Thursday, October 2, 2014

Diana Al-Hadid at Columbus College of Art and Design: Invitation

Diana Al-Hadid, Head in the Clouds, 2014. Polymer
gypsum, Fiberglass, steel, foam, wood, plaster, clay,
gold leaf, pigment. 130 x 56 x 50." Courtesy of the 

artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery. Author photo.
Somewhere between the holiest of holies and the lowliest of lowlys, Diana Al-Hadid's gold-leaf-embellished heaps of industrial materials aspire heavenwards. They soar through our offended sensibilities to reconstruct a lost sense of awe. The material from which they are fabricated acknowledges the chaotic ugliness against which a sense of glory struggles, so improbably, to emerge. 

Put more plainly: Al-Hadid would sometimes appear to be a construction worker run amok. She uses materials like steel rods, gypsum board, mylar, Fiberglass, and plaster to create works that can appear to be literally thrown together, then disintegrated by force or time. Her major pieces in this show might be construed as collections retrieved from scrap piles where a subdivision of McMansions is rising.

This wonderful show disappears from Columbus after the 11th of October, and I regret reviewing it only now, for it's a show that should be widely seen. It's a show for Everyman, exemplary of the reasons to see contemporary work. It's shocking; it's confounding. It is fun. It stimulates one's faculty of curiosity. Any simple observation about it is bound to be right and will lead to yet more fruitful questions and observations. People who think they don't like or understand contemporary art will find that there is nothing to fear in this ultimately accessible work. Why spend time at home with a crossword puzzle, with this show to keep eye and mind lively and acute?

Diana Al-Hadid, detail, Head in the Clouds,
Fontains Abbey, Yorkshire. Photo by
draGnet, on
I was drawn to Head in the Clouds, this droopy-winged, skeletal angel perched atop the most humble of pedestals (in fact, it sure looks like a particularly nasty, big, black mushroom to me). Certainly not a creature of the flesh, this celestial being seems to have failed the transformation to pure spirit. Or, it could be that it requires the gradual dissolution of the body to become angelic? Or, maybe angels have a lifespan too, and this one has seen better days? I suppose, given the title Al-Hadid has left us with, that the head in the clouds—and, indeed, the head retains its form—might signal a valuing of spirit over substance. 

However one wishes to interpret this sculpture, though, there is something awe-inspiring about it. The gold-leaf imparts an unquestionable sense of precious value despite its decrepit form, and the definition by multiple, slender vertical lines certainly suggests Gothic architecture—the upsurging shafts, piers, mullions, and pinnacles. The angel's body is like a deserted, derelict abbey, on which 18th century English authors built the gothic novel—or William Beckford built his own romantic monument to impossible verticality, Fonthill Abbey

And a sense of the Romantic resides in all of Al-Hadid's work in this show. It is grand in gesture and use of space. It is histrionic, theatrical, madly demonstrative. In the clarity of its contrasts and the extremes of its positions, it actively invites engagement and interpretation.

Diana Al-Hadid, Sun Beard, 2014. Polymer gypsum, Fiberglass, steel, plaster, gold leaf, pigment. 44x 96 x 6."
Collection of Dave and Nancy Gill. Author photograph.
Diana Al-Hadid, Sun Beard, detail
Another reason that Al-Hadid's work is riveting is that her own extraordinary level of engagement announces itself in every work. The artist's high levels of idea and self-awareness don't cancel an almost naive abandon with which she seems to attack her work. Sun Beard is an almost-two dimensional panel; the surface sits on a wooden frame, and the surface has the depth created by accumulated layers of heavy materials. On the top of it all, she has painted, in the upper left corner, a radiating sun in golden tones. Opposite, there's what I take to be the traditional image of North Wind, whose black "beard" is the blast of cold breath he blows. Here, the two elements appear forcefully to compete against a scrim of…icicles? rain? shadows in cosmic regions?

Diana Al-Hadid, Sun Beard, detail.
The painting supports the intensity of the conflict by its utter lack of finesse. The sun, in the first place, is placed where children often put it to shine down on the scene below. It's quartered, serving as stage-lights that insure the visibility of the normal scene below. She has painted it at high speed, without mixing colors, in big, sloppy strokes, as if she just wanted to get the job done: "There it is. Finished: The Sun. Next: The Wind." And then on the opposite side, the old man with the beard is devised in the same manner: simply placed, no mixing of colors, no time taken with the drawing. She's satisfied that we recognize him, and that's enough.

In Sun Beard, then, we see Al-Hadid doing something very different than she did with Head in the Clouds. The similarities of materials and signature appearance are obvious. But in this work she shows her consummate confidence. I like the revelation of this childlike aspect of her artistic persona. She will do what she wants to, needs to, feels immediately the urge to do. It suggests that sophistication is not what she's promoting, but vision.  

Diana Al-Hadid, Nolli's Orders, 2012. Steel, wood, polystyrene, plaster, polymer gypsum, Fiberglass, alumninum foil, silver leaf, paint.
122 x 264 x 288." Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery. Author photo.

The jaw-dropping Nolli's Orders commands center stage in Al-Hadid's CCAD show. Solid cascades fall from level to level, as water in a great, natural field of slate—or as in it's opposite, a monumental, baroque fountain. The draperies that form a platform between the watery event and the "underground" structured, gothic galleries, are infused with pigments. These come across as sylvan, with pastel rose and leaf green dominating in soft, irregular patches against the white—as if this huge, theatrical structure sits on a mossy bank.

Theater it is, both set and drama. The audience provides the action in moving around and around, peering into, up and down at the amazing variety of perspectives and elements of the work.

 Nolli's Orders refers to a famous map of Rome made in 1748, made by the architect, Giambattista Nolli, so the title confirms the reference to Rome's grandeur, its monuments, and even to its partition, since Nolli's map was made to distinguish the different areas of the city. But Al-Hadid clearly doesn't want to leave anything unmixed. In the view to the left, one could be a spelunker deep inside a cave, entirely forgetful of the seeming abbey cloisters from which the whole form arises.

Yet across Al-Hadid's landscape are draped the naked forms of men in the lounging or curled poses familiar from classical sculpture. But Nolli's Orders does not rise to the climax of the Trevi Fountain's commanding figure, Ocean, before which the others are supine. The monument builds to anti-climax, in a joke about itself.

Those figures (hollow at the back, one finds) are also exceedingly disproportionate adding to the general feeling of screwy perspective and weirdly layered meanings.nate to the the layers they are draped across, adding to the general feeling of screwy perspective and weirdly layered meanings.

Are humans overwhelming the natural landscape? Are they causing the collapse of civilization? Their civilization, founded on the galleries of the Renaissance, has bloated and crumbled. Is it our task now to begin again redefine art and nature? Or, perhaps, to reintegrate them?

Al-Hadid's work, seeming at first so overwhelming, is at heart wide-open. Her world of reference is vast: The Church; art history, disappearance and resurrection (Head in the Clouds); nature and pagan folk tales (the North Wind in Sun Beard); classical antiquity and its heirs; deterioration in Nolli's Orders. And this is only half the show, loaded with more significant, unique works.

I love this show. It should be the whoop-it-up emblem for the slogan, Fear No Art. Diana Al-Hadid clearly works as hard as a construction worker, but with the fever of an artist whose mind is an explosion of ideas. This woman seems to be receptive to everything that has ever come her way, and is capable of putting any bit of experience or knowledge to use. The multiplicity of meanings we can derive from her work is bracing. The humor and poignancy; the ideas and materials brought from high and common culture alike—everything makes us wonder why we've been content with boxes when flow works so well. She strips the flesh off and lets the structure support the ideas; she lets her intentions fall into one another and sees what happens at the next level. Simply by observing her work, trying to follow the flow, we can't help but feel ourselves loosen and lighten up, to begin blending what used to be so clear, so captive.

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