I have a chronic attachment to the architecture and art of Islam. It is a welcome infection that came from stamp collecting. Although my philatelic days are long behind me, I still respond to those tiny pieces of gummed paper that were issued by Tripolitania, Tunis, Transjordania, Persia and other half-imaginary lands. Their Arabic script in relaxed curves or in networks of horizontals and right angles will forever enchant me.
These meanderings are initiated by shows at the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston and at Greenhut Galleries in Portland. Both touch upon themes extracted from a world once specific to Islam and now the subject of wide appreciation.
The Bates show is an exquisite visual event. In an installation that whispers that the work on the walls speaks quietly and on its own terms, it offers the art of Lalla Essaydi in “Les Femmes du Maroc.” Through a series of photographs that have been wondrously amended by hand, Essaydi considers a view of Arab women once held by the West. That view was of an enslaved woman — cloistered, languorous and the object of desire.
In the gentlest of tones, Essaydi draws upon paintings by Ingres, Dalacroix, Gerome and other 19th-century romantic painters as visual sources. Theirs was a voluptuous presentation not often challenged in the arts. To what extent it pandered to existing expectations, we are left to wonder.
However, in her assessment, Essaydi leaves nothing to wonder. She speaks directly of the dignity and beauty of women — both physically and in their independence. She does not mock Ingres, et als — their work is, of course, gorgeous — rather, she uses their formal structure as a point of departure, pares the surroundings to broad references, and then virtually embroiders every element with stream upon stream of continuous Arabic calligraphic forms.
The streams — whether sentences or allusions to particular letter forms, I cannot say — mold fact into sculpture and, in some of the photographs, weave the images into textiles. These large evocative photographs will touch you deeply.
Ed Douglas is the painter at Greenhut. His principal subject is Granada’s 11th-century Alhambra.
Moorish architecture in Spain is, in itself, a fascination. That it could have flourished and some of it manage to survive in a land so distant from its pulse in Damascus is a miracle. An exotic oasis in a raw landscape, the Alhambra is precious in its fragility, its refinement and, as the last stronghold of Moorish Spain, its sad history of deceit and expulsion.
I sense much of this in Douglas’ paintings. His Alhambra is not the melancholy Alhambra of Washington Irving, it is the palace city of the 15th century and of the last moments of the Islamic Orient in Europe. The painting is beautiful and deeply felt.
“Altering Matters” is the principal title of another wonderful show in Lewiston, this one at the Atrium Gallery at USM, Lewiston-Auburn College. I’m not quite certain that I pick up on the title, but I do understand that it identifies new work by Maine Members of the Surface Design Association.
More than 30 artists are represented in the show, and as in any large event, it is not practical to report on each of them. As a general statement, it is a splendid exhibition and another example of the continuing support of this gallery for the craft arts in Maine.
Elizabeth Busch is among the grand maters of American textiles. Her “In Time” in this show is a masterful integration of color supported by a variety of quilting, stitching and painting on what I take to be canvas (or a material that suggests itself as canvas). The work has the control, assurance and sophistication of a gifted artist in mature form.
Katharine Cobey’s “Mirage” is almost a mirage. What appears to be a coat created somehow of traditional materials turns out to have been hand cut and knitted out of plastic bags. Avoiding the inevitable comment that silk purses are sometimes made from sows’ ears is impossible, but in this case, the sow’s ear is made out of the product of foreign oil, and that’s getting akin to gold. I also note Cobey’s “Danger Dress,” created from garbage bags and plastic roadway danger strips.
“Split Personality” made by Allison Cooke Brown from copper wire is just that — a dress form achieved in such a way that it changes from viewpoint to viewpoint and, at one angle, almost disappears. It’s as close to a drawing as an ephemeral sculptural object can get.
Mary Allen Chaisson’s “Pillow Talk” and “Days Gone By” bring us back to two dimensions, but they are not conventional. The latter appears to be a quilt when in fact its surface action is achieved solely by stitching. It is really trompe l’oeil.
LOOK, DON’T SIT
Notwithstanding its title, “Sit Down!” at Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick does not welcome the carcass. It does, however, welcome the eye, and for formal presentation and historical exposition, it is pure pleasure. I’ve seen it twice.
Chairs are the performers of the furniture arts. The most physically demanding and the least generous in physical opportunities, new designs seldom add to the vocabulary of the form. Some of those that have made the leap in recent years are represented in this show, as are others that have become classics or notable for their idiosyncrasies.
Someone once observed that a chair is a stool with a backrest and that a stool is a board elevated from the floor by supports. I didn’t find that elemental chair at Bowdoin, but I did find many that have become expressions of new theories and ideals — some that have become cult objects, some that have failed, some that are purely decorative and thus touch-your-heart gorgeous, and some on which the jury is still out.
The latter may have strength, be visually sprite and made of laminated wood, synthetics or some breed of alloy. Yes, there are some among those venturesome performers that are solid as a rock and suitable for any reasonable use. You just can’t sit on them at Bowdoin.
This show will step you through six centuries of design. Don’t miss it.
Philip Isaacson of Lewiston has been writing about the arts for the Maine Sunday Telegram for 45 years. He can be contacted at: