Born in Aleppo, Syria, and raised in the US, Diana Al-Hadid makes work that crosses cultures and disciplines, drawing inspiration from art history, ancient invention, science, science fiction, myth, and Northern Renaissance paintings. In a broader sense, too, one can see influences from architecture, astrophysics, instruments, caves, puddles, black holes, sound and pitch and volume, pixels, plate tectonics, levers and pulleys, geometry, staircases, muscles, acrobatics, pedestals, and invisible things.
And yet in most of her art, she has avoided using the figure. So it is interesting to see it appear in Al-Hadid’s new body of work, exhibited in The Vanishing Point, at Marianne Boesky Gallery.
The work presented there pushes the boundary between sculpture and painting, figure and abstract, solid and fluid. It’s an exhibition that highlights transitional states that seem temporary but are lasting.
In this body of work, Al-Hadid looks to the medium of painting and to the figure. She examines the Renaissance for its figurative images and depictions of perspective, through which she investigates a two-dimensional picture plane within three-dimensional space. There is a convergence of line and form that articulates an in-between that is solid and fractured. The figures are present, fragile, permanent, and loose, as they seem to melt or dip into the sculptures. The lines create and support the mass of melting forms and add to the sense of transition from solid matter into fluid liquid. The lines also twist and drip over the figures, bringing them into the sculptures. A sense of objects and forms dematerializing is counterbalanced by the forms melding into each other. There is no sense of time going forward or backwards; the pieces offer this unnerving and beautiful moment as being stuck between multiple realities.
After visiting the exhibition, I spoke briefly with Al-Hadid about the direction of her new work.
Samuel Jablon: I am curious about your use of the figure. It seems to be present, melting, solid, and liquid at the same time. Could you talk about your use of the figure in these new pieces?
Diana Al-Hadid: In many ways, my work has been alluding to the body even when there was no body literally present. For example, I made “spun of the limits of my lonely waltz” by putting paint on my feet and dancing the waltz to find the parameter of the sculpture. Other times, a “seat” or staircase would seem to invite the viewer in (although my work has never been literally interactive in that way). As I make the work, I climb all over them, and the experience of building them is very physical, and I hope that people feel encouraged to experience the work in the round.
But I had never felt perfectly at ease depicting the figure, until my first bronze, “In Mortal Repose.” Working with a new material helped me reconsider my discomfort with figuration. I loved how mannerist paintings depict the human form as weightless, contorted, distorted, and elongated. I was less interested in the fleshiness of the body or the actual character being depicted. I am more interested in how the character was composed, and how the fabric that draped over the figure described the form beneath (or in many cases fit against the form quite unnaturally).
For the largest work in this show, “suspended after image,” I began by isolating the ornamentation on a cloak from a Spanish gothic painting (by an unknown artist) and rendering it in three dimensions using high density foam. The pattern on the cloak stood rigid and acted a bit like an architectural pillar, so that something that should be very weak became the spine of the piece in a sense. Next to the cloak, a figure sinks into the steps as if they were liquid, so that something structural behaves as if it is weak. For the smaller work in the show, “Antonym,” I wanted to suggest the weight of the figure, but to remove its mass as much as possible, leaving only the exterior shell or mold. The imagined density of the body pushes drips of color against the contoured walls of the shell, and the weight of the figure presses into the pedestal as if it were a soft cushion.
SJ: The wall piece (“Divided Line”) is really beautiful. How do you see that piece working in the exhibition in relation to the other sculptures?
DAH: When I learned how to suspend isolated drips of color in space (from the piece “suspended after image”) to act as building blocks to suggest invisible structures, I wondered if I could, in turn, make an existing structure such as a wall appear to lose some of its materiality. The color is mixed into the material before it cures, in the same way frescoes are made.
I found a beautiful cartoon of a tapestry by Raphael that had a faint grid, which I thought would help emphasize the surface of the wall. The grid in the wall is actually depicted with negative space that allows the viewer to see through the wall, in a sense to see through the image. I think the wall piece is a sort of architectural intervention, made by removing parts of the existing architecture; the other three-dimensional works in the show are perhaps architectural in another sense — they are built structures that attempt to balance mass and void.
SJ: I love how some of the pieces are almost paintings but solidly remain sculptures. Do you approach the work in 2-D differently then the 3-D work?
DAH: I do approach them differently — they are difference kinds of spaces — but I am interested in the threshold between an image of a thing and the material thing itself. The rules change in sculpture, of course, because of gravity, but I also very often begin my sculptures by way of extruding them from something flat — an image (or part of a painting) or a flat floor plan or map (such as the footprints made by dancing or the outline of a labyrinth).
More recently, I think my sculptures are getting somehow “thinner,” still dense with matter but composed of layers of flat planes and thin lines. A person can always see through the work; I built largely with “puddles” and “drips” or lines/planes, which I see as the basic principals of image building. My drawings are also transparent (I draw on Mylar) and are built up with thin layers of puddles and drips and small marks.
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After this quick conversation with Diana, and another visit to the gallery, I am left with a sense that these sculptures demand space and attention. They do so in subtle manner that is not overwhelming, yet the work is still inviting, bold, and dynamic. The figure here seems to acknowledge an ephemeralness of the body and magnifies the transitional state where it is both present and disintegrating.
Diana Al-Hadid: The Vanishing Point is on view at Marianne Boesky Gallery (509 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 20.