‘Ma­te­rial Girls’ mak­ing cross-cul­tural art

Wisconsin Gazette - - Pet Briefs - By Kat Min­erath Con­tribut­ing writer Sabine Aell, “Buoy­ancy of Noth­ing.’ in­stal­la­tion view.

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.

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 com-

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