Review: NUR: Light — at the DMA through June 29

[Originally published in Visual Art Source, Los Angeles]

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Speech that touches upon descriptions of the divine inevitably employs the imagery of light. Without cataloging a litany of examples from Christianity and Judaism, not to mention Hinduism and Buddhism, it is hardly surprising that this is equally true with regard to Islam. In fact, one of the names of the Koran is an-Nur, the Light. Thus, the following text from the Koran proves, well, illuminating:

God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of his light is, as it were, that of a niche containing a lamp; the lamp is enclosed in a glass and the glass shines like a radiant star; the lamp is lit from a blessed tree — an olive tree that is neither of the east or the west —the oil whereof is so bright that it would well-nigh give light of itself even though fire had not touched it: light upon light.

This single bit of metaphorical text recalibrates our notion of the current exhibition at the DMA, “NUR: Light”. The text, of course, is a description of mystical illumination. It describes a light that confers brightness despite its lack of a literal “oneness” with the source of fire that is “not touched.” If you look for similar explanatory materials relating to the show at the museum, you will be disappointed. This is particularly lamentable since most Americans only know the Muslim faith via its relationship to events on 911. “NUR”, then, should not be let go as a missed opportunity since the show can teach us much. That being said: For a show celebrating light and its concomitant ramifications, it is daunting that museumgoers are forced through what feels like a fluorescent tube to enter the exhibition. It’s not the gorgeous light of North Africa or Spain; it, instead, is offensively tacky and reminiscent of a buying spree at Home Depot. However, if one is willing to endure a less than august entrance to the show and engage in a bit of investigation regarding one of the three Abrahamic religions, the DMA delivers treasures that, despite a flagging presentation and lack of information, can still delight.

In fact, the Sufis — adherents to Islam who many scholars feel offer a merging of heart and intellect with regard to the divine that outstrips the West — turn to symbolism and imagery to apprehend the divine. Thus, a show of Islamic art is of tremendous import. And the DMA has put forth a collection about which they have crowed mightily. They have counted pieces, measured them, and described materials and points of origin with alacrity. But will those who view the show leave with an expanded understanding of a faith that is often met with furor or even violent repugnance? The resounding answer is “Yes” — if they are willing to look, read, and reflect.

For instance, the show displays astrolabes, images of the zodiac, medical arcana, calligraphy, bowls, urns, and miniature paintings. However, these items, bereft of additional information, do little than deliver a glancing blow when it comes to understanding the expanse of Arabic learning. As one example, it is widely alleged that Muslim scholars either saved the Greek canon from destruction or, at the very least, offered commentaries on it that made Aristotle and other notable scholars far more accessible to the West than would have otherwise been possible. This is a mere aside, yet it provides a valuable context. Put another way, the show gives art to us without a broad frame of reference by which to appreciate and apprehend it.

However, go and experience the artifacts on display. Don’t count them or care overmuch about their size or point of origin. It is far more important that you’re in the presence of items that intimate a large, brightly lit world. And dare we say it? A transcendent one. In his work, Mishkat al-Anwar, al Ghazzali interprets the “Sura of Light” quoted in the second paragraph of this piece. He explains that the Creator alone exists or has being. Everything else “has being not in itself but in regard to the face of its Maker, so that the only thing which truly is is God’s Face.”

The corollary within the context of the show is that everything comes to us as a redacted version of a divinity most aptly described as an iteration of light. After all, both confer the glint of beauty and a means by which everything that is can be oriented in the world. To understand this notion — or, more precisely, to inhabit this mindset — requires a new way of seeing. The DMA has delivered to the public some glorious objects to scrutinize. So why are they so terse when it comes to celebrating them?

They tout the size of the show with vengeance but fail to give us compelling reasons for loving it. After all, most of us can count. So sheer numbers don’t really offer a new vector into what is an otherwise opaque culture for many. In fact, it can become embarrassing. As a bit of ancillary information: The DMA has on display 150 pieces in NUR. The Louvre owns 14,000 pieces that are housed in their Islamic wing. And they have added 3,500 decorative pieces to that. But airfare, hotels and left bank dining are expensive — and “NUR: Light” is close at hand. So give yourself over to it in ways that are deep and thoughtful — in lieu of merely mimicking awe regarding its “staggering” scope.

Learning about Islamic culture seems daunting to many people outside the Muslim community. However, what is a demanding task for some is an electrifying gallop for others. In either case, it’s worthwhile. Don’t miss it. Allow yourself to enter into another culture and you won’t become lost. Rather, you’ll come to know your own tradition far better.

 

— Recommended by Patricia Mora

Archived: Rhapsody in Blue – Profile of Joslyn Taylor in Paper City

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Joslyn Taylor’s father played saxophone in Edgar Winter’s “White Trash” band and, oddly, this explains a lot. His work as a musician meant that she spent a peripatetic childhood in wildly disparate points in Louisiana and California, including the rapturously gorgeous topography of Big Sur. She praises the scenery along the sinuous, coast-hugging Highway 1 and it becomes clear that Taylor is, indeed, a California girl — albeit operating splendidly as a transplant. She pulled out a lavishly printed album cover featuring sexily sweaty photographs of her father from “back in the day” and explained that his life as a musician dictated changing residences frequently as his career morphed. She said that “people in both Louisiana and California are very laid back, very friendly” and added that Los Angeles is a slice of atypical glitzy turf in what is surely the most boho state in all of America. It’s also clear that she still loves it deeply.

This is readily apparent because her Cali background is imprinted everywhere in her residential DNA. Her home meanders throughout approximately 4,000-square feet of space that is utterly tranquil, more than a bit “Zen” and the very definition of “comfy.” There is a dish of quartz crystals on a table adjacent to the living room sofa, a huge salt-water aquarium sporting yellow- and blue-striped fish near an over-sized bar area; and, outdoors, a thatch of bamboo is still green and thriving despite a recent snowy freeze. It splendidly skirts a backyard pool overlooked by a cozy area perfect for imbibing cocktails during warm afternoons. Put bluntly, the entire residence is something a frequent Esalen attendee would cook up.

All of this is especially remarkable since Taylor juggles a life with her husband, two young daughters, and a full-time job as a Principal at Swoon, the Studio. For the uninitiated, Swoon is owned by Samantha Reitmayer Sano who brings her massive talent to an array of projects, including: branding, print media, exhibition and retail space — and, of course, home décor. After Taylor teamed up with Sano and took on much of the responsibility (and joy) of a booming company with an A-list clientele, an obvious question comes to mind. Namely: Who has time to decorate?

Thus, what follows is pertinent information. When her eldest child asks politely if she can play in the snow, not one beat is missed. When the youngest daughter pads by, heading toward her room wherein girly pink décor collides with doodads resembling tiny gears and car parts, that, too, is deftly handled. It’s obvious that the woman possesses a miraculous combo of Mommy / Executive Talent / Wildly Creative skill sets.

In Ginsu-knife vernacular, her bio would read, “But wait! There’s more!” Taylor started her career as a high-powered executive in marketing at EDS and Siemens. She then shifted gears in toto and was lured away from a fifteen-year stint in corporate culture to work at “D” magazine before moving on to her ultimate dream job at Swoon, the Studio. Says she, “Samantha asked me dinner and said she wanted to discuss business. Well, two cocktails in, she suggested that we work together.” After a bit of contemplation, Taylor succumbed to the offer and now is the epitome of a hugely talented businesswoman who works ferocious hours while adoring every minute of it.

Luckily, she’s an early riser and cranks work out like a champ between wee hours, four a. m. to be exact, and a more reasonable block of time stretching into eleven in the morning. In other words, she has put in a full day while most people are still feeling the miraculous buzz of their first espresso-laden, sing-the-body-electric beverage.

Egads! She probably is also an expert in yoga and performs Crane and Warrior poses with the gracefulness of Nureyev. However, if that’s the case, I simply can’t bear to know.

 

Feature Story in FD Luxe: David Quadrini, Robyn O’Neil, and Christine Nichols

Three California dwellers with strong Texas ties return (but not for long)

by PATRICIA MORA

portraits by NAN COULTER

DAVID QUADRINI resembles an Indian sadhu and has a mind that darts between topics with the speed of a Formula One car. He walks into Ascension, the hip coffee bar in the Dallas Design District, and it becomes infinitely more hip the moment he passes through the door. I’m not sure how it begins, but his initial remarks involve his experience preparing macrobiotic food for the legendary composer and artist John Cage. It went wackier from there.

I had been warned — but nothing prepared me for the force that is David Quadrini. A Dallas native and an artist who describes his own work as “looking like a bruise,” Quadrini created the wildly successful Angstrom Gallery, which attracted glitterati from both coasts to an improbable location on Parry Avenue. In 2004, he moved on to establish himself in Venice, California, where he lives now and where he recently put up a show, for which he asked important artists, including Jeff Elrod and Mark Flood, to create actual bumper stickers. Says Quadrini: “It’s so perfect. Now everyone will know exactly what kind of person is driving the car in front of them. They’ll know everything because of the artist’s sticker they chose!” He announces this and then smiles as broadly as a child surrounded by puppies and bounce houses. And, yes, he’ll be in town during the time of the Dallas Art Fair, but there is nothing on his schedule. Yet.

 

ROBYN O’NEIL is among the Texas expatriate artists Quadrini brought into the light of public adulation. She is known for her large-scale graphite drawings and will be in Dallas for the Nasher Sculpture Center’s Great Create, an interactive family fundraising event on April 27 that benefits the Nasher’s education programs. O’Neil’s work was included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, and she has had shows in a variety of cities: Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Paris, Shanghai and New York, to name a few. However, she makes it clear precisely where her roots lie. “I started my career in Dallas while I was still in college. David Quadrini gave me my first one-person show in 2000.” Indeed, he spotted her long before she shot off into the glammed-up international art sphere.

 

CHRISTINE NICHOLS, owner of C. Nichols Project art gallery in Mar Vista, is another associate of Quadrini. She is bringing work to this month’s Dallas Art Fair that includes pieces by Thaddeus Strode, an artist she describes as being “fascinated by Moby Dick — but he depicts things from the point of view of the whale. It’s a bit sinister.” Nichols grew up on Padre Island where, according to Quadrini, “Her mother flies a plane and takes off to places like Marfa! We just pile in and go!” (It should be noted that said plane is a Cessna Citation jet, the swankiness of which obviously makes far less of an impression on Quadrini than the chumminess of flying off with friends to a locale deemed somewhat remote.) Nichols now lives in a modernist beach house by acclaimed architect Maya Lin. Nichols is, in Quadrini’s opinion, a spectacular gallerist. “Christine occupies the highest ethereal plane of the art world,” he says. This is lofty praise from an art sage known for separating the splendid from the dross.

Thus, three Texas natives who migrated to Los Angeles are still maintaining their ties to one another and to their home state. They coalesce and regroup and, generally, maintain an exotic camaraderie. Quadrini indicates that there are fabulous things on the horizon. He merely arches an eyebrow and offers a succinct cliffhanger: “It’s going to be amazing.”

Review: “Vivan Sundaram: Re-take of Amrita” at The Crow Collection of Asian Art

 

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The recent exhibition at The Crow Collection of Asian Art, “Vivan Sundaram:  Re-take of Amrita,” operates as a kind of memory theatre wherein space and time collapse. While Sundaram’s images were created with Photoshop, they retain a glamorous retro sensibility that flares with exotica ranging from Parisian parlors to Hungarian landscapes. Mirrors, paintings, and lavish furnishings all come together to create a montage of household scenes that operate as a fictional world where generations, including the living and the deceased, collide. The result is an ethereal, composite narrative that is both compellingly complex and, quite simply, gorgeous.

 

The original photographs incorporated into the show’s works were done by Umrao Singh Sher-Gil — Sundaram’s grandfather — and largely include self-portraits as well as images of his opera-singer wife and their daughters, Amrita and Indira. However, a young Sundaram can also be spotted, reflected in a mirror and holding a camera. Thus, what the artist describes as his fascination, “photo-dream-love-play,” is intimated in a single image that operates as reverberating lodestar for the exhibition.

 

To add still another layer, Amrita, Sundaram’s relative, is the focal point around which the show, the “re-imaging,” circulates. She was lauded as India’s premiere modern artist after studying at L’École des Beaux Arts in Paris and returning to India where she created work that conflated European and Indian sensibilities. She died suddenly in 1941 at the age of 28 and, thus, became the tragic figure that Sundaram’s images — “re-takes” — explore. The show depicts how one reimagines the past and comes to terms with it via narratives — in this case, reconstructed visual “stories.” The exhibition bears the stamp of a fabulously nuanced understanding of memory that is lovely, honed, and utterly irresistible.

 

— Recommended by Patricia Mora

 

 

 

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More things I have designed: an illuminated glass sculpture

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 This piece features 3/4-inch glass that is hand-etched.

The base is made of African mahogany with a bulb embedded inside the pyramid-shaped base.

It is meant to be viewed in a fully darkened room and all that appears are “spokes” of emerald-green light.

Sergio Pallazzetti agreed to add it to his showroom; however, I was subsequently contacted and told that I needed an entire “line’ of work. This proved impossible due to the outlandish cost of having prototypes made.

Thus, this became a “one off.” Or two.

(One was purchased and I retained one for myself.)

Fire on the Walls: The Work of Alexandre Hogue — Published in Humanities magazine, the publication for the NEH

[Originally published in an altered format in Humanities magazine]

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Fire on the Walls: The Work of Alexandre Hogue

That which is truly new sometimes comes in the guise of the usual. If one doubts this premise, all that’s needed is a look at Alexandre Hogue’s landscapes, on view through August 20 at the Grace Museum in Abilene with support of Humanities Texas. His works aren’t mere replicas of terrain. Rather, they reveal the mysterious delight that limns the interstices of hills, canyons, and rural structures. Like Emerson, whose first and primary church pew was Nature, Hogue didn’t seek to cut the transcendent from its literal “ground.”

Hogue is typically thought to be a “Dust Bowl painter” or part of a movement called “The Dallas Nine,” a loosely knit group of painters, printmakers, and sculptors active in the thirties and forties. Yet he ardently rejected both labels. He refused affiliations with any group and defiantly fought against nomenclature. While some historians continue to group him with artists with whom he felt no kinship, his biographers are beginning to demand that Hogue’s legacy be recognized in a more accurate light. He adamantly stated that he was not an artist of a particular region or era. In fact, he was furious when Life magazine referred to him in 1937 as a “painter of the Dust Bowl.” He took similar exception to comparisons with regionalist painters Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton as well as the frequently cited “Dallas Nine.”

Born near the close of the nineteenth century, Hogue enjoyed a long and prolific career that spanned seven decades. Astonishingly, Hogue was almost completely self-taught. He took a correspondence course in commercial design at age sixteen before graduating from high school in Dallas. He worked steadily from the 1920s until his death in 1994 and his body of work includes portraits, landscapes, and abstract pieces influenced by Persian calligraphy. But it is his landscapes that he is best known for, exploring areas such as Denton, Glen Rose, Big Bend, and of course, his native Dallas as well as places in and around Taos, New Mexico.

The Crucified Land, painted in 1939, depicts the red soil south of Denton and indicates Hogue’s early impulse toward conservationism. He painted scenes illustrating the ravages of the Dust Bowl but he also understood that water erosion posed an equally great threat. This work captures over-plowed furrows in fiery orange and vivid green. It’s moored by an image of a tilted scarecrow reminiscent of the Biblical Golgotha, the archetypal place of sacrifice and stony ground. A river bisects the terrain and it seems more arterial thread than plain water. Just as bodies are the keepers of blood and bone inexorably transmuted into abject magic when they’re loved, Hogue’s soil, sand, and dust become incandescent when refashioned in his landscapes. Moreover, when the ground was violated, he sought to vividly expose the violation with his brush in colors that seem to spark and flame. It’s a case of lovely arson—of fire on the walls.

“The poetics of Hogue’s art,” writes curator Susie Kalil, “lie in how he fully communicates his experience of place and how those places may resonate in our imaginations.” During a period spent in New Mexico, circa 1928, Hogue painted Procession of the Saint — Santo Domingo, which he had witnessed. It shows the enactment of a Catholic religious ritual that precedes a traditional corn dance for rain and fertility. Linear furrows in tribal robes are duplicated in the surrounding terrain and clouds. Action and place merge and a luminous canopy suspended above the Native participants becomes a temple of sorts, a locus for a fusion of the sacred and profane. However, a Roman Catholic priest, featured in the foreground, is oblivious to the event behind him. Hogue commented on the figure: “I put dark glasses on him to symbolize his blindness to the beauty… (of) what he should be witnessing.”

In Pecos Escarpment, Hogue melds landscape and sky with a man-made environment—oil wells, pumps, and storage containers. It was painted as a commission for a Fortune magazine article about Gulf Oil. In his typical style, he immersed himself in the subject, living in the environment, taking photographs and making sketches. “I wanted to make sure it was right all the way through,” said Hogue. In the foreground are three large tanks and behind them lies an escarpment with dwellings and rigs. He told the Dallas Morning News, “Oil here complements nature. . . . The shiny tanks, often repeating cylindrical formations in the limestone cliffs, reflect the light very subtly, and the whole effect is one of extraordinary beauty.” He gives us no mere topography and oil machinery. Kalil describes Hogue’s paintings from this time as “the record of the vibrancy, the dynamism—the American pulse—that beat throughout those decades in the Far West Texas plains.”

 

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