowned body washed ashore.

Aside from the current relevance of her subject matter, the attraction of Ahmadi’s painting is quite simply the combination of the elegance and deftness of her drawing and the masterful handling of paint and watercolor on the paper. Her work gains traction by the apt appropriation of Islamic iconography, turning it on its head and reversing its message. Ahmadi is a testimony to the significant role artists can play, but don’t often enough, in giving shape to our political dialogue.

Elaine L. Jacob Gallery Wayne State University
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LABYRINTHS: Shiva Ahmadi
Dates: January 16 through March 20, 2020
Gallery Hours: Wednesdays through Fridays, 1-5PM