Roy Feldman @ M Contemporary Art

Photographer Roy Feldman’s exhibition at M Contemporary Art: Truth & Grace In Hamtramck

Roy Feldman, Untitiled, Archival Pigment, signed and edition numbered prints, 11 X 14″ All images courtesy of M Contemporary Art.

Truth & Grace in Hamtramck was in the planning for a year and scheduled to open on March 20, 2020, at the M Contemporary Art in Ferndale, but the state order to “Stay at Home” by Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan made those plans impossible.  As a result, I asked the gallery owner, Melannie Chard, to allow me to view the images online and proceed with a review. I had viewed Feldman’s photographs over the years and seen several images in person, which gave me enough perspective to proceed in this peculiar and highly unusual endeavor: write a review from art viewed online.

In the image Untitled, where a woman applies mascara, four planes of focus are: the foreground, head, hands, eyeliner brush, followed by the reflection in the mirror, followed by the interior of the salon, followed by the houses across the street. The viewer is drawn into the center of the image where it is split in half near the eyelid, asymmetry that almost goes unnoticed. All of this feels conscious and unconscious as Feldman probes the variations from black to gray to white.

Roy Feldman, a Detroit-based photographer and Emmy award-winning filmmaker with many years of experience as a photojournalist, grew up in Detroit and earned his BFA from the College of Creative Studies and worked for several years as a commercial photographer. Feldman worked for the Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., the U.S. Department of Energy, the North American International Auto Show, the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation, and Big Boy Restaurants International (to mention a few) to earn a living, all the while he maintained his personal art of still photography.

Roy Feldman, Untitiled, Archival Pigment, signed and edition numbered prints, 11 X 14″

Photography, in general, has undergone a revolution over the past fifty years.  The digital revolution that began with the production of stand-alone cameras, then evolved to the high-quality camera in every smartphone, has had a tremendous effect on the commercial photographic industry.  It has put freelancers out of business, shifted imagery to large stock image corporations like Getty Images, Shutterstock and Adobe Stock, and in combination with the Internet delivery capacity, it gave their images access to clients worldwide.  Also, it instantly made every person with a smartphone a photographer.  I say this because it did not make everyone an artist. It is the gray matter which resides between ones ears, that creates the artist, not in any type of technology old or new.  As we trace that core concept from Daguerreotype, Eastman Kodak, Louis Lumiere, 35 mm Leica, Canon, and Nikon single-lens cameras, Hasselblad and the digital work that began at the AT&T Bell labs in1969, for capturing and creating an image based on pixels, the artists and their application has been the same since the mid-1840s. The capture of a photo image takes place in our hearts, our heads and our souls.

The work of Roy Feldman is a product of seeing and creating an image, no matter what the recording device. I purposely did not ask him about his process, nor these tools, whether digital or film, darkroom or computer because it doesn’t matter. Feldman said. “I wanted them to look like they could have been taken yesterday or 40 years ago. I really want to make it a piece of art. When you take a picture of something, you’re personally involved.”

Roy Feldman, Untitiled, Archival Pigment, signed and edition numbered prints, 11 X 14″

Historically there is a large body of black & white artwork by world-renowned photographers, mostly from the 20th century, that may put Feldman in context: Andre Kertesz, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Robert Frank, to name only a few. Feldman’s image of a man at a bus stop reminds me of early Kertesz while in Paris, by approaching his subject from above and developing this high contrast crisscross composition, with white-glove action surrounded with the geometric shapes. Feldman works hard at bringing reflections into his images, as he does here with the circular tree grate reflection off the bus stop glass, reminding me of Otto Steinert’s  Pedestrian’s Foot (1950).

Roy Feldman, Untitiled, Archival Pigment, signed and edition numbered prints, 11 X 14″

The strength in Feldman’s composition here at this street fair is the formally centered and dominating woman sitting in the middle of a street, down very low with a wide-angle lens and the right amount of light that provides this kind of crisp focus on the subject and a backdrop of soft-focus using depth of field. In this one point perspective image, the evenness of light is seen on a cloudy day, with a small shadow cast from the concert-style chair, as this young woman views her smartphone. She reminds us of our own humanity.

Roy Feldman, Untitiled, Archival Pigment, signed and edition numbered prints, 11 X 14″

Roy Feldman, Untitiled, Archival Pigment, signed and edition numbered prints, 11 X 14″

Here in this image of a woman walking in the rain we notice the format 2 x 2 provides the square frame.  Feldman’s lens gets wet, creating a spontaneous blur that he likes and keeps.  In addition, for this exhibition, he converts a color image to black and white that fits nicely into the other photos. The strength in the color image is the red coat and blue umbrella center stage, grabbing our attention on the woman holding the umbrella, perhaps on the way to her car.

Roy Feldman, Untitiled, Archival Pigment, signed and edition numbered prints, 11 X 14″

One of the hallmarks of many photographers I have mentioned before is the “moment in time” concept.  There was a time when people would debate calling a photograph art, and this concept would be used in an attempt to differentiate photography from painting or drawing. This artistic prejudice has faded over the years and is now a thing of the past, but more importantly, does it really matter?  I think not. The image that catches a young girl about to jump out the window of a parked van, probably being used as a clubhouse, not so different from Robert Capra’s Death of a Loyalist Soldier (1936), both weighing heavily on a moment in time.  The young girl is looking directly into Feldman’s camera, wondering if she has gotten caught in her escapade, while soft tree leaves in the foreground frame the subject like a 1970’s Kaufman & Broad illustration of their tract homes. (I used to paint those on illustration board for Detroit architect David Hamburg)

What ties the exhibition together is more than the format or dominance of black & white photography. It’s the honesty and humanity of Feldman’s work. He searches out the world of Hamtramck, a separate city with borders inside the City of Detroit, once a working-class Catholic Polish community and now the gateway to more than fifty nationalities. The elderly wooden homes are packed together like sardines, and the artists that live in and around them, live on the edges of life, eking out an existence and a celebration of truthful nomads.

In his statement, “My current ongoing series is devoted to creating an aesthetic event, where there is no political agenda, no documentation, with no intent to describe a subject or place.  If my picture is easily summed up in a sentence, I feel I will have failed. I’d rather it be described as “well you really have to see it.”

Let’s hope that at some point in time, people will be able to do just that.

Photographer Roy Feldman’s exhibition at M Contemporary Art: Truth & Grace In Hamtramck

 

 

NAIAS @ Cobo Hall, Detroit, Michigan, USA

Floor View of NAIAS

So last year, I wandered out onto the farthest fringe of the fine art community and made a decision to write about the 2017 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). At the time I declared it to be an exhibition in the Detroit metro area worthy of our time and effort. Now, the new 2018 review comes on the heels of writing a review of Monet: Framing Life, an exhibition now at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

In my 2017 Auto Show review, I gave recognition to the Eyes on Design competition and to the College for Creative Studies for their exemplary Transportation Design Program. In addition, I acknowledged all the fine artists who worked in the automotive design process by day, and do their own personal and private fine art work in their home studios on weekends and by night. I did this review based on attending the 2017 public viewing of the auto show, packed with a widely diverse audience of families and individuals from all walks of life. When the review was published, I did get positive feedback from NAIAS officials as they recommended that in 2018, I should apply for a press credential. For the 2017 Detroit Art Review, I went about my business and selected a luxury production car, the 2017 Lincoln Continental, as having the highest level of overall aesthetic appeal, followed up by my reasons for the selection and why.

There were critics, of course, both writers and artists who thought I had lost my mind by comparing the design elements of a car to the exhibition of paintings by Van Gogh or Edward Hopper, but many more could easily see the connection between the artisans who work in the automobile design departments and their personal artistic talent, of which many men and women exhibit in galleries, museums, and fine art competitions right here in Detroit.

But that was last year. In December of 2017, I contemplated a new review of 2018 NAIAS. Should I do another?  I began by applying for a press credential and was rejected and then rejected again on appeal. Then I approached the Chairman of the CCS Transportation Design program by email and asked for his input. He said he supported the idea whole-heartedly, but soon his emails stopped and he could not be reached. After the rejection by NAIAS for press access, they suggested that I should simply attend one of the Industry Preview Days. I did that and paid dearly for the, um, privilege. $110 for the ticket, $15 for parking and $4 to hang up my coat, all in a good effort to provide publicity and good will to the auto industry. (I am happy to report that using the men’s room is still free.)

Audi V-10 R8 Coupe convertible

The first thing I bumped into on the showroom floor was the new Audi R8 V-10 sports coupe powered by a 10-cylinder gas guzzling engine with a 14mpg (they may have fudged on the mileage). Considering the price tag of $175,000, that seemed like enough money and cylinders for four cars.

I moseyed up to a high platform where the view consisted of thousands of white men, aged 30-60 years old, in dull slacks, dress shirts, short hair, and glasses. Many were clustered in groups and held an itemized pad for notes and iPhones for taking pictures.

Several times I asked those working the show what was meant by Industry Preview Day. Their responses varied greatly. “Mostly engineers…looking at the competition,” or “VIPs from headquarters” or “today is for the auto designers and their teams,” or “it’s mostly a perk for suppliers or dealers.” My guess is they all were provided with a free ticket.

Bluntly, it was a sea of Caucasian men as far as I could see. I did see an African American security guard in a red coat, and an African American cleaning lady, in that same red coat. To be fair, there might have been one or two women there, probably VIP spouses, and a few Asian engineers. Notable were several undercover police officers with sniffer dogs, and at each entrance, African American security guards (in their red coats) doing body scans with an electronic wand. Well, good. I felt safe, but there was a new experience ahead.

As you might recall or imagine, the Cobo exhibition hall is a large, circular space filled, in this case, with very expensive sets are individually designed and assigned to each automobile manufacturer. What I didn’t expect to see was a section devoted to automotive suppliers. I guess that means more revenue for NAIAS and Cobo Hall.

The first supplier exhibit I came across was Aramco Transport Technologies, which provides technology that improves mileage, emissions, and efficiency. I asked a representative where their headquarters were, and they said, Novi, Michigan. Apparently, they are also located in other parts of the world, like Paris, France. When pressed, they said they were a division of Saudi Aramco in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, the state-owned oil company that is the world’s top exporter of oil and natural gas.

To be fair, Aramco has developed a Mobile Carbon Capture technology that captures the Co2 before it leaves the car, which is then stored and unloaded for reuse. Although there were electric cars, like Volkswagen’s concept car, in most of the displays, but I did not see a supplier of passive energy sources for automotive use.

There was Denso North America, leaders in corrosion prevention and sealant technology, headquartered in Kariya, Japan. There was a large display by Aisin Group that specialized in powertrain components, also head quartered in Japan, but I asked myself; who is coming to NAIAS to look into the technical parts of a car or cross-sections of a transmission? Are they lobbyists? I would be remiss if I did not mention the Michelin Tire Display, fudge from Kyba’s Mackinaw Island and the candied almond vendor.

2018 Lincoln Continental

But back to my mission to find a car that has the highest level of overall aesthetic appeal, which leads me to another revelation: The design of production cars changes very slowly, as this year’s models demonstrated. I was drawn back inexorably to the Lincoln Continental. The understatement of line, shape, and proportion still provides the viewer with a feeling of strength and security. The lines curve down and inward, an aesthetic sometimes seen in European sports cars. The repetition of roundness is soothing. Stylish elements abound, like the way the E-latch door handles provide a graceful inset in the side door, and five LED lamps create a slender design to what used to be a larger headlamp.

2018 Lincoln Continental Grill Detail

The front grill is refined, delicate and proportionate to the front profile, while the small openings in the grill repeat a similar shape of the car logo. A sleek console serves to open up the cabin, while the sophisticated push-button gearshift integrates seamlessly with classic knobs and buttons. The leather-wrapped, hand-stitched steering wheel is mounted ahead of a 12.3-inch fully configurable digital instrument cluster that displays easy-to-read driver information clearly. Sitting in the car, looking closely at its design elements, I was left with what I experienced last year, which is that the Lincoln Motor Company, the luxury automotive brand of Ford Motor Company, is committed to creating an exquisitely designed vehicle that places itself above their competitors.

2018 Lincoln Continental fron interior

 

Everything I experienced with the cars themselves remains the same, particularly when it came to recognizing the designers who work hard at deserving their much-earned success around the world. As I mentioned, NAIAS has its own Eyes on Design program, and this year they gave the KIA Stinger their choice for Best Production Car award. (South Korea is hosting this years Winter Olympics) If you’re curious, the awards are decided on by four chief judges, and thirty-two regular judges who must work together on a process that I cannot imagine, but it is their official program, highly honored and celebrated. Congratulations! But as for my experience with NAIAS 2018 Industry Preview Day, it was enlightening and disappointing. The cars were sleek and shiny, the crowd was bland, and the diversity of people packed into Cobo Hall on this day…was racially offensive.

NAIAS 2018 @ Cobo Hall, Detroit

 

 

 

 

NAIAS 2017 @ Cobo Hall, Detroit

2017 Charity Preview

2017 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) Charity Preview Event

What is now known as the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) began as an event in 1899. The first official Detroit Auto Show was held in 1907 at Beller’s Beer Garden in Riverview Park, where a total of 33 new motor vehicles were shown by 17 vendors, and spectator admission was 50 cents.

So, you wonder, why are you reading about a car exhibition in the Detroit Art Review? We’ll answer that question with a question: How many people who are responsible for the creation of an automobile attended art school? Plenty, as it turns out.

Every week, we at the Detroit Art Review explore the work of artists in galleries and museums in the Detroit Metro Area, but we’ve never tipped our hats to the men and women who contribute to the aesthetics of an automobile. Because we are doing our work here in Detroit, the home of the automobile and most of the automotive industry, it seems fitting to mention an annual event that contributes $500 million to our local economy. More than 800,000 attendees last year and press from all around the world gathered to see the new cars produced that provide a basic staple of American culture: Individualized Transportation. NAIAS has displayed the wares of the automotive industry, a million square feet of it, at Cobo Hall since 1967.

Not to take away from the prestige of the event over all, but the design work that goes into an automobile is recognized by EyesOn Design Awards, which are the sine qua non design awards in the industry, sponsored by the Henry Ford Health System, Department of Ophthalmology. As proof of design excellence, consider a production car that rises to the top in terms of aesthetic appeal: the 2017 Lincoln Continental.

Lincoln_Approach_Detection_2017_Continental

Ford Motor Company, Lincoln Continental, 2017

The understatement of line, shape and proportion provides the viewer with a feeling of strength and security. It is not a pointed, aggressive look, but a mature profile in its approach to visual stability. The lines curve down and inward, an aesthetic seen sometimes in European sports cars. The repetition of roundness is soothing. Stylish elements abound, like the way the E-latch door handles provide a graceful inset in the side door, and five LED lamps create a slender design to what used to be a larger headlamp. The front grill is refined, delicate and proportionate to the front profile, unlike the majority of cars these days that feature a sweeping, forward design with pointed grills, like the V-Motion Nissan sports look, something you might see on a Star Trek movie set, or the Lexus grill that reaches down so low to the street it seems designed to collect debris.

Ford Motor Company, Lincoln Continental, 2017

Growing up and now working in Detroit, I was always acutely aware of the design and engineering sensibility in the metro area that dominated our psyche. For instance, the Sunday New York Times relegates automobile coverage to the business section, while there are two sections devoted entirely to the Arts. In Detroit, there has always been an Auto section in the Sunday Detroit newspapers and no Arts section. Yet the people of Detroit and the tri-county area supported a millage to keep the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) intact. They knew intrinsically that the fine arts were important to our quality of life, and voters made a substantial ten-year commitment to help support the DIA in a time when bankruptcy threatens our city. The Center for Creative Studies has developed an extraordinary Transportation Design program that works closely with the automotive industry to help prepare young designers to meet the technological needs of a changing work force. I know clay sculptors who form the full-scale prototypes at the General Motors Technology Center, and they often exhibit their hand thrown pottery at local art exhibitions.

So at the beginning of each year, the North American International Auto Show displays the new products of an American industry in which artistic design elements, both interior, and exterior, play a vital role. I, for one, am proud to be from Detroit and active in its art community, which includes all the men and women who work to design beautiful products. For those who attend the show or see the Lincoln Continental on the road, take a close look at the design elements and how they personify the rich aesthetics of a luxury car, and remember the Continental was made by artists and engineers here in Detroit.

 

 

 

 

A New State of Matter @ GRAM

A New State of Matter: Contemporary Glass at the At the Grand Rapids Art Museum

Norwood Viviano (American, b. 1972). Recasting Detroit, 2017. Kilncast glass, 3D printed pattern, and found object, 16.5” x 13.5” x 11”. Photo: Tim Thayer/Robert Hensleigh

Glass defies definition; it’s neither liquid nor solid, and as such it’s been described by physicists as “a new state of mater.” At the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), a visually dazzling exhibit of glass art makes the point that skilled artists can make this enigmatic mater look like pretty much anything.  Glass, A New State of Matter comprises work by an international body of nineteen artists who skillfully manipulate glass in concert with a diverse array of other media: wood, plants, and even  uranium.  The first major exhibition of glass art in the GRAM’s history, the show highlights the stunning versatility of glass, and however it’s used and in whatever form it assumes, the beauty of the physicality of the glass itself is always paramount.

Glass is an ancient substance, dating back to the ancient Egyptians of about 3,000 BC, but the overwhelming majority of the works on view are emphatically modern, and many were created with the aid of emerging technologies.   An ensemble of works by Norwood Viviano applies 3D printing in glass to render cityscapes of actual cities which also allude to their respective histories.   A 3D rendered map of Detroit, ground zero of the auto industry, has as its foundation a cast-glass automobile engine block.  And a map of Grand Rapids, bisected by the Grand River, rests atop a wooden table, an appropriate emblem for a city known for its historic 20th Century contributions to the furniture industry.

Norwood Viviano (American, b. 1972). Recasting Grand Rapids, 2020. Kilncast glass, 3D printed pattern, and found object, 22 x 17 x 29 ½ inches. Photo: Tim Thayer/Robert Hensleigh

Addressing the 21st century phenomenon of social media is Charlotte Potter’s Pending, a complex work which, when viewed straight on, assumes the form of something like a firework blast.  Hundreds of small glass cameo portraits burst out into the viewer’s space, dangling from wires affixed to the gallery wall.  It’s a work which visualizes the artist’s pending Facebook friend requests.  Potter rendered the profile pictures of each request in blue and white glass, colors reminiscent of a Victorian-era shell-cameo necklace or broach.  The length of the wire from which each cameo dangles corresponds to the number of mutual friends Potter shares with each individual.  Her rendering of Facebook profile pictures to look like shell-cameos works as subtle commentary on the often-airbrushed and fastidiously curated digital versions of ourselves that we tend to present on social media, which ultimately serve the same ennobling purpose as a Victorian-era cameo.

Charlotte Potter (American, b. 1981). Pending, 2014. Cameo engraved glass and metal, 156 x 360 x 96 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Heller Gallery, New York

Charlotte Potter (American, b. 1981). Pending, 2014. Cameo engraved glass and metal, 156 x 360 x 96 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Heller Gallery, New York

There’s a literal savage beauty in Etsuko Ichikawa’s luminous blue and green spherical orbs which glow in a dark corner of the gallery suite like little marbled earths.  The unlikely inspiration for Leaving a Legacy was the Fukushima nuclear disaster caused by the disastrous tsunami which struck Japan’s coast in 2011.  After learning that nuclear waste can be contained behind glass in a process called vitrification, Ichikawa created spherical orbs which contain (in every sense of the word) traces of uranium, which causes the orbs to eerily glow when lit by a black light, and they speak to the uneasy proximity with which we coexist today with nuclear energy and nuclear waste.

Etsuko Ichikawa (Japanese/American, b. 1963). Leaving a Legacy, 2017. Hot-sculpted uranium glass, 33 x 72 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Winston Wächter Fine Art, Seattle

In contrast with some of the high-tech and ultra-modern works on view, April Surgent’s Portrait of an Iceberg comes across as an homage to traditional painting; her serene photo-realist work even takes the form of a triptych, which has deep roots in art history. Working from original photographs, Surgent meticulously engraves images of the natural world in glass, and her finished works are evocative of the painted blurry photographs of Gerhard Richter.  They’re beautiful, but they also gently speak to the need to restore wounded ecosystems and address climate change.  And her slow working method of engraving into glass is a performative act of defiance that pushes against the aggressively rapid pace of the digital age.

Flaunting the versatility and trompe l’oeil capability of glass, Tali Grinshpan’s Hope is a work that mimics with arresting believability the soft and paper-thin fabric of a Baroque-era ruff-collar.  Fragility is a recurrent motif in her work, and Tikun (To Mend)  comprises dozens of charred and crumpled brittle-looking vessels in varied states of ruin and (dis)repair.  Like a Mark Rothko painting, the work uses the language of abstraction to convey deep feeling, in this case, a meditation on the breaking and mending we inevitably experience in our lives.

Tali Grinshpan (Israeli/American, b. 1972). Hope from the series Of Innocence and Experience, 2016. Pâte de verre, 10 x 10 x 5 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Tali Grinshpan (Israeli/American, b. 1972). Tikun (To Mend) from the series Rituals, 2016. Pâte de verre, 100 vessels, 3 x 3 x 3 inches each. Courtesy of the artist.

Complimenting Glass A New State of Matter is an auxiliary one-room micro-exhibition, Looking (at-into-through) Glass, featuring glass as it appears in works from the GRAM’s permanent collection.  Paintings and photographs reveal some of the varied and many ways artists use elements like windows, mirrors, and reflections in their work.  Bruce McCombs’ painting Ed’s Easy Diner is a watercolor tour de force which renders the shiny and reflective glass facade of a dive restaurant with the same exacting photorealist detail we might expect from a Richard Estes painting.  Also on view is Tir (from the Conversion series by Iranian artist Monir Shaharoudy Farmanfarmaian), which was recently purchased by the GRAM; the luminous arabesque patterns on this multifaceted geometric glass sculpture reflect shards of light into the gallery space much in the same way stained-glass windows diffuse light onto a cathedral floor.

Glass, A New State of Matter is a crowd-pleasing exhibition in the best possible sense.  It brings together an  eclectic and visually exuberant ensemble of international artists whose work addresses issues as varied as identity, environmentalism, PTSD, and even the Avian Flue (Rachel Moore’s rendering of surgical masks tarnished by their wearer’s breath has certainly accrued an uncanny  resonance and timeliness over the past several weeks).  The eclectic nature of this exhibit perhaps might initially seem to lack a specific point of focus, but that can easily be forgiven; after all, it’s ultimately the varied potential (and indeed the innate beauty) of glass that remains the whole point of the show in the first place.

Glass, A New State of Matter is on view at the GRAM until April 26.

 

 

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
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LABYRINTHS: Shiva Ahmadi
Dates: January 16 through March 20, 2020
Gallery Hours: Wednesdays through Fridays, 1-5PM