Art

Politics Camouflaged as Ornamental Abstraction

Jeffrey Gibson, “Aurora” (2013), elk hide over birch panels, graphite, acrylic, and oil paint, 68 x 87 x 2 ½ in. (courtesy the artist and Marc Straus Gallery, New York)

NEW PALTZ, NEW YORK — I recently saw the group show ostensibly about ornamentation and abstraction at the Samuel Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz, and came away thinking I’d just seen a show about politics, hegemony, and the War on Terror. I typically don’t expect to have the story of the work switched out on me, especially at a white cube-ish museum up the Hudson River in supposedly still hippie New Paltz, but this was a welcome change.

The War on Terror isn’t the show’s target, nor is that conceit right on the nose. Titled Geometries of Difference: New Approaches to Ornamentation and Abstraction and guest curated by writer/curator Murtaza Vali, the show commendably uses the geometry-laden visuals of high modernism as the trampoline from which a visitor might reach other views of the broader world. And that world is one in which the United States has been at war for many decades, both abroad and at home. More than a stand-in for a conversation about visuality, abstraction, and ornamentation, all the works point to the cultural contests of the distant and recent past. The best works in the show, however, fold that contest back on itself to suggest that all our fought and lost struggles are in danger of existing as just pictures, that a lot of contemporary work, particularly in painting and collage — or work that looks like painting and collage — stops at the edge of modernism and materiality and risks being threaded through the eye of a nostalgic viewer. In other words, works that trade on “difference” begin to look a lot like the eye-catching work you’d see almost anywhere.

Installation view of ‘Geometries of Difference: New Approaches to Ornamentation and Abstraction’ (all images courtesy Samuel Dorsky Museum, photographed by Bob Wagner)

So you have Iranian-born, U.S.-based artist Kamrooz Aram’s large paintings that blatantly play off Islamic flower-like ornamentation, using both the modernist grid and drip-drab brushwork in light coats of pastels colors. It’s all very Joan Mitchell meets a vintage Turkish rug. However, a set of paper collages on a far wall that contains and contrasts images of ancient Persian objects and modernist doohickeys suggests Aram’s irony is aimed at Orientalist views. Jason Middlebrook’s intricately crafted, hardedge paintings on wood evoke totem poles, surfboards, and Frank Stella’s entire oeuvre. Jeffrey Gibson’s Tetris piece on the floor, rendered in painted elk-hide stretched over cinder blocks, is appealing only in so far as you might let yourself think back on how while playing Tetris on your Nintendo, all those years ago, you slammed down the controller and, once again, the game beat you. Gibson recovers with “Aurora” (2013), a skillfully painted elk-hide stretched and glued over wood supports, but it fails to ring more than one note — the Native American trope, prettified.

Further on, the show matures before your eyes as Bangladesh-born, British artist Rana Begum’s work activates the room and the viewer. Her relief works, made of crafted and painted metal that intriguingly employs cast light as a medium, seem to move with the viewer. One large work in particular, “No 511 2014,” made of painted aluminum and installed on the back wall, is rewarding when viewed from different perspectives. Within the context of the show, the work encourages one to look at the world from more than one angle.

Rana Begum, “No. 511” (2014), paint on powder-coated aluminum 78 ¾ x 118 x 2 in. (courtesy Raj and Vanita Mirchandani Collection)

India-born, American artist Kanishka Raja’s “Control” (2014) reads as an abstract painting in its green color fields but it’s in fact a handwoven fabric work. The work looks like a composite image of a “drone targeting system” locked onto a soccer pitch and a basketball court. One can’t help but envision the imagined drone operator comfortably waiting for the players to hit the grounds, and they’d best start running.

Seher Shah_Unit Object_Gate_2014 (click to enlarge)
Seher Shah, “Gate” from the series ‘Unit Object’ (2014), etching and aquatint, 21 x 25 in. (courtesy the artist and Scaramouche Gallery, New York) (click to enlarge)

Then there’s U.S.-based, Pakistani artist Seher Shah’s Unit Object, a series of etchings focused on Chandigarh, the storied Indian city designed from the bottom up by Le Corbusier after the 1947 partition that cleaved Pakistan away from India. In drawings, prints, and collages, Shah breaks out of the stolid objecthood of Le Corbusier’s brutalism, and disassembles the universalistic democratic ideals of modernist art and architecture and turns all that into little more than pure, contingent design. Each series is installed in sevens, or multiples of seven, as if Shah had taken it upon herself to demolish day by day the top-down social and political engineering that even now boils up in simmering conflicts in South Asia. A second, larger series, Mammoth: Aerial Landscape Proposals from 2012, suggests drone’s eye views on rolling landscapes. All that is solid blows up and melts into air, and then, as art, gets shown in galleries up and down the Hudson River.

Derrick Adams’s cardboard collages and “Boxhead” sculptures of iconic African American stand-ins on television point not only to American racialized sitcoms, say, the Cosby Show or the various Tyler Perry produced shows, but also to the appealing idea that justice might have been discharged better if Michael Brown’s murder had been caught on camera, and televised. Maybe. That the works also point to Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series is just one reason I wanted more of Adams’s work on the walls

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Installation view of ‘Geometries of Difference: New Approaches to Ornamentation and Abstraction’

On my way out I chanced into a conversation with the Dorsky’s curator Daniel Belasco, no doubt very busy dealing with the other two accomplished shows he’s mounted in the museum’s other galleries. He told me that when students from the art department, just a flight upstairs, come to visit the gallery, he invites them to examine the works for their material conceits and the various slights of hand that conceal the form and content of much of the work on display. I wondered then whether the show itself was a concealed project, hidden, and smuggled past some institutional censor bidden by the university administration to reject outright a show that might have contained work by an Iraqi artist, or an Afghan, for then that might have been too spot on target.

Geometries of Difference: New Approaches to Ornamentation and Abstraction continues at the Samuel Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz (SUNY New Paltz 1 Hawk Drive, New Paltz, New York) through April 12. 

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