by David M. Roth
With a slurry of paint, polymer gypsum and plaster, Diana Al-Hadid creates stalactite-like forms that, when deployed in wall reliefs and multi-tiered sculptures, call to mind bombed-out ruins: Pompeii, Dresden and the artist’s birthplace, Aleppo. Appropriately, the show is titled Liquid City. Contrary to what you might think, it is not about war-torn Syria – the artist’s family moved to the U.S. when she was five – but about architectural history re-imagined under the influence of those who’ve famously depicted the ancient world. Chief among them, writes Curator Lauren Schell Dickens, is Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), the visionary draftsman whose etchings of “impossible spaces” and “labyrinthine voids” provide a conceptual template for Al-Hadid’s explorations.
The show is small but it packs a wallop. It contains a total of four works: a wall relief, an imposing floor installation and a pair of drawings on Mylar. They’re spaciously displayed in the largest of the museum’s second-floor galleries, along with 17th century maps of Rome by Giambattista Nolli (1706-1756). Superbly researched wall texts trace the artist’s intellectual travels. None of which quite prepare you for impact of the works themselves.
The strongest is Mob Mentality (2014), the wall relief. It’s an accretion of congealed rivulets built up in see-through layers, each affixed to a steel skeleton. It’s a 3-D drip painting, essentially, but it’s much more; so imagine, if you will, a waterfall painting by Pat Steir, built by Frank Stella and finished in the waxy texture of Peta Coyne’s candelabra sculptures. That’s the close-up view and it’s pure abstraction. Step back and move from side to side and a vaporous anamorphosis takes hold in which recognizable pieces of an altar appear and then just as quickly fade, like faces in a visitation dream. To look is to sense at a visceral level how, over time, things deteriorate.
Precedents for this sort of conjuring date to the 1960s when process artists like Eva Hesse and Richard Serra began pushing industrial materials into places and shapes they’d never before been. Later, in the aughts, painters did, too. The LA critic Peter Frank coined the term “flow painting” to describe the practice of using liquids in a manner similar to Al-Hadid’s. The idea, as he described it, was to preserve the natural behavior of materials while shaping their characteristics to one’s own ends. Mob Mentality does so masterfully, and by itself is reason enough to visit.
Nolli’s Orders (2012), the exhibition’s centerpiece, takes the bombed-out building motif to its logical conclusion by interspersing figures among the ruins. They sprawl out in Old Master poses, but lack the anatomical details that make Renaissance painting and classical sculpture so compelling. They could be mannequins. Likewise, the boxes and risers used as support structures could have come out of a department store display window.
At some level Al-Hadid may recognize these shortcomings. When asked by a Wall Street Journal interviewer what historic figure she’d most like to meet, she answered Medaro Rosso (1858-1928), the sculptor who is said to have exerted a towering influence on Rodin. For the 36-year-old Brooklynite whose career is now globe-spanning that seems like a “conversation” well worth having.
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Diana Al-Hadid, Liquid City @ San Jose Museum of Art through Sept. 24, 2017.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.