Friday, August 30, 2013

Arabic Calligraphy in West Africa: Yelimane Fall at the Krannert Art Museum

I found these eye-popping canvas hangings in the permanent collection of the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In Senegal, a small country, the farthest west in Africa, many roads have crossed throughout history. Slaves were traded between Africa and the West from Dakar's Goree Island. And here, too, local religions were penetrated by Islam in the mystical form of Sufism, little known elsewhere in Black Africa.
Yelimane Fall, Seven Lines from Jawartu, 2003-2004. Acrylic on canvas.
Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 
Art Acquisition Fund 2007-16-1.2/1.3/1.5/1.6
Surat al-Fatiha.
These paintings are the work of Yelimane Fall, an eminent Senegalese calligrapher and follower of Cheik Amadou Bamba, a saint of Senegalese Islam and a secular hero who led non-violent resistance to French rule in the early twentieth century. The work is surprising on several levels. Certainly the first is its contemporary interpretation of Arabic calligraphy. In Beauty and Belief the outstanding survey of Islamic art that I reviewed in January '13, the many examples of Arabic calligraphy demonstrated the values of exquisite control over ethereal forms. The tradition is virtually angelic in its lightness, intricacy, and restraint. The look of Fall's work is far from those traditions in the boldness of its forms and colors, the lack of framing around the designs, and the relentlessness of its determination to catch your eye and hold it. They are the opposite of evil-eye protection; they stare you down.

In fact, these hangings are so brave and contemporary in color, complex in composition and letter-form, that they seem more related to graffiti and tagging than to traditional Arabic calligraphy. While the artist doesn't mention such urban associations, in excerpts from recorded interviews from a residency at University of Illinois, Fall speaks directly to the great difference in aesthetics. The Arabic tradition is indeed about the beauty of the letters, which the calligrapher transforms, raising them up. But he is a Black African, and Arabic is not the language of his country or region. He does not understand his mission to lie in transforming the letters. In another film elsewhere online, he reminds his Senegalese interviewers that his language is Wolof, a tribal language spoken around Dakar and St. Louis, in the north of the country: Arabic is a foreign language to most Senegalese, and has very specific, religious use only. 

Fall, thus, is concerned that his viewers "feel, read, understand, think" in local terms. Though he uses the sacred language of the Koran, his calligraphy is thick, colorful, and made to look slower-paced than calligraphy in traditional styles: "Everything moves back to Earth. Even when my work flies, I bring it back to Earth." In this he sees himself work in what he feels is an African mode. His color, forms, and speed are native and significant to those who view it, who connect with the sacredness of texts meaningful but not necessarily legible.
Yelimane Fall,Seven Lines from Jawartu, 2003-2004.
Acrylic on canvas.Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead 
Pavilion, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 
Art Acquisition Fund 2007-16-1.2/1.3/1.5/1.6

The series of four on display at the Krannert Art Museum are not Koranic texts, but refer to Jawartou  a twenty-nine line poem written by Cheik Amadou Bamba.

The translation provided for the first panel, shown at the left, is: "May I only know the joys given by the Sublime One Who Offers Benedictions, until my entry to Paradise."

This, like the others in the series, looks to me like a fabulous puzzle, or even like magically colored marquetry, so precisely formed and laid down are the strings of writing within the large shapes of black and blue. Fall calls his wooden writing instrument a kalam, which allows precise shaping.

Without great knowledge of Islam, I am still excited about the many levels of activity in this painting. While there are neither shading nor any apparent color placements that would create volume, I nevertheless feel that something is constantly moving in or out of my peripheral vision. The combination of small forms among the big ones; the curls that end in circles, and the fluidity of those long lines of script keep the surface in constant flow. There is no background; it feels like the foreground constantly recreates itself. 
Yelimane Fall, Seven Lines from Jawartu
2003-2004. Acrylic on canvas.
Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, 
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 

Art Acquisition Fund 2007-16-1.2/1.3/1.5/1.6

"Through love and the words 'there is no God but God,' may He hide my well-guarded secrets." This second hanging is quite different in look, appearing as forms laid out on a yellow surface with very little overlap. The illusion of depth or movement isn't great, but the sinuous sensuousness of separated shapes provide a tense excitement in themselves. 

Central in the composition is a large, blue numeral 7 (we remember that our numbers are from the Arabic writing system). Glancing back, and at all the paintings, 7s abound. The title of the four-part work is Seven Lines...

In the taped interview that accompanies this exhibit, Fall informs the viewer that the number 7 has important mystic meaning. It represents the double function of the key, which both closes and opens. The Koran opens with seven verses, the Fatiah, but, he says, "wherever you go in Muslim mysticism, 7 guides you." 

The spirituality of his work derives from Fall's allegiance to Bamba, founder of the Brotherhood of Mourides who, even more than other Sufis, attempt to live close to God. Bamba claimed to have met Muhammed in a dream, and Fall recounts having met Bamba in a dream as well. The mystical content of his work, then, is very convinced and follows deep rivers of religious tradition.

Yelimane Fall,Seven Lines from Jawartu, 2003-2004
Acrylic on canvas
Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, 
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 
Art Acquisition Fund 2007-16-1.2/1.3/1.5/1.6
Of the twenty-eight Arabic characters, fourteen are of light and fourteen are dark, Fall explains in his interview. The first seven are fire; the second seven are water. The seven following are air, and the last are earth. The colors, too, have assigned significance. Red, for instance, is fire; black stands for earth; air is white and water is green. The language, then, is not merely one of letters, but of colors, and a world of esoteric meanings non-believers would not dream of connecting to other than aesthetically. 
 fall in what order, or if he has colored the fire letter red or green. This leaf is translated as: "Through His grace for my profession of faith, may God keep me from all slander." 

I tend to follow art to conclusions that may end being either surprising or intuitive. In general, I trust that if the work moves me, the artist has invested what is most important into making it excellent. I think of art inspired by any faith as having a reverential aspect, a controlled fervor that reaches for the ineffable through symbols. 

Islamic art uses text literally and symbolically at the same time. The word is treated literally, as the vessel for expression and feeling. In Fall's series of paintings I see both faithfulness to that tradition and ecstatic departure that asserts everything earthy and African, brilliantly contemporary and urban.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

"Beautiful Baby" is Self-Supporting: Shannon Cameron at Fresh A.I.R. Gallery

Shannon Cameron, Checkered Girl. Oil on canvas. 48 x 38."
The oil paintings Shannon Cameron is showing now in Columbus would make a handsome show in any gallery. They cohere through color, subject, form, and atmosphere. Some are small and a few fill up the wall. But it's hard not to imagine that each would be a choice quotation from the same storybook. Beautiful Baby is one I'd read in bed at night with a single lamp beside me. The pictures aren't scary, but they have a lowering, clouded feel, as one experiences the return to daylight from anesthesia.

Cameron was invited by Fresh A.I.R at the end of December to exhibit this August. She has certainly applied herself since then, as much of the work in the show is new or reworked. The stakes are particularly high for artists showing here even under less time pressure to produce, for, as Fresh A.I.R's gallery statement explains, its "mission is to exhibit the works of these individuals affected by mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders." 

The artist who enjoys Fresh A.I.R.'s downtown space dares to link her work explicitly to her biography. It's risky for anyone to tie their artwork to a single thread—to a political cause, to a school or style of art, to a religious belief—and in most cases I'd say it is foolish. But it is both brave and meaningful to associate one's effort with a condition that commands as much stigma, prejudice, rancor, and misunderstanding as mental illness or substance abuse. 

Shannon Cameron, Angel. Oil on canvas, 26 x 26."
But Cameron says that she would show nowhere else right now. That her work would not strike many as the result of bipolar disorder—of a condition that has at several times threatened her life—is part of its message, its secret and its power. She characterizes this work as both "emotional autobiography" and as part of the collective fight against the stigma attached to the mentally ill. This show's display of skill, taste, poise, nuanced beauty and originality is by its simple existence proof against the Law and Order-type portrait of the bipolar person as an unmedicated, raving menace to society. 

Only the fearful or lurid-minded could walk through Cameron's show and insist on seeing the work of a madwoman. This is her point, of course. No more than any other category of disease does mental illness wholly claim the mind or body of its victim. Even at the height of illness, mentally ill people are not entirely lost to reason or joy, but function less acutely, like people with heart diseases do. Once again, she points out the obvious: When at one's sickest, one's efficacy is badly compromised, but it is not lost. For Cameron, the act of painting is a token and a gift of recovery: The mind is again able to focus and reflect, to escape the chaotic control of disease.

Still, Cameron is certain that the experience of acute illness and the grueling recovery (recovery being at least as difficult as the consequences of suffering the disease) cannot help but appear in the work. Art reflects any artist's experience, their psychic light and shadow. And I agree when she suggests that her work, accessible as it is to any audience, is likely to have a special draw for others who suffer mental illness or traumas similar to those that have shaped her own vision. The process may be conscious or unconscious, but she believes that people with similar experience will recognize it in her work and be consoled.
Shannon Cameron, Night Sky. Oil on canvas, 22 x 20."

My own experience as an artist with presently-controlled mental illness confirms Cameron's: The people who need affirmation or companionship somehow find it in one's work and others who don't need to either won't see it at all, or won't find it to be focal. 

Good art is multi-valenced and contains more than an artist her- or himself consciously understands. Without this intuitive aspect, it never rises above mere design—something planned and pat, lacking the mystery that releases itself over time for both viewer and artist. Necessary for the mentally ill in recovery is a very high level of self-awareness and sensitivity to nuances of actions internal and external. This drive toward awareness can show up in wonderful ways: not as gothic drama, but as subtlety of thought and feeling, of composition and color. 

Being bipolar doesn't make a person creative: There is almost no connection, despite even medically-inspired myths to this effect. To the contrary, it is a disease of disorganization and stress that permits the sufferer little energy for purposeful action. It is in recovery that creativity lies, when a person becomes self-aware and medications clear the way for coherent thought and clarified emotion.

Shannon Cameron, Teacups. Oil on canvas, 10 x 10."
This is why Cameron declares herself so happy to be showing at Fresh A.I.R. Gallery. In this setting, it not only demonstrates that sufferers of mental illnesses are multi-faceted and competent people, but that recovery is truly restorative. The artist herself holds a B.F.A. from the Maryland Institute College of Arts and an M.F.A. from Boston University, yet she was unable to paint for thirteen years until husband, friends, and motherhood supported her return to health.

An interesting note for me is that "the art of the mentally ill" is also understood to be one subdivision of outsider art. It was the Prinzhorn Collection of drawings made by inmates of a nineteenth-century Heidelberg, Germany insane asylum that spurred interest in outsider art to begin with. Art of the insane instigated the emergence of art brut.

Those notions of insanity, from days before searching diagnosis, before medication and sophisticated therapies, remain imbedded in some corners of the culture, allowing the valuing of the object and discounting of the artist as inscrutable and ultimately unimportant. 

In Cameron's work we see an insider's work; the work of a highly trained and skilled painter whose job is to practice the depth of her personhood—the ultimate job, one hopes, of every artist.
Shannon Cameron, Chairs. Oil on canvas, 36 x 38."

Thursday, August 15, 2013

"The Art of Sports" and Andy Warhol's "Athletes:" A Very Interesting Pairing

Until September first, one can visit an entertaining and illuminating pair of shows that the Dayton Art Institute has mounted on the general topic of sports. Andy Warhol's Athletes, his 1978 suite of portraits celebrating sports heroes of the day, is installed in a gallery next to The Art of Sport: Highlights from the Dayton Art Institute Collection. The second show is encyclopedic and well-chosen, dealing with many aspects of sport in society, from games of skill for mental sport, to demonstrations of individual physical strength, and man's domination over nature.
James E. Butterworth, Yacht Race Between Two Small Cutters,
ca. 1850. Oil on academy board.

The Art of Sport includes works from many media, epochs, and cultures to create a lively and engaging show. I found everything in it interesting. Over and over again, I was reminded how many major genres of art exist around sports motifs—and that most of these depictions of sport, until well into the twentieth century, represent upperclass pastimes, like James E. Butterworth's elegant "Yacht Race." 
Caldonyian Boar Hunt: Fragment from a child's sarcophagus. Marble. Italy, 
2nd century AD,

While hunting can land anywhere along the social spectrum, in fine art, its structured or ritualistic pursuits are more likely to be pictured than stalking by men in camp gear with high-powered rifles. In this show we see a painting of the goddess Diana, "queen and huntress," relaxing with her entourage after the hunt, her catch—deer, rabbits—lying bloody at her feet. And though it is only fragmentary, this marble carving of a boar hunt from Roman times is filled with the excitement, the muscularity, and daring of the hunters, and the shocking size, defiance and ferocity of the boar on the right. The hunt is a gripping story, a drama in which man may or may not prevail over formidable Nature.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Oniwakamaru Fighting
the Giant Carp,
color woodblock,
ca. 1825-1830.

In another fight against a beast, the eleventh-century Japanese scholar, Oniwakamaru, fights the giant carp that ate his mother when she fell into a pool. The thinking man becomes the fighter. It's a fascinating lens for Westerners to look at fishing, a sport we see as a combination of contemplation (the scholar) and hunting (the scholar wrestling with knife between teeth). The image is not only dynamic, rhythmic, and saturated in color, but it charged with ideas about the nature of sport versus survival, physical and mental effort.

The Art of Sport gives the viewer not only artistic representations of sports in action, but it includes works of art that enhance sports.

Kuba People (top), Kuba/Ngongo People (bottom), Democratic
Republic of Congo, 20th century. Raffia cloth, dye, with
embroidered designs.
The show exhibits two raffia dance skirts from the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Raffia is cloth made from a fibrous palm leaf.) I was happy to see that dance is included in this show's catholic definition of sport, as an enterprise of simple physical prowess. Both skirts are from the Kuba people. They are worn for traditional dances, the notes explain. Presumably, these are non-competitive and focused on the body in motion, performing either abstract or representational figures with costumes enhancing their beauty and meaning.

The work in The Art of Sport that focuses directly on athletes themselves is work that emphasizes their physical effort, their power, their exuberance, their transcendence. Even when athletes are captured at their most heroic, either sweat or exhilaration emanates from their portrayal. "Heroic," too, does not, in this exhibition, mean "famous," for the images of athletes that I found the most impressive were of anonymous individuals whose work defined them, not their well-known bodies or faces.
Ron R. Geibert, Pick-Up, Rodeo, Dayton, Ohio, 1983. Type C color
couple photograph.

The red-eyed horse running right at the camera in Ron R. Geibert's photograph communicates the hazard and fear of the rodeo, and does it from the perspective of the horse that's being pursued. The red eye marks its wildness, which splits our reaction between sympathy for the creature and respect for its power and its potential to do damage to humans. 
Jane Wenger, Weight Lifter, 1978.
Silver print.

The cowboy's job is to subdue the untamed horse, unsentimentally. By framing the image around the horse and giving us only a glancing view of the cowboy, Geibert emphasizes the magnitude of the man's task—the quickness of body and wit he must possess, the physical strength, and the courage it takes to be where he is, controlling his own galloping horse while balancing himself at top speed to capture the other. It's a great athlete portrait.

As is this actual, full-face portrait of a weight lifter, defined by brilliant cropping. Photographer Jane Wenger chose the athlete's face to tell the story of his effort without any reference to the apparatus of weights or the interior of a gym. The definition of the athlete is her/his work and how this work is made visible.

Which brings us to Andy Warhol's Athletes. At the Art Institute, this show actually precedes the general show. In either order, the two provide a tremendous contrast that any viewer will have to respond to as either funny, absurd, unforgivable—or simply as testimony to the nature of contemporary American culture (that is, funny, absurd, unforgivable?)

That DAI is able to show this full set of ten painting-silkscreens is quite wonderful. The series is among Warhol's least known work. He made ten sets of the ten portraits. This set, lent by Richard Weisman, the West Coast investment banker who commissioned the project from Warhol in 1977, seems to be one of the few that remains intact.

Andy Warhol, American (1928-1987), MUHAMMAD ALI, 1978.
Synthetic polymer and silkscreen ink on canvas, 40 x 40 inches
(101.6 x 101.6 cm.). Collection of Richard Weisman
© 2013 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
 / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Weisman is a major art collector and a lover of sport. This was the basis for his commission and for his selection of subjects, all of whom he visited with Warhol. These were: Muhammad Ali, O. J. Simpson, Chris Evert, Tom Seaver, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Pele, Rod Gilbert, Willie Shoemaker (jockey), Dorothy Hamill, and Jack Nicklaus.The artist took hundreds of Polaroid photos of each and had long conversations with them. He apparently left Jack Nicklaus deeply puzzled and Kareem Abdul Jabbar fascinated. Warhol had no prior idea of who his subjects were: he was entirely ignorant of and indifferent to sport.

The images of Warhol's Athletes that I include here are, alas, not the same as the ones in Weisman's collection, which hangs now in Dayton. Matters of reproduction rights allow the Art Institute to release only these versions, which are from other sets. While I regret being unable to comment on some extraordinary aspects of the Weisman collection—which I think is overall deeper and subtler than these pictures—still, certain things are clear. 

Warhol's portraits bear scant relation to the world of sport we strolled through, above. In all his work, the face of the athlete is front and center. In each, there is some trapping symbolic of her or his game, but sweat there is not. This portrait of Muhammad Ali is as close as he comes to any subject looking athletic: Was Ali capable of looking otherwise? The face, though, is beautifully realized while the hands—one bare, one gloved?—are more hastily rendered. A boxer's assets, his hands, are secondary here to the smooth face, the cocked brow and the direct gaze. It's a face that could be surrounded by anything glamorous, like an Armani suit for sale. It's a pose, and poses are what models and actors assume.

Andy Warhol, American (1928-1987), CHRIS EVERT, 1978. 
Synthetic polymer and silkscreen ink on canvas, 40 x 40 inches 
(101.6 x 101.6 cm.). Collection of Richard Weisman.
 © 2013 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
 / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Chris Evert, too, is pictured as a girl's girl, with emphasis placed on her Cupid lips, the hint of well-shaped brows, and lovely lashes that bring attention to her eyes. She looks like Chloe Sevigny, perfectly made up, in an advertising campaign. For what? Does it matter? Although Warhol has included Evert's tennis racket, what he's really included is its shape: the stringing is barely hinted at. Anyone with as little knowledge of sport and sport figures as the artist could interpret this as a beauty shot—a young woman in contemplation while she holds a hand mirror. The picture takes the viewer not into a world of a ferocious competitor (125-match winning streak on clay courts; a Grand Slam victory in each of thirteen years), but into the reverie of a fairy-tale princess. Glamour is the lens through which Warhol looked. Which is not to suggest, either that he saw what wasn't there.

The Evert portrait in Weisman's collection is, to my eye, more intriguing than the one pictured here, for its palette is entirely pinks and yellows. It is radiantly feminine. While it emphasizes the "girly" face of this sports heroine, it suggests the goddess too, luminous.

Andy Warhol, American (1928-1987), KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR, 1978.
 Synthetic polymer and silkscreen ink on canvas, 40 x 40 inches (101.6 x 101.6 cm.).
 Collection of Richard Weisman. © 2013 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the 
Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
The officially released image Kareem Abdul Jabbar that I reproduce here is the one in this set most like what hangs in Dayton's show. I find amusing and intriguing the huge blue blob where one assumes a basketball is held. What if the viewer has no more idea than Warhol what the subject's job is? How would that area read—flattened out by the paint strokes that lie on the surface?

Kareem's bright eyes pop forward from the graphite gray background and the dark circle of his hair and beard. The application of paint that flattens the mysterious purple circle can, seen another way, seem almost reflective. It could be a sorcerer's magical globe, some source of power--like a basketball to a pro athlete, perhaps? Indeed, I am enchanted by this work. Its mystery and zaniness both appeal to me. Whoever else Abdul Jabbar may be, I'm convinced by this portrait. Warhol got something big right.

Clearly, Warhol's portraits of athletes have precious little to do with their professions. They are portraits of celebrities whose faces outshine any props, who are figured for their appearances and whatever has transpired between them in discussion. Warhol believes in the superficial: Looks are in themselves sufficient accomplishment. He could have surrounded Willie Shoemaker's sly, inviting face with any costume other than a jockey's cap and colors and the man depicted would remain special.

None of this detracts at all from Athletes. His portraits are eye-openers. It is to these that many observers date the current epoch in which athletes have become celebrities and media figures, purveyors of luxury watches and personal products. We easily see all of this foreshadowed in these paintings. 

But there are no brands, red carpets, or potentially compromising actions in these. Maybe they discovered some truths revealed in their ten portraits—or even some wishes fulfilled. What happens to people in the process of sitting for a hundred photos and having ten portraits made by an eccentric artist? Everyone is looking for insight, for interpretation, for the accidental illumination that untangles an unspoken inner tangle or repairs a shredded ego. 

Celebrity advertising has come to stay and sports heroes move with Hollywood stars. While Warhol may have tripped big changes in the culture with this series, he also made us see what he saw. Was he looking at these people in terms of a cultural phenomenon, or as a man with his particular eyes and his own definitions and responses to beauty?
Photographs of The Art of Sport by the author. Some works photographed are under glass.