Abdolreza Aminlari, Installation view of Untitled, 2014, 18-karat-gold thread on paper
The group exhibition “Formal Relations,” curated by Kamrooz Aram and Murtaza Vali at New York’s Taymour Grahne Gallery, unpacks the globalization of abstraction in contemporary art. Long considered to be the domain of Western Modernists, the curators discuss the evolution of abstraction in a written conversation available as a supplementary text of the exhibition. They explore artists’ use of abstraction, especially by those who are non-Western, to probe issues of identity and politics, which extend beyond its original application by Abstract Expressionists to convey spiritual and subliminal ideas. For Aram and Vali, the gradual dissipation of identity politics in art after its furor in the 1980s led to what the latter refers to as “the sublimated body of the Other”—where earlier radicalized assertions of difference are now expressed through “strategies of abstraction.”
These forms of abstraction, which protect artists from what Aram describes as “performing their identity,” provide them with the latitude to embrace varied architectural constructions—to move away from a sense of dislocation and otherness towards one of location and solidity. In “Formal Relations,” each exhibited work’s minimalist sensibility, geometric attributes and architectural lines carve new arenas of visual space that point to spheres of comfort and sustenance. By sheer ingeniousness, these spare constructions—be it from embroidery, collage, photography, painting, sculpture or remnants of manuscripts—are deeply embedded with a meditative presence of harmony.
The exhibition begins with Doug Ashford’s mixed-media paintings series “Red Day 1966” (2010) and a collection of prints entitled “Body Making (Empathy Series)” (2011), which stem from the artist’s deep empathy for social upheavals against discrimination and injustice in the United States. In each work of the former series, a colorful architectural grid has been painted onto a board with tempera, and in its corner there is a small black-and-white press image depicting a riot or a scene of incarceration. These multi-colored blocks, which resemble the façade of a building, proffer a kind of stability that counters the lack of security tseen among the disenfranchised people featured in the press images. In keeping with Ashford’s own belief in the power of art to bring about change, abstraction in his work serves to obscure his own identity as an impartial voice of justice, while the sturdy structure and cheerful palette of his paintings counter the turmoils of historical inequity with a sense of optimism and relief.
Yamini Nayar’s Untitled (Modular) (2014) comprises black-and-white photographs of found objects and debris from her studio that have been transformed into mesmerizing shapes, which give depth and angularity to the two-dimensional images. Rows of white rectangular shapes, arranged in a lattice-like formation, seem to be floating the air, giving movement and fluidity to an otherwise rigid structure. By effectively harnessing the light that bounces off these white panels, Nayar creates the juxtaposition of flexibility and resoluteness through the architectural framework in her photographs.
The play of light is also crucial in understanding the meaning and complexity of Abdolreza Aminlari’s untitled series from 2014. For each work in the series, pieces of fine, 18-karat-gold thread have been methodically embroidered into slanting, parallel lines to form an exquisite, horizontal grid. As light reflects off the work’s gilded surface, it produces wedges and shadows that generate a sense of depth in a cavernous space. At the same time, Aminlari’s sculptural piece is reminiscent of windowpanes and blinds, bringing to mind the significance of home, domesticity and a place of solace.
Having left the Subcontinent after the partition of 1947, for New York-based artist Zarina Hashmi (who prefers to use her first name only), the notion of home materializes in non-concrete forms. In her work this concept is materialized as as a network of etched lines presented in pewter leaf, or tiny pyramid-like structures stained with sumi ink and 22-karat gold. Zarina’s deliberate use of gold in her works, as with Aminlari, is an exploration of “permanence” and “value” that goes beyond the superficial notion of Eastern exoticism.
If the adoption of abstraction serves to sublimate identity or its implied absence, it then, in turn, also strongly suggests the presence of that absent identity. Hence, the Persian manuscript pages in Ala Ebtekar’s work, from which rectangular shapes have been carefully cut out in various formations, recall blueprint drawings of a rudimentary home. By forging a formal relationship with abstraction and combining it with minimalist aesthetics, the artists in this exhibition have generated a practice in which their presence and identity is strongly felt through powerful, compelling, and insightful works.
“Formal Relations” is on view at Taymour Grahne Gallery, New York, until August 19, 2015.