Category Archives: art, reviews, culture

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

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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Review: Fred Tomaselli at The Modern in Fort Worth

[Originally published in a different format in Visual Art Source, Los Angeles]

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Fred Tomaselli’s art is currently featured in the Focus exhibition at The Modern Museum in Fort Worth. Among many other venues, his work has been shown at the White Cube gallery in London and, for some, that will vet him as a viable force capable of holding court with the mightiest of contemporary artists. However, there’s a shortcut to seeing how he measures up. Simply check out his exhibition now on display at The Modern. It’s a smallish show; however, it is about as large in visual richness as one can find.

One work, “Flipper,” is a massive piece measuring 15 feet across that operates nicely as an abstract and colorful confection on a dark background. Tomaselli’s trademark composition of collaged elements is evident — the piece is composed of brightly colored layered loops that are coated in thick epoxy resin. His work traps lyrical and profane objects in equal measure. Thus, everything — including:  aspirin, magazine and field guide images, ecstasy tablets, marijuana leaves and, of course, paint — is enlisted to create a visual thrill.

“Flipper” is deemed by Tomaselli to be a hopeful nod to New Orleans in the aftermath of the Katrina disaster. Says he: “I wanted to… (celebrate) the rich musical heritage of New Orleans (and) you can read the small ovals arranged along the central horizontal line as the mouths of a gospel choir singing in the night….” It also feels, at least for this viewer, positively Vedic with serious cosmic implications. It looks like a Carl Sagan-style “test pattern” that is thoroughly sentient yet basking in an intellectual neatness. It’s dense; it’s honed; and it’s exuberantly ambitious in import.

Meanwhile, a host of works — dubbed “New York Times” — occupy a separate space in the show. They’re composed of scanned images of front-page NYT newspapers that were altered and subsequently printed on watercolor paper. They contort contexts and content; for instance, one work shows former presidential candidate Mitt Romney striding toward KKK clansmen. (An image of Rick Perry is also used to interesting effect.)  In fact, the entire exhibition offers a vector into the crazy mélange of our culture — sometimes morphing vacuous facets into images that are either explosive or rapturous. Thus, Tomaselli has delivered a fine show; one could even find it transformative.

— Recommended by Patricia Mora

Archived Review: Il Lee + The Thousand Faces of Vishnu at The Crow Collection of Asian Art

[Originally published in Visual Art Source and The Huffington Post]

This was published as a short “recommendation” of art worth viewing in Dallas at the time of publication.

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The juxtaposition of ballpoint-pen-on-paper drawings of Il Lee and an exhibit exploring “The Thousand Faces of Vishnu” is highly evocative of how art — and the universe — work. One is a form of religious wisdom that forces us to contemplate the manner in which the divine can never be contained. The other shows us the myriad ways in which a universal energy (qi) is captured and delivered to us again and then again in shifting panoramas. It, too, will resist solidity and will constantly spill into new shapes. Vishnu is ancient; Il Lee is contemporary. However, both shows remind us that ultimate wisdom — as well as art — are not only elegant; they continually morph for our delectation.