November 14, 2010

In the Arts: Exhibits touch on art themes influenced by Islam

By PHILIP ISAACSON

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.

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Frank Gehry’s “Cross Check Arm Chair” in laminated maple, ca. 1992

Courtesy photos

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“Grande Odalisque,” 2008, by Lalla Essaydi

Additional Photos Below

• LALLA ESSAYDI -- "LES FEMMES DU MAROC"

WHERE: Bates College Museum of Art, 75 Russell St., Lewiston; 786-6158

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday

CLOSES: Dec. 18 

• ED DOUGLAS -- RECENT WORK

WHERE: Greenhut Galleries, 146 Middle St., Portland; 772-2693

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday

CLOSES: Nov. 27 

• "ALTERING MATTERS -- NEW WORK BY MAINE MEMBERS OF THE SURFACE DESIGN ASSOCIATION"

WHERE: Atrium Art Gallery, University of Southern Maine's Lewiston-Auburn College, 51 Westminster St., Lewiston; 753-6500

HOURS: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

CLOSES: Nov. 30 

• "SIT DOWN -- CHAIRS FROM SIX CENTURIES"

WHERE: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 9400 College Station, Brunswick; 725-3275

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday; 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday

CLOSES: Jan. 16

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'

"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.

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Additional Photos

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Ed Douglas’ oil on linen “Alhambra IX”

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Elizabeth Busch’s “Two Thousand Seven,” textile paint on fabric.

 


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