x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Modern art combines with history

In our weekly look at contemporary art in the UAE, we visit Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian's latest exhibition, Kaleidoscope, at The Third Line gallery in Dubai.

A piece from Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s Kaleidoscope exhibition.
A piece from Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s Kaleidoscope exhibition.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian's work is grounded in the geometric designs of Islamic tradition, yet reconfigures that ancient aesthetic through the prism of western modern art.

Her cut-glass mirror mosaics draw on architectural features of mosques across the Muslim world, fashioning an ornately crafted series of decorative works that can fit together in multiple configurations as ornaments to adorn a room.

She draws on the Safavid and Qajar period of Persian art, incorporating details from the exquisite stained-glass windows of her hometown of Qazvin, Iran, in designs culled from her extensive travels, both around the country and beyond.

"I've done a lot of travelling, particularly in the Islamic world," she says. "Many of the designs are taken from ancient architecture in Cairo, Damascus, Tehran - minarets, domes of mosques, palaces, shrines. And I did a lot of travelling inside Iran, studying the architecture at Isfahan, Shiraz and Tabriz. The Shah Cheraq shrine in Tabriz and the palace of Golestan were major influences."

Farmanfarmaian, who turned 87 this year, brings a modernist's sense of the avant-garde to bear on the religious tradition, so that her works are imbued with the kind of analytical geometry you see in a Mondrian, for instance, while taking on something of the minimalism of American artists such as Robert Morris.

Her latest series advances on her previous Bisection of a Circle series of 2008 which was shown at last year's Sao Paulo Biennale, moving from the pure simplicity of the circle to more complex explorations in polygrammatic form.

Fragmented panels of mirror are mounted on surface reliefs so that, like huge pieces of jewellery, they become sculptural in form while owing much to the Art Deco movement of the 1920s. Their complex arrays of symmetries are dazzling, both in the intricacy of their detail and in the shimmering play of reflections they throw off, so that the multifaceted array of the surface dances with tricks of light.

The interplay of vertical and horizontal planes can give rise to bizarre optical distortions, so that perspectives seem to flip, much in the way of Op art and the illusionist movement. As the title of the series suggests, individual pieces combine to form highly schematised alternative arrangements. As in fractal mathematics, the beauty lies in the minutiae of the detail.

"So far as I am aware, no other artist has made works in five or six pieces that can be arranged in different ways as a collection," she says. "For two or three of them, I came up with the designs myself, then went to work on the framing. But most are taken from the geometric designs of old Islamic architecture.

"I take one classic piece of architecture and then design around it with strips or squares, half-circles, hexagons or octagons. The first ones were quite simple, and then I began making them more complex.

"Then I went in the other direction, simplifying them down as far as I could go."

It's a craft she's honed for more than 40 years, ever since a chance encounter in the late 1960s with the man she dubs the "mirror master", the glass craftsman Hajji Ostad Mohammad Navid. Their meeting came during a period that she spent touring the country, rediscovering Islamic craftsmanship and Persian architecture after her years abroad.

Farmanfarmaian had travelled to New York from Tehran at the end of the Second World War, enrolling at Parsons School of Design and spending more than a decade in the United States, during which she became close to many of the emerging contemporary artists of the 1950s. Her circle included the artists Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol, with whom she worked in the shoe department of the store Bonwit Teller.

"Andy would do the drawings, and I'd do the layouts," she recalls of those days before either had made their name. "He was incredibly shy, but we used to swoon over the shoes being sold."

Following her return to Iran, she toured the country extensively, gaining inspiration from the age-old artisan's craft of glass-cutting, traditionally passed down from father to son.

It's a painstaking procedure, involving the finest measurements of glass. "I buy 2mm sheets of glass, paint them with veneer and finally apply glitter to give the sparkly effect. I use mainly green and blue, as these are the traditional colours in Iranian tile work." Reverse-painted, the lower layer forms the surface, which must be painted first, with the background on top. The technique gives rise to an exquisite marbling effect, with the paint whisked and blended in swirls of colour.

Chevrons, diamonds and five-pointed stars are all key insignia, fitting together in highly formalised decorative patterns reminiscent of origami. Seen close-up, they are rough-hewn, the process of hand craftsmanship giving them a workmanlike crudeness, chipped and scuffed and inexact.

Concepts of numerology are key tenets informing the work, with the mathematical principles of Islam converging with the Euclidian theorems. Each shape carries an intrinsic meaning through form, with the hexagon, for instance, seen to embody the six virtues of generosity, self-discipline, patience, determination, insight and compassion.

The configuration of the patterns gives rise to a secondary series of imagery in negative, with the spaces created by the arrangements becoming as important as the pieces themselves. "The negative shapes are very important, so that the combinations can create, say, a four-pointed star in the space inside pentagons."