Diana Al-Hadid’s multi-tiered and gravity-defying sculptures suggest time, space, human presence and absence. Simultaneously earthy and otherworldly, Al-Hadid’s work reverberates with architectural and natural forms that are both familiar and foreign.
Three of Al-Hadid’s sculptures are on view through October 11th at Columbus College of Art and Design’s Canzani Center Gallery (Columbus, OH). Also included are one drawing and two panels—flat, decorative structures either attached or built on-site into the gallery wall.
Nolli’s Orders (2012), the central work in this exhibition, is an enormous sculpture composed of a series of terraces onto which are affixed cloud-like structures and headless bodies. Cleansed of their material essence, these figural forms seem to become part of an imagined world in which time feels obsolete.
Ranging from the abstract, as exemplified in the panel Divided Line (2012), to semi-pictorial renderings, such as Actor (2009), Head in the Clouds (2014), and Nolli’s Orders, Al-Hadid’s subtle yet complex work evokes certain themes without directly suggesting precise meanings.
In Head in the Clouds, a sculpted human head and forms simulating the shape of a robe comprise a figure that rises majestically from a cloud-like platform, which rests on a pedestal covered with a flowing garment ossified by apparent treatment with fiberglass. The height of this sculpture and the gold leaf paint on the robe and head invoke stature and power, but also a sense of nakedness and abandonment. A circular form protruding from the head leads the eye toward a mysterious building projecting from the metal framework. These two elements appear to be both connected and disconnected.
Al-Hadid’s titles often allude to broad historical concepts or ideas and occasionally also to distinct things, places, or people. One such title is Nolli’s Orders, which refers to Giambattista Nolli, the Italian architect and surveyor whose 18th century map of Rome is considered one of the most important historical documents of the city. The architectural elements in Nolli’s Orders—including the statuesque bodies, colonnades at the base, and waterfall-like terraces—endow the piece with a mythic, storytelling feel.
Born in Syria in 1981 and raised in Canton, Ohio, Al-Hadid lives and works in Brooklyn, N.Y. After graduating with a BFA in sculpture and BA in art history from Kent State University in 2003, and an MFA in sculpture from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2005, Al-Hadid received various fellowships and grants and began exhibiting her work in the U.S. and internationally. Concurrently with this exhibition at CCAD, Al-Hadid’s work is also on view at Secession in Vienna.
As part of her sculpting process, Al-Hadid applies diverse materials including paint, foam or plaster to rigid frameworks. Given the height of the sculptures and the fact that elements often project outward horizontally from an elongated base, the framework for Al-Hadid’s structures is made of durable and weight-bearing materials. Shaped by hand in her Brooklyn, N.Y., studio, the making of these towering, intricate sculptures require scaffolding and also the help of assistants who work under Al-Hadid’s direction.
In Actor, Al-Hadid used foam, steel and polymer gypsum to form pinnacles that rise above cascading, draped material that is bound by a mesh of metal rods. Confronted by this work, I can imagine the dramatic form of an actor slumped over, gesturing with his or her right arm—their torso a maze of sinewy muscles.
Al Hadid’s sculptures appear to deny their physical massiveness. A loose-fitting airiness pervades each work. The metal framework of Head in the Clouds seems to escape from the sculpture itself while in the panel Divided Line, the planar wall is broken by myriad perforations.
Divided Line partitions off the exhibition space for Actor. The wall is perforated on both sides with elongated openings. One side is painted in vertical bands with pastel colors; the other side, white. On the painted side, white ghostly images sketched in paint or plaster appear to evoke Christian figures in a medieval painting.
The openings in the wall are shaped as if etched by water or wind over eons. They break the continuity of the painting’s surface, endowing it with a sculptural quality. Peering inside the hollow area between the walls produces the sensation of being in a cave: the bumpy texture of the interior surfaces calls to mind stalactites. The perforations function as portholes: lit areas contrast with shadows either created by light or blocked out by the wall.
Inherent in each of Al-Hadid’s pieces is the use of voids, whether it is the bare scaffolding or layered quality of her sculptures, the gaps and perforations in her panels, or the exposed Mylar in her Untitled drawing (2013). In this work, conté markings (graphite or charcoal mixed with wax or clay), charcoal, pastel and acrylic are densely layered over Mylar. Using erasures and resist, Al-Hadid exposes the zigzagging trails of the Mylar surface. Although there are no clearly defined shapes, Al-Hadid appears to suggest both the rhythm of Arabic calligraphy and shadows of architectural elements; here, the outlines of a Hindu temple seem to emerge.
Untitled is part of a series of drawings Al-Hadid made using similar media, each of which could be considered studies in line. But Al Hadid’s lines, rather than drawing singular attention to themselves, become one element in an overall design that takes on an the imposing feel of architecture. The dense network of strongly vertical markings, muted by the erasures and resist, are sewn together tightly, lending the picture the sensibility of a cathedral’s interior or even the eeriness of a haunted house.
Although built from flat planar surfaces, the two panels in this exhibition, Divided Line and Sun Beard (2014), are sculptural in essence. The installation of Divided Line—a pre-made panel inserted into an existing wall—reveals the duality of this structure: it is both a wall mural and sculpture at once. Created by dripping plaster into a structure of reinforced rods, the “holes” in Divided Line are actually areas where the plaster was not reinforced.
In Sun Beard a structure of metal rods forms the work’s skeleton, over which Al-Hadid applied plaster and paint selectively to create an abstracted drawing of a flowing beard and the sun’s projecting rays. The gaps, some large and some just slivers, appear in areas that were not fortified. Because of the openings, the images look fractured, perhaps even evoking the pointillist technique of the Post-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat. It also reminds me of a sand sculpture at the beach that leaves only the outline of its presence after the tide recedes. Drips of paint form a vertical pattern, creating a kind of spontaneous template onto which the image is painted.
Imaginatively conceived and executed with great ingenuity and technical skill, Al Hadid’s pieces intrigue and puzzle the viewer. Do see this show. You’ll get a taste of the uniquely challenging way in which Al-Hadid manipulates material forms and you’ll immerse yourself in the myriad connotations of her work and the environment it builds.
The exhibition continues through October 11, 2014. Diana Al-Hadid will give a talk at the gallery on September 26, 2014 at 6:30pm. See http://www.ccad.edu/events-2014/al-hadid for more information.