Contemporary Glass @ Flint Institute of Arts

Installation View, All images courtesy of the Flint Art Institute

Two years ago, the Flint Art Institute opened the doors to its newly completed 11,000 square-foot Contemporary Glass Wing, supplemented by a 3,620 square foot glass arena where glassblowers offer demonstrations to audiences who can watch from stadium-style seating.  Chic and emphatically modern, these new spaces seem to proclaim that while handcrafted glass is an ancient art, it’s also a medium for the 21st century and it will definitely be here in the future. The wing is home to a fine collection of eighty-eight glass artists representing sixteen countries, making this one of the best venues in the country for viewing contemporary glass.

The works on view come from the collection of the serendipitously  named Sherwin and Shirley Glass, and are currently on loan from the Isabel foundation.  The heart of the collection is glass that emerged from the Studio Glass Movement, which had its roots in Toledo, Ohio–itself home to a fine glass collection.  The movement began when Harvey Littleton and Dominick Labino engineered ways for artisans to create glass in their own studios with relatively small furnaces.  They held a famous workshop on the subject at the Toledo Art Museum in 1962 (among others, Dale Chihuly was present), energizing the movement and creating the nexus which allowed for it to attain a global reach.

Suggesting highlights from the collection is a little difficult, given its strength.  Karen LaMonte’s Dress Impression with a Traincertainly warrants mention.  Here, viewers encounter a dress reminiscent of what you might expect to find draped on a Greek Aphrodite, except there’s no Aphrodite under these folds, merely a void created from a cast of a model.  Her work subtly addresses the tension between the body and the spirit, though one’s principal thought will likely simply be “how did she make that?!”

Cast glass Dimensions: 58 5/16 × 22 1/2 × 43 5/16 in. Courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, L2017.143

Demonstrating the often-surprising trompe l’oeil possibilities of glass art, William Morris creates deceptive works inspired by African art like Zande Man and Bull Trophy, each seemingly fashioned out of wood and ivory.  Similarly deceptive are the organic-looking elements of Debora Moore’s Orchid Tree, which looks uncannily like an arrangement of brittle fragments of twigs and withered petals.  The overwhelming majority of works in this collection are sculptural, but Miriam Silvia Di Fiore’s Washing Boardapplies glass wire and thinly ground glass to create illustrative landscapes that seem almost painterly.

Blown glass, steel stand Dimensions: 26 × 16 × 16 in. (66 × 40.6 × 40.6 cm) Courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, 2017

Flameworked and kiln-worked glass, found object Dimensions: 30 3/4 × 16 × 5 3/4 in. (78.1 × 40.6 × 14.6 cm) Courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, 2017

This collection forcefully advances the argument that abstract art can indeed be stunningly beautiful (incidentally, the FIA has some impressively accessible abstract art across all genres).  The billowing forms of Marvin Lipofski are colorful abstractions reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe flowers, but rendered in three dimensions.  And staple to any collection of contemporary glass are the works of Chihuly; here, a set of his characteristically biomorphic bowls nestle into each other somewhat like Matryoshka stacking dolls.  Works like these can easily serve as a gateway-drug into the world of abstraction for those who aren’t especially fond of abstract art.

Acid-polished blown glass Dimensions: 15 × 21 3/4 × 16 1/2 in. (38.1 × 55.2 × 41.9 cm) Courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, 2017

Many of these works are from Eastern Europe, a testament to the region’s history of glassmaking which stretches back to the Renaissance.  Surprisingly, even while Communism exerted its dampening effect on the arts, glass artists were comparatively immune from restrictive policies, since the authorities didn’t think glass art had any subversive potential. The abstract works of Stanislav Libensky and his wife Jaroslavia Brychtova are a foil to state-sanctioned Socialist Realism, triumphantly making the case for abstraction and self-expression.  The monumental scale of their collaborative Green Eye of the Pyramid helps to situate this work a visual anchor for the collection.

Cast, cut and polished glass, I-Beam pedestal, Dimensions: 82 1/2 × 113 × 29 3/4 in., 2000 lb.  Courtesy of the Isabel Foundation, 2017

None of this is currently on view to the public, of course, but it will be eventually.  In the meantime, the FIA has done an excellent job of digitizing its collection.  Viewers can browse an online catalogue of art from the museum; one page offers selected highlights accompanied with audio guides, making the experience more informative and satisfying than simply clicking through pictures online.  The Contemporary Glass page currently offers a catalogue of the FIA’s glass collection, and most works are accompanied by information about the artist.  The FIA also produced a fine print catalogue of its glass collection, replete with beauty-shots of each work that fill the entire page, and occasionally spill onto a second.

Centuries ago, Abbot Suger, the mastermind behind the French Gothic style, famously referred to the light that passes through stained-glass as Lux Nova, or transformed, heavenly light.  Best, of course, to experience its magic in person.  But not all is lost in translation when viewing glass online.  Many of these works are at their best when tactfully backlit by soft light, an effect that the luminosity of the computer screen almost seems to replicate.   So until the FIA is able to safely open its doors to the public again, do take advantage of the chance to browse its glass collection which has been placed online in its entirety, and, of course, is completely free of charge.

Installation View, Courtesy of the Flint Art Institute

Glass Exhibition at the Flint Art Institute. The FIA staff is working hard to get ready for the moment when they  will be able to open their doors to welcome you to visit the galleries. Although they haven’t set a date yet, FIA is preparing for the opportunity to reconnect with you while practicing social distancing throughout a virus free facility.

A New State of Matter @ GRAM

A New State of Matter: Contemporary Glass at the At the Grand Rapids Art Museum

Norwood Viviano (American, b. 1972). Recasting Detroit, 2017. Kilncast glass, 3D printed pattern, and found object, 16.5” x 13.5” x 11”. Photo: Tim Thayer/Robert Hensleigh

Glass defies definition; it’s neither liquid nor solid, and as such it’s been described by physicists as “a new state of mater.” At the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), a visually dazzling exhibit of glass art makes the point that skilled artists can make this enigmatic mater look like pretty much anything.  Glass, A New State of Matter comprises work by an international body of nineteen artists who skillfully manipulate glass in concert with a diverse array of other media: wood, plants, and even  uranium.  The first major exhibition of glass art in the GRAM’s history, the show highlights the stunning versatility of glass, and however it’s used and in whatever form it assumes, the beauty of the physicality of the glass itself is always paramount.

Glass is an ancient substance, dating back to the ancient Egyptians of about 3,000 BC, but the overwhelming majority of the works on view are emphatically modern, and many were created with the aid of emerging technologies.   An ensemble of works by Norwood Viviano applies 3D printing in glass to render cityscapes of actual cities which also allude to their respective histories.   A 3D rendered map of Detroit, ground zero of the auto industry, has as its foundation a cast-glass automobile engine block.  And a map of Grand Rapids, bisected by the Grand River, rests atop a wooden table, an appropriate emblem for a city known for its historic 20th Century contributions to the furniture industry.

Norwood Viviano (American, b. 1972). Recasting Grand Rapids, 2020. Kilncast glass, 3D printed pattern, and found object, 22 x 17 x 29 ½ inches. Photo: Tim Thayer/Robert Hensleigh

Addressing the 21st century phenomenon of social media is Charlotte Potter’s Pending, a complex work which, when viewed straight on, assumes the form of something like a firework blast.  Hundreds of small glass cameo portraits burst out into the viewer’s space, dangling from wires affixed to the gallery wall.  It’s a work which visualizes the artist’s pending Facebook friend requests.  Potter rendered the profile pictures of each request in blue and white glass, colors reminiscent of a Victorian-era shell-cameo necklace or broach.  The length of the wire from which each cameo dangles corresponds to the number of mutual friends Potter shares with each individual.  Her rendering of Facebook profile pictures to look like shell-cameos works as subtle commentary on the often-airbrushed and fastidiously curated digital versions of ourselves that we tend to present on social media, which ultimately serve the same ennobling purpose as a Victorian-era cameo.

Charlotte Potter (American, b. 1981). Pending, 2014. Cameo engraved glass and metal, 156 x 360 x 96 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Heller Gallery, New York

Charlotte Potter (American, b. 1981). Pending, 2014. Cameo engraved glass and metal, 156 x 360 x 96 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Heller Gallery, New York

There’s a literal savage beauty in Etsuko Ichikawa’s luminous blue and green spherical orbs which glow in a dark corner of the gallery suite like little marbled earths.  The unlikely inspiration for Leaving a Legacy was the Fukushima nuclear disaster caused by the disastrous tsunami which struck Japan’s coast in 2011.  After learning that nuclear waste can be contained behind glass in a process called vitrification, Ichikawa created spherical orbs which contain (in every sense of the word) traces of uranium, which causes the orbs to eerily glow when lit by a black light, and they speak to the uneasy proximity with which we coexist today with nuclear energy and nuclear waste.

Etsuko Ichikawa (Japanese/American, b. 1963). Leaving a Legacy, 2017. Hot-sculpted uranium glass, 33 x 72 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Winston Wächter Fine Art, Seattle

In contrast with some of the high-tech and ultra-modern works on view, April Surgent’s Portrait of an Iceberg comes across as an homage to traditional painting; her serene photo-realist work even takes the form of a triptych, which has deep roots in art history. Working from original photographs, Surgent meticulously engraves images of the natural world in glass, and her finished works are evocative of the painted blurry photographs of Gerhard Richter.  They’re beautiful, but they also gently speak to the need to restore wounded ecosystems and address climate change.  And her slow working method of engraving into glass is a performative act of defiance that pushes against the aggressively rapid pace of the digital age.

Flaunting the versatility and trompe l’oeil capability of glass, Tali Grinshpan’s Hope is a work that mimics with arresting believability the soft and paper-thin fabric of a Baroque-era ruff-collar.  Fragility is a recurrent motif in her work, and Tikun (To Mend)  comprises dozens of charred and crumpled brittle-looking vessels in varied states of ruin and (dis)repair.  Like a Mark Rothko painting, the work uses the language of abstraction to convey deep feeling, in this case, a meditation on the breaking and mending we inevitably experience in our lives.

Tali Grinshpan (Israeli/American, b. 1972). Hope from the series Of Innocence and Experience, 2016. Pâte de verre, 10 x 10 x 5 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Tali Grinshpan (Israeli/American, b. 1972). Tikun (To Mend) from the series Rituals, 2016. Pâte de verre, 100 vessels, 3 x 3 x 3 inches each. Courtesy of the artist.

Complimenting Glass A New State of Matter is an auxiliary one-room micro-exhibition, Looking (at-into-through) Glass, featuring glass as it appears in works from the GRAM’s permanent collection.  Paintings and photographs reveal some of the varied and many ways artists use elements like windows, mirrors, and reflections in their work.  Bruce McCombs’ painting Ed’s Easy Diner is a watercolor tour de force which renders the shiny and reflective glass facade of a dive restaurant with the same exacting photorealist detail we might expect from a Richard Estes painting.  Also on view is Tir (from the Conversion series by Iranian artist Monir Shaharoudy Farmanfarmaian), which was recently purchased by the GRAM; the luminous arabesque patterns on this multifaceted geometric glass sculpture reflect shards of light into the gallery space much in the same way stained-glass windows diffuse light onto a cathedral floor.

Glass, A New State of Matter is a crowd-pleasing exhibition in the best possible sense.  It brings together an  eclectic and visually exuberant ensemble of international artists whose work addresses issues as varied as identity, environmentalism, PTSD, and even the Avian Flue (Rachel Moore’s rendering of surgical masks tarnished by their wearer’s breath has certainly accrued an uncanny  resonance and timeliness over the past several weeks).  The eclectic nature of this exhibit perhaps might initially seem to lack a specific point of focus, but that can easily be forgiven; after all, it’s ultimately the varied potential (and indeed the innate beauty) of glass that remains the whole point of the show in the first place.

Glass, A New State of Matter is on view at the GRAM until April 26.

 

 

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

 

Sixty Seconds in Kusama’s Infinity @ Toledo Museum of Art

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929), Fireflies on the Water, 2002. Mirrors, plexiglass, lights, and water, 111 × 144 1/2 × 144 1/2 in. (281.9 × 367 × 367 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Postwar Committee and the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee and partial gift of Betsy Wittenborn Miller 2003.322.

 

Stepping into Yayoi Kusama’s installation Fireflies on the Water at the Toledo Museum of Art is a dreamlike experience; it comes as little surprise to learn that this other-worldly sculptural environment was inspired by a childhood dream in which the artist saw a myriad of fireflies over a river on a summer night.  To experience Fireflies, visitors individually enter a darkened room in which every surface (including the floor and ceiling) reflects into infinity the tranquilly pulsating shimmers emitted by 150 tiny electric lights suspended at different heights.   The visual and sensory effect is one of floating in infinite space; the impulse is to linger, just as you might under a starry night sky, but once your allocated 60 seconds inside this space are over, you’re kindly asked to leave so the next guest can enter, and the experience lives on only as a fleeting memory.

The tranquil beauty of Fireflies belies the tenacious, fiery spirit that defined much of Kusama’s artistic career in Postwar Abstraction, which spans well over half a century.  Her parents ardently discouraged her from becoming an artist; nevertheless, while in her twenties Kusama left Japan and, in 1958, entrenched herself in New York City, the newly established capital of the art-world.  Her friends and acquaintances included Georgia O’Keefe, Donald Judd, and the surrealist Joseph Cornell.  Her early works anticipated (and very possibly even directly inspired) both the soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg and the famously repetitive screen-prints of Andy Warhol.  During the Vietnam War, she even organized provocative nude anti-war protests in public spaces like Wall Street, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and the Museum of Modern Art.  Her critical reputation at one time surpassed even Warhol’s, in part because of her theatrical Happenings, and may have continued to do so had she not returned to Japan in 1973, and, in the West at least, faded into comparative obscurity.

No. Green No. 1. Oil on canvas, 70 x 49.5 in (177.8 x 124.8 cm).  Baltimore Museum of Art, The Edith Ferry Hooper Bequest Fund, BMA 1996.11

America re-discovered Kusama around the turn of the Millennium, precisely when she began re-inventing the Infinity Rooms for which she’s now most associated with.  They originate with her Infinity Net paintings of the 1960s, for which Kusama would apply a thickly impastoed net of paint onto a dark canvass, allowing the ground of the canvass to show through in the negative space as a seemingly infinite network of dots.  Breaking away from the finite confines of the canvass, she began experimenting with enclosed, mirrored environments in which whimsically colored dots and vegetal, gourd-like forms really did seem to repeat into eternal space.

Fireflies on the Water was the first in the next generation of Infinity Rooms, which, rather than playfully burst with full-intensity vibrant colors, evoke the subdued quiet stillness of a starry night.  Visitors to Fireflies stand on a small platform surrounded by water, which ripples just enough to allow the reflected lights to shimmer, though almost imperceptibly.  The lights aren’t a uniform yellow, as a firefly’s signal might be, but range from subtle yellows, reds, and blues, much like the stars.   The lights seem to extend infinitely in 360 degrees (including vertically), so the illusion is that you’re standing on a platform hovering infinitely high in indeterminate space—don’t look down…it’s quite disorienting.

Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929), Fireflies on the Water, 2002. Mirrors, plexiglass, lights, and water, 111 × 144 1/2 × 144 1/2 in. (281.9 × 367 × 367 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Postwar Committee and the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee and partial gift of Betsy Wittenborn Miller 2003.322.

It’s easy to understand the current widespread appeal of Kusama’s works; though her mirrored spaces long predate the Smartphone, they now resonate perfectly with the culture of the Instagram selfie.  Earlier this fall, the New York Times advised readers to expect a two hour wait to experience her infinity room at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York.  (It should be noted that the TMA has a timed-ticket system, and viewers won’t wait in line more than fifteen minutes.) In the hands on another artist, such an application of mirrors might conceivably be reduced to a funhouse gimmick.  But Kusama’s Fireflies is undeniably transcendent, applying the illusion of infinity a way to guide us toward thinking about eternity (and perhaps by extension, mortality), and viewers to the Toledo Museum of Art will find it well worth the fifteen minute wait to experience their own sixty seconds in Kusama’s Infinity.

Fireflies on the Water is on view at the Toledo Museum of Art through April 26, 2020

Between Light and Shadow @ Toledo Museum of Art

Intersections, installation – All images courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

Many in the Midwest will already be familiar with Pakistani artist Anila Quayyum Agha, whose luminous sculpture Intersections won both the Public Vote and Juried Grand Prize at Art Prize 2014, the only time  this has happened at Grand Rapids’ highly acclaimed and much-imitated public art festival.  Through February 9, 2020, three installations by Agha transform a suite of galleries at the Toledo Museum of Art, comprising the exhibition Between Light and Shadow. Visually, these immersive works are an extension of her prizewinning installation originally displayed at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, but these new works are subtly informed by current events, and in addition to being undeniably beautiful, they carry an understated political resonance.

In a public conversation at the exhibition’s opening with Diane Wright, the TMA’s curator of glass and decorative arts, Agha revealed that she had always faced obstacles as a female artist.  In Lahore, Pakistan, where she was born and raised, she was barred entrance to some spaces open to men.  In the United States where she received her MFA, one of her instructor’s, speaking from personal experience,  told her to expect to work twice as hard for the same opportunities accorded to men.  But Agha humorously revealed that it was the defining moment when her son, anxious for a pair of Nike shoes, asked “why are we so poor?” that she realized her only option was to face her prospects with the unflagging grit and steely determination needed to succeed, whatever the odds.

She started as a fiber artist, drawn to the medium for its practicality and commercial marketability.  But her work became increasingly sculptural and immersive, gradually incorporating light and shadow.  She was particularly influenced by the exploded sheds by Cornelia Parker– sheds detonated by the artist and then partially re-assembled in gallery spaces; lit by an internal light, these suspended works scatter their shadows across the gallery space, and seem to arrest a moment in time, mid-explosion.  Looking at Agha’s works in Between Light and Shadow, all of which are illuminated from the interior, it’s easy to detect Parker’s influence.

Though these works are variations on a common visual motif of diffused light and shadow, each of the three installations in this exhibit subtly convey different aims.  The centerpiece that anchors the show is a variant of her Intersections.  In this iteration, the sculpture is metallic, yet, suspended from the ceiling by barely noticeable thin cables, it appears to hover weightlessly and the gallery transforms into an ethereal space in which the Earthly laws of physics no longer apply.  The cube’s complex geometric arabesque patterns are direct quotations from the Alhambra in Spain, a place historically associated with religious and ethnic tolerance during Moorish rule of the Iberian Peninsula.  Though all the versions of Intersections apply the common motif of an internally-lit suspended cube, subtle variations ensure that wherever these works are displayed, viewers will never experience the same environment twice.  Here, the red walls of the gallery space were inspired by the red wedding dress a Pakistani bride traditionally wears on her wedding day.

Occupying the two other rooms in the gallery suite are similar installations, The Greys in Between and This is Not a Refuge! 2, and both deliver subtle social and political commentary.   Like Intersections, the internally lit Greys in Between diffuses light and shadow across the gallery space.  But this ensemble of laser-cut sculpted forms comprises two distinct but similar and symbiotically connected rhomboidal elements.  In its original state, Agha wanted the surface of these forms to reflect the serene greens and blues she had recently encountered during a trip to the Florida Keys.  But in 2017 the Trump administration’s rhetoric toward immigration became increasingly hostile, and in response Agha subsequently blackened the work, responding to the diminishing prospects of immigrants in America.  In this work, Agha wanted to add the element of time; the mechanized parts of Greys in Between rotate at one revolution per hour, and viewers who linger a bit may notice the sculpture’s organic and vegetal patterns slowly, almost imperceptibly, moving across the gallery walls.

Greys in Between, installation image courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

The political undertones in Agha’s work are generally understated, but not so in the candidly titled work This is not a Refuge! 2.   The sculpture is based on a previous work of the same title, a highly permeable house intended to be displayed outdoors and exposed to the elements, and thus utterly unsuitable for use as an actual shelter.  The work was conceived as a response to xenophobia in the United States and Europe.  Delicately applying the gentlest possible language to offer historical context, Agha says that many of the current problems which led to the immigration crisis are rooted in conflicts and wars that “the CIA may have fiddled with.”  But she concluded her conversation with Diane Wright remarking that it’s precisely because she loves America so much that she feels the urge to critique it.

This is Not a Refuge!2, installation image courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

Agha’s works are poignant and timely, but she avoids the high-decibel screech and the gravitational pull to cliché which is so overabundant in our current political discourse, and somehow manages to deliver understated socio-political commentary through works of art whose transcendent beauty verges on the sublime.  While they respond to real-world issues, they also impart a sense of wonder, which is perhaps what gives her work such widespread appeal.  And as for her son, when an inquiring audience member asked if he ever got his coveted pair of Nike shoes, Agha was happy to report, that yes, in fact he did.

Video courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art

Between Light and Shadow now on view through February 9, 2020