‘Material Girls’ making cross-cultural art

The first things you’ll notice about the exhibition Material Girls are the ambient sounds and elegant installations. But the substance of the art goes far beyond those initial impressions.

The three artists whose large-scale installations fill the Brooks Stevens Gallery at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design address culture and identity through interdisciplinary practices. But despite their shared purpose, each artist has a distinct style and comes from a unique background that strongly influences her work.

Sabin Aell, a native Austrian who now resides in Colorado, curated the exhibition. Her works, as well as numerous pieces by Nina Ghanbarzadeh and Nirmal Raja, complement each other throughout the space. Aell’s “Buoyancy of Nothing” runs along large wall spaces, acting as the leitmotif. It is mural-like, but not continuous; instead it is broken up, with variations appearing in multiple places.

Aell uses a variety of materials for this piece. Paint and plastic polymer are applied directly on the white walls to create bright, abstract shapes and slim, sharp lines. This background is punctuated by biomorphic, three-dimensional plaques coated in resin. The plaques’ surfaces are glossy and their images often blurred. Some recall fields or landscapes, others look like vignettes of people in ambiguous locations. The effect is a crisp, airy aesthetic that recalls the nonrepresentational approaches of Vassily Kandinsky and Joan Miró.

The composition holds together even while embracing discontinuity through its episodic installation.

Aell is described as an artist who “plays with polarities and dualities,” and the work ‘Boyancy of Nothing” reflects this. It is like a fragmented travelogue of memory that perhaps belongs to someone else but feels familiar to one’s own experiences. The question of the source is left open: What are these images? Where did they come from? What is the relationship among them? The ghost of narrative floats through its fragments.

That’s the impression that holds the exhibition together, as pieces by Raja and Ghanbarzadeh share the same characteristic. Raja’s ‘Location Indeterminate” stretches for many feet in thin tendrils of cut paper, coalescing in a dense round mass before trailing off again. Red pins are pressed into the wall surface like markers on a map or circles dropped in a Google app. They are a way of finding oneself, but in this case, they mark a secret point.

Close inspection of the finely cut paper reveals that it is, or was, a map. Areas of open land, water and neat grids of streets can be discerned from the waving strands. The names suggest locales in India, Raja’s homeland. The complex weaving and knottedness, dotted by the red pins, says “you are here,” while it allows the impossibility of locating oneself in a single place or moment. We are always in the present, which is filtered by our past whereabouts.

Nina Ghanbarzadeh, “Line Drawing VI,” installation view.
Nina Ghanbarzadeh, “Line Drawing VI,” installation view.

Raja also works with multimedia pieces, incorporating video and sound in some. “Entangled” is a mountainous slide of tubular fabric that occupies the center floor space in one gallery. It is made of silk from saris and surrounded by five discreet speakers. The voice of a woman, Laj Waghray, tells family stories, discusses immigration and describes her sense of being an outsider in a foreign culture. Her observations are poignant, especially at a time when issues of racism, xenophobia and nationalism echo throughout political and social discourse. “They will find a way to set you aside,” she says. She offers a reminder of the shared emotions and experiences of humanity and calls for empathy.

The third artist in the exhibition, Nina Ghanbarzadeh, was born in Tehran, Iran. Her native language Farsi plays a significant role in her work. Language is an inherent marker of culture, whether it is the inflection of a regional accent or the undulating script of Farsi, a code that’s unintelligible to the uninitiated. Text — and calligraphy in particular — has a long history as a venerated art form in Persian culture, and Ghanbarzadeh melds this tradition with contemporary applications.

Her art emanates from a keen sense of line and structure, often working from a macro view of an overall composition to a micro sense of detail. Dot and line drawings in pen or acrylic are coolly minimalistic and form discreet shades of gray from a distance, but also reveal the steady, intense process of mark making. The result denotes endless patience and attentiveness to the larger scope of the finished piece.

Ghanbarzadeh also uncovers layers of cultural understanding and assumption. A case in point is a large white banner with faint gray text that reads, “This is written in Farsi.” At least, that is how it appears from across the gallery. The letters are actually composed of extremely fine pen strokes in calligraphic Farsi, their density banding together to form the English letters. It is an illustrative example of how cultural background creates a foundation. It reveals the ways diversity and ancestry are unique characteristics that may not always be apparent from a distance.

On exhibit

Material Girls continues through Sept. 17 at MIAD, 273 E. Erie St., Milwaukee.

UPCOMING EVENTS

Conservation Framing Series: Float Framing

Lynden Sculpture Garden

2145 W. Brown Deer Road

10–11:30 a.m. on Aug. 28

Fee: $10 / $5 members

How do you frame an artwork without covering any of the edges? What do you do with a piece that is not completely flat? Artist and preparator Bruce Knackert will answer those questions in this workshop on float framing. Space is limited, and advance registration is required online or by calling 414-446-8794. Attendees are welcome to come early for coffee and bagels.

Wisconsin Photography 2016

Racine Art Museum

441 Main St., Racine

2–4 p.m. on Aug. 28

This opening reception introduces 101 photographs and one video piece selected by juror Karen Irvine, curator and associate director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College in Chicago. The reception is open to the public and an awards presentation will be at 3 p.m.

Faces of a Fish Empire

Portrait Society Gallery

207 E. Buffalo St., 5th Floor

Opening reception 5–8 p.m. on Sept. 2

One of Milwaukee’s favorite traditions is the Friday Fish Fry, and the Empire Fish Company was a major supplier to these feasts. Beginning in the 1960s, company owner Tom Kutchera photographed the behind-the-scenes staff, and this exhibition brings together three decades of people and personalities from a prominent local business.