Public Art in Detroit

“There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel between achievement in public life and progress in the arts.” JFK

Culture is at the heart of any great city; integral to its experience and legacy. Without that, its buildings and streets stand cold, feral. The Detroit Institute of Arts’ world class collection was allowed to remain intact through the city’s bankruptcy and continues to be critical to anchoring a community where people don’t just want to visit, but want to invest, live, work and put down roots. The Heidelberg Project endured its share of scathing criticism, and arson, only to stand today as symbol of our fortitude. Charles McGee’s recent sculpture “United We Stand”, installed outside the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, continues that call to creative arms.

DAR archival image of Charles McGee’s United We Stand

Robert Schefman, Faculty Professor at the College of Creative Studies and an artist of over 40 years experience with public shows, commented, “For centuries, public art has been a responsibility for those who governed, and could afford the funding. In America, theoretically, we are the government, and democracy puts responsibility for public work, with the public. I will assume that there is some agreement on the benefits of placing artwork in public for everyone to enjoy, regardless of their position in society, because the communication of ideas and experiences through artwork of any discipline enrich us all.”

However, he continues, “When we talk about public art, we change how we relate to our spaces. Change is a double edged sword, and the changes are not always desired by current residents, no matter how much it will beautify, or improve an environment. A mural is placed in a space that draws more people into the area, and the look of the area, altering the way the current occupant feels about “their” space. People often fight change.” Case in point is the installation of “Waiting”, a 17-foot bronze sculpture by internationally acclaimed artist KAWS. The piece is sort of a cross between a Disney and an M. Night Shyamalan character. To say it provoked a strong response is an understatement. Whether attracted, repelled, confused by it, most can’t resist taking a selfie with it. It does what art is supposed to do, engage with the viewer.

“Waiting” KAWS, 17’ bronze sculpture, image courtesy of Kim Fay.

Born from a public art project on New York City’s High Line, John Sauvé enlisted students from a local school where arts funding had been cut. Very quietly and with little promotion, a silhouette of an orange man sporting a fedora began appearing on city rooftops. Now known as The Man in the City International Sculpture Project, the on-going installation is comprised of 60 sculptures located on the rooftops throughout the City of Detroit and Windsor. The Man in the City Project creates a metaphor for life that transforms the skyline and encourages people to look around. It’s an ingenious vehicle to highlight this city’s sensational architecture as well as prompt the viewer’s sense of their place within the city. In our increasingly busy lives, our faces habitually planted in our handheld screens, the sudden materialization of a bright figure incongruous with its architectural host gives pause and a moment to remember ourselves and our community.

John Sauvé, The Man in the City Project, courtesy Michigan Radio

Until recently public art traditionally consisted of elegant sculpture arranged in neatly manicured gardens or parks leaving two-dimensional art relegated to gallery and museum walls. Graffiti has been around since Lascaux Cave’s Paleolithic I-was-here paintings. Contemporary inscriptions became ubiquitous on any modern city’s decaying buildings. Rough and raw, quickly written, it was considered an emblem of decline and abandonment. As the global spotlight on Detroit’s ravaged neighborhoods grew brighter, images of that blight were distributed worldwide. What those images failed to convey was our soul. Detroiters know how to grind. Our resilience has been historically expressed through note and rhyme. Today, it’s described in canned brushstrokes, metals and ink. Indigenous graffiti has evolved from a name scrawled under a bridge somewhere into beautifully executed pieces displayed proudly where everyone can see them. Bold and immediately recognizable styles envelop buildings from Eastern Market to the Creative Corridor. As Schefman stated, there is resistance to change. Those first towering blasts of color, although legally commissioned, still carried the old stigma. Is it vandalism or is it art?

Pose, the Belt, Detroit, image Kim Fay

One the highest concentrations of street art in the world is The Belt/Z Garage’s international collaboration of writers. You can’t miss Shepard Fairey’s mural on One Campus Martius. His smaller piece “Pattern of Destruction” is part of the Belt, a culturally redefined alley between Broadway and Library Street showcasing a gauntlet of creative minds including Cleon Peterson, Nina Chanel Abney, Pose, Hoxxoh and our own Tiff Massey. Peterson describes his images of faceless street fighters as “a gray world where law breakers and law enforcers are one in the same; a world where ethics have been abandoned in favor of personal entitlement.” Tiff Massey references African culture in her work and says, “It’s always going to be large. It’s always going to be in your face.”  Their work turns a meal, a couple cocktails and a packed gallery opening into a raucous street fair.

Cleon Peterson, Nina Chanel Abney, the Belt, Detroit, image Kim Fay

Hoxxoh, the Belt, Detroit, image Kim Fay

This genre has gotten such attention Detroit hosts the annual event Murals in the Market organized by 1xRun and located primarily in Eastern Market. The sprawling festival draws artists from all over the world. It includes local writers Malt and Fel3000ft who collaborated on a piece for the festival. I caught up with artist Malt, who has prominent aerosol pieces in the Dequindre Cut, Lincoln Street Art Park as well as a few remaining underground tags from when he started writing in 1994. His style was inspired by skateboard graphics from the 80’s. Strong color, hard black lines. He says, “Graffiti has always been here. People evolved and got better. Everyone’s still doing their thing just on a larger scale.” Public interest has helped him out tremendously. Before it was all out of his own pocket. Now he gets commissions and has gallery representation. “There’s been a huge progression over the last 10 years. It’s rad. People respect it. It attracts more people to the city.” He adds, “I’d rather look at a colorful wall than beige cinder block.” Amen.

Malt-Fel3000ft collaboration 1xRun Murals in the Market, courtesy of the artist

Malt – Dequindre Cut, courtesy of the artist

No more cloak of darkness with a backpack full of cans. This art form is legit. Love it or hate it, the work is stunning, fun and livens up how we look at life. I still have mad respect for an old school tag dangling on a freeway overpass. As with any art form, how’d they do that?

*Malt and Freddy Diaz open their two-person show at M Contemporary tentatively April 17

James Chatelain: Home is in My Head @ paulkotulaprojects

Installation Image, James Chatelain: Home is in My Head at paulkotulaprojects

“Home is in My Head” is the intriguing, tantalizing title of Jim Chatelain’s display of recent paintings at paulkotulaprojects. Delving into Chatelain’s concept of home is well-nigh irresistible given his usual reluctance to discuss the meaning and sources of his art. Linked to Detroit’s Cass Corridor artists of the 70s and 80s, Chatelain has worked in both abstract and figurative modes throughout his career.

For starters, he plucked the title of his latest display from the 1971 Jackie Lomax album and song whose lyrics describe a loner who discovers, after searching far and wide, that he only feels “at home” when living in his head. Hence, the dozen plus canvases in the show, dating from 2018 – 2020 (with one 2016 exception), focus on the “head” (for the most part) represented frontally or in profile, in bold, eccentric color ways and dark, emphatic contours.

Jim Chatelain, “Untitled,” acrylic and collage on paperboard, 20 x 15” 2019

Moreover, Chatelain’s visages, ranging from life-size to monumental, may be figurative or semi-abstract, as in Untitled from 2019 and Starfish, 2020. In the former, the actual-size head, wrapped in a vine of yellow leaves, is bound with both a crown of thorns and metallic chains. Large teardrops of blood, a recurring motif of the artist, surround the head silhouetted by a greenish aura, while an imprisoning grid offers a partial view of roiling forms within. This unsettling view inward is countered by the liberating, spiraling whiplash of Starfish, whirling out of watery depths (like a waterspout, dancer on toe, or—to stretch a point—the birth of Venus?) while enclosing within its black, red, and yellow contours a chockablock mash-up of fragmented forms.

Jim Chatelain, “Starfish,” acrylic on linen, 35 x 25” 2020

Trunk (2018), another small scale, life-size image, similarly bares Chatelain’s predilection to peel away an exterior surface to expose what is concealed. Here, the “trunk” (of a tree) is also, and primarily, the torso of a human body from armpit to groin, beneath which, after cutting away the bark, a phantasmagoria of staring eyes and layered lengths of wood in yellows and reds is exposed.  Flanked as well by grasping, finger-like nerve endings (or lightning, electrified tendrils?), both body and nature reveal more than meets the eye.

Jim Chatelain, “Trunk,” acrylic on canvas, 26 x 18” 2018

Layers of imagery also dominate the lurking, looming, twice life-size specter of 2018’s Untitled. The large, bristling head, with curling, upturned braids, appears to be wearing a balaclava, but one with a peak reminiscent of a loose-fitting stocking cap. Apparently attired in a black turtleneck, fingers extending downward and upward near the mouth or chin evoke a worrisome gesture. On the picture plane, a delicate white form, perhaps referencing a hat or boat, floats lightly and elegantly in front of the frightening, masked presence behind. The eerie Prussian blue, grass green, sky blue, and luminous white hues reinforce the impact of a stunning, double-take image composed of disparate elements.

Jim Chatelain, “Untitled,” acrylic on linen, 34 x 26” 2018

Four monumental images of 2020 (each 53 x 40 in.) dominate the show and confirm the ongoing importance of Chatelain’s “home in my head” variances. (Additional examples reside in the artist’s studio.) Two currently on view illustrate again the artist’s dichotomous figurative/abstract models that heighten the pictorial dynamic of the exhibition. And since both are untitled, Chatelain leaves us somewhat on our own to ferret out their mysteries. In Untitled, the sharply incised profile of a little over four foot tall head with wide open, saw-toothed maw ingesting tiny circular morsels startles. The spine-like tree trunk on the right curls around and into the brain that, subdivided into numerous chambers, is replete with multifarious shapes surging through the cavity, including several droplets of blood. Sentient life, in an ominous, darkling universe, seems rife with blood, sweat, and tears.

Jim Chatelain, “Untitled,” acrylic on canvas, 53 x 40” 2020

Untitled, however, is vessel shaped rather than head-like, with vaguely hieroglyphic or alphabetic shapes inscribed on black tablets/slabs crowned with several eye-like roundels. The flattened shapes and bold black, white, and red color scheme are regally enhanced by a wavy fringe of filaments (a cape, robe, or drapery?) that vivifies the perimeter of the composition. Of particular note, a surreal, floating hand stabilizes the composition and adds a human touch, perhaps suggestive of a stabilizing hand or the positioning of hands in a traditional half-length portrait.

Jim Chatelain, “Untitled,” acrylic on canvas, 53 x 40” 2020 (All images courtesy of paulkotulprojects)

All told, Chatelain has presented a discombobulating compound of heads (primarily) whose chameleon-like extremes present an ambitious, many-faceted hunt for Home. His dozen plus “homes” or dwellings encompass and express contradictory states of mind, moods, personas, temperaments, identities, attitudes, fears, and emotions, basically what we sum up as the human condition. Uncozy and unruly as his findings may be, all are ultimately revelatory re the universal quest to “know thyself.”

Jim Chatelain: Home is in My Mind is on view at paulkotulaprojects through April 4, 2020

Reflecting Pool @ Wasserman Projects

Installation, Reflecting Pool, Wasserman Projects, 2020 Installation image courtesy of DAR, All other images courtesy of Wasserman Projects. Photo credit PD Rearcik.

There’s a lot to look at and to like in Reflecting Pool, on view until February 22 at Wasserman Projects.  A roster of seven artists, some well-known in Detroit–and some not-so-much–offer up objects and pictures featuring the gallery’s typical conceptual rigor leavened with some welcome visual pleasures.

Esther Shalev-Gerz occupies the far end of the gallery and seems like an old friend returning to the site of her ambitious 2016 installation Space Between Time.  The three archival pigment prints from that show are part of her series The Open Page, a project she executed in collaboration with the Toronto Public Library. They show the disembodied hands and forearms of librarians holding their favorite rare books, and stand up quite well as individual artworks independent of the elaborate intellectual super-structure of her larger works.

The Viviparous Quadripeds of North America by Esther Shalev-Gerz, 2009, archival pigment print, 20.5” x 27.25”

Adjacent to the photographs by Shalev-Gertz, Graem Whyte’s eccentric objects feature his characteristic up cycling and transformation of the substance to the city in the service of his own unconventional vision. In Reflecting Pool, he recycles not only found objects but elements of art history. His Expansion looks like the offspring of a loving relationship between Brancusi and Giacometti, and as part of the same ad hoc installation, a cast aluminum mirror-with-eyeholes entitled The Other Side channels a surrealist-derived object of no known origin. In the same grouping, a cast bronze rubber chicken holds within itself a geode, both a visual joke and a beautiful absurdity.

Oddly Familiar installation by Graem Whyte, featuring Of Natural Forces – 2020, bronze, tourmaline, urethane, 22” x 7” x 3”; The Other Side – 2020, cast aluminum, flocking, found frame, 30” x 24” x 2”; Expansion – 2018, walnut, 96” x 3” x 3”; Matter of Scale – 2020, cast bronze, plants, soil, 14” x 23” x 13.5

Painter Jacob Feige’s work takes up a lot of space, literally and figuratively in Reflecting Pool. Two small paintings, five free-standing, two-sided pictures and a large diptych reveal him to be an agnostic who wants to believe in painting. He makes his clearest argument in Iconostasis I and II. (The iconostasis is a screen of icons separating the nave from the sanctuary in a church, the common from the transcendent, the everyday from the extraordinary.)  Feige paints and repeats a variety of images on these two large panels –byzantine draperies, ovoid onion-like forms–and onions–traditional icon-style hands and eyes. There is even what looks like a re-cycled painting of a modern mother and child, cut up and applied piecemeal. Thick slabs of paint, split and attached to the surface of the multi-paneled artwork, allow a glimpse of the illusive space behind the picture plane, where miracles are possible.

Iconostasis I and II by Jacob Feige, 2019, oil and acrylic on canvas, 40” x 54” each

Matthew Hansel’s technically accomplished compositions mine varying historical styles of painting in a kind of pastiche that sometimes tries too hard to impress and not hard enough to connect (though it might appeal to a viewer with a puzzle-solving mind and an interest in the history of art.) However,  Let There Not Be a Heart as Mine and Show me the Way to Go Home  reveal what can happen when the artist gets out of the way of his own virtuosity.  The latter, in particular, is a revelation, and well worth a trip to Wasserman Projects on its own merits.  Multiple renderings of diminutive china reproductions of Jacques-Louis David’s grandiose Napoleon Crossing the Alps fly across the canvas, propelled by unseen gales. The contrast between the trivial porcelain figures against the sinister grandeur of the stormy seascape aptly puts humanity in its place.

Show Me the Way to Go Home by Matthew Hansel, 2019, oil on flashe on linen, 44” x 76”

Jason DeMarte knows that we are conditioned to accept photographs as “real” and he has engaged in an elaborate ruse to use our unwary acceptance to subvert those expectations in the service of a larger vision. He painstakingly collages together individual images–birds, flowers, vegetation–into plausible idyllic natural scenes; we only gradually become aware of interpolated human-made elements. Each  landscape hides a narrative of man-made intervention in plain sight. They are deep fakes in the service of deep truth: that the untouched natural world is irrevocably lost.  In this Anthropocene age the only question remaining  is how we will manage the interaction of nature with human technology.

After the Deluge by Jason DeMarte, 2018, photo assemblage, pigmented ink print, 48” x 72” (ed. 1 / 2)

Twenty-six ceramic masks by Efe Bes, an artist best known for his performance on African drums, and four found object collages cast in resin by Virginia Rose Torrence round out the installation.

6. Untitled 1-26 by Efe Bes, 2020, acrylic on stoneware, 7.5” x 3” (approx.)

Reflecting Pool, in its totality, contemplates nature and art history, the power of images, the pleasures and perils of technology. The classical and traditional techniques and themes employed by the artists are reflected through a contemporary lens, literally and metaphorically mirroring aspects of the past while serving as a window to the future.

Untitled (Y) by Virginia Rose Torrence, 2019, found objects in resin, 39” x 38”

 

Reflecting Pool at Wasserman Projects through February 22, 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 Apel 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
·
LABYRINTHS: Shiva Ahmadi
Dates: January 16 through March 20, 2020
Gallery Hours: Wednesdays through Fridays, 1-5PM