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First Friday Reviews: August 2014 

click to enlarge Anila Agha, "Intersections"
  • Anila Agha, "Intersections"

Anila Agha: Sacred Silence
Harrison Center for the Arts through Aug. 29

★★★★1/2 (out of five)

For fans of Herron professor Anila Agha’s work, this exhibition is a must-see, the most comprehensive look at her work so far in Indianapolis. Agha’s works in this show may seem abstract, but the reference points associated with them are anything but. The small, square canvases near the Harrison Gallery entrances riff on patterns from women's graves in Pakistan near the Indus River Delta. Then there are works of embroidery and mixed media suggestive of particular landscapes seen from above.

Agha's “Intersections” has already transfixed the art world on an international scale. The sculpture takes the form of a cube hanging down from the ceiling, with a light bulb in the middle of the otherwise empty box. The kaleidoscopic shadows cast by the spinning cube on the gallery's white walls are as much a part of the exhibit as the cube itself. The cube's six sides are made of laser cut wood, painted black and carved with geometric elements to be found in the mosques of Alhambra, Spain, which were places of dialogue in Moorish Spain between Jews, Christians and Muslims. “The geometric patterning in Islamic sacred spaces, associated with certitude, is explored in a way that reveals fluidity,” writes the Pakistan-born-and-raised Agha in her illuminating wall text about this work.

The contemplative is an aspect to be found in all major religions — Islam is no exception — and Agha brings this to the fore in her art. In a time when much of the Middle East is burning — with the murderous ISIS taking over much of Iraq and Israel bombing the people of Gaza into nonexistence — Agha’s allusions to Alhambra in her work remind us of a place where, for a while, Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in relative harmony.


click to enlarge D. DelReverda-Jennings, "I am not my Hair"
  • D. DelReverda-Jennings, "I am not my Hair"

D. DelReverda-JenningsCaught Between the Sun and Heaven
Gallery 924 through August 29

★★★★

DelReverda-Jennings’ work gestures toward an amalgam of cultural influences as expansive as the list of materials that she uses to create her mixed-media sculptures. Take, for example, “Daughters of Yemaya and Oshun,” which refers to the Santeria religion as practiced in the Caribbean. The painted, sand-casted polyurethane sculpture depicts a naked female figure with her womb opened up, splayed out on a cross. This intricately-detailed sculpture demonstrates syncretism, or how concepts from indigenous religions combined with those of Catholicism and other Eurocentric traditions.

DelReverda-Jennings seems to be headed in a more autobiographical direction with her paintings. Her portraits are all of women, and a number of them have issues with their hair. In "I am not my Hair," two women are joined not at the hip but at the hair while in "HypnotiQ," the subject's hair is also a bird's nest. And then there's her altarpiece/installation, "Arbitrary Thoughts of a Colored Gal," which includes, below the altar, a number of skin lighteners and extensions available to African-American women.


click to enlarge Zuimeng Cao, "Snow and Ice"
  • Zuimeng Cao, "Snow and Ice"

Zuimeng Cao: The Glance of Chinese Painting
Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library through August 31
★★★★

Zuimeng Cao is a dissident artist from Northeast China, currently living in Carmel. While his technique is often contemporary, it stands firmly atop a two-millennium-old tradition of Chinese painting. His paintings of snow relating to his boyhood in rural China are of particular note.

In the painting “Not Fret,” you see a layering of snow-covered branches, one over the other. There are also luminous, nearly transparent icicles hanging down from the branches — as expressionistic as they are realistic. Cao, a master of snow painting, makes his own paints and uses a special paper in order to accomplish these works. And atop “Not Fret's” intricately detailed layer cake, as it were, of snow and shadow, you see three birds staring out towards the horizon. The Chinese characters running down the right side of the composition betray an uncommon optimism, reading “The Winter is Almost Over: Spring is coming. Nothing to be Worried About.”


click to enlarge Courtland Blade, "Untitled (Aniyah at the playground)"
  • Courtland Blade, "Untitled (Aniyah at the playground)"

Courtland Blade: places we travel through
Raymond James Stutz Art Gallery through Aug. 29

★★★★

Where to start when talking about Courtland Blade's oil paintings? Maybe with the ways in which they're influenced by the hyperrealist tradition? Or with how a painting like “Route 16” — where you see the rainy day view from a windshield under an underpass — verges on abstraction? Or with their ideological content?

James Kuntzler’s book The Geography of Nowhere bemoans the kind of generic suburban architecture that fills Blade's canvases: empty aisles in supermarkets, vacant walkways in malls. Such placeless places conform to post-WWII ideas of suburban functionality and are hard to love. It's easy to love Blade’s paintings, however, because of his color sense and the mystery they evoke. And Blade doesn't forget the people who live in such places. Compassion and humanity burst forth at times, as in one of his latest, “Untitled (Aniyah in the Playground)” which portrays his daughter making her way through a jungle gym.


click to enlarge Ian Weaver, "Black Power Helmet"
  • Ian Weaver, "Black Power Helmet"

The Black Knight Archive, Chapter 1: Migration 
iMOCA through Oct.18
★★★1/2

Ian Weaver’s exhibition, based on a fictional history of the “Black Bottom” part of Chicago destroyed by urban renewal, contains a standout pseudo-artifact. His “Black Power Helmet” is black-painted with a fist rising out of the top (Weaver’s own fist served as a model here). The sculpture is at once humorous and thought-provoking, with its combination of Medieval European and African-American cultural elements. The Black Knights, according to this fictional history, were a Black-Panthers-like group fighting for the survival of their community. There’s also a Black Knights coat of arms, a Black Knights seal and various maps.

While such pseudo-artifacts are in themselves interesting, and each finds Weaver using a different set of skill sets to demonstrate how communities form their own identities and narratives, there seemed to me to be a certain lack of historical context. There isn’t much narrative glue in the wall text to hold everything together. A certain amount of open-endedness is not at all a bad thing, but when dealing with exhibitions that have a cultural and historical context, shouldn’t that context be addressed in more than in a glancing way? The good news is that this is an ongoing project and such questions might be answered down the road.

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