Among Aiken’s most celebrated residents are the writing team of Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.
Authors of almost 20 books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga” and the highly touted “Van Gogh: The Life,” both men have already made their mark in literary circles, particularly as writers of carefully contextualized artist biographies.
For the first time, however, one member of the partnership has stepped out on his own to carve out his individual space in the visual arena by showcasing his very own paintings and sculptures.
Running through Sept. 1 at the Columbia Museum of Art, “Found in Translation: The Art of Steven Naifeh” traces one man’s evolution as a visual artist.
Born in Iran, Naifeh has had a foot in two worlds: the West (his parents were American diplomats living in Tehran at the time of his birth) and the East (the family moved to various postings in Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Jordan).
From the time he first took up a brush, he was conscious of how art is engendered through cross-cultural pollination. His first teacher, for example, was a Nigerian artist who struggled to find a balance between the traditional art of his homeland and the imported German Expressionism then influencing the work of Nigerian artists.
When it was time to go to college, already conversant with the visual vocabulary of the Islamic world, he returned to the United States where he immersed himself in the Western art scene, then in thrall to abstraction, including the geometric compositions of Frank Stella and the Op Art of Bridget Riley – both major influences on the young man’s evolution as an artist and student of art.
The current show bridges the Occident and Orient – if the reader will pardon my use of those two old-fashioned terms – and includes works from the 1980s right up to the present, rendered in a variety of media but all of them wedded to the decorative and spiritual qualities of abstract representation.
The oldest pieces in the exhibition date from the 1980s, and they clearly offer a launch point for the rest of the work.
Under the general title of “Mughal,” these double-panel acrylic paintings, measuring roughly 8 feet tall and 16 feet wide, are, on one hand, abstract studies in line and color.
At the same time, however, because of their metallic hues – one features a copper zigzag pattern on a white field and a white zigzag pattern on a copper field, they may, as Naifeh asserts, replicate the effect of “semiprecious stones set in white marble,” a feature of Mogul architecture constructed during the three hundred years when the Indian subcontinent was dominated by a series of Moslem rulers.
From these geometric patterns painted on large panels, Naifeh eventually fabricated essentially modular designs – most of the works in the show are from the last four years and most are composed of many separate pieces. A good example would be any work from the “Saida” series, each composed of sixty square canvases arranged on the wall in a circular pattern, larger squares on the outside and smaller ones in the middle.
Each canvas is linked to the next, pointed end to pointed end, so that they form a series of linked circles that spiral out from a central core whose negative space reads like a 12-pointed star.
Whether rendered in iridescent gold acrylic or in chrome on steel, there is something vibrant and life-affirming about each of these pieces. “Saida” is the Arabic word for “happiness,” and the viewer can’t help but be caught up in the energy of the expanding image as it radiates from its center like a pulsing heart or an unfolding flower.
Each about 3 inches thick, the separate components that make up these modular pieces – the squares in “Saida” or the parallelograms in “Petra,” or the diamond shapes in “Cyrene” – cast shadows upon the walls, making each composite work a cross between a painting and a sculpture.
There are, however, other pieces where the boundaries between the two forms are not so blurred. “Saida XV,” for example, is made of 60 limestone blocks arranged on the gallery floor; because the combined weight of the piece is 12,000 pounds, museum officials were momentarily concerned that the floor itself would have to be reinforced.
Another work entitled “Jali,” a 13-foot-tall sculpture of galvanized steel, was installed in the plaza in front of the museum this past February. At first I thought the piece resembled two cleverly balanced blue asterisks rendered in three dimensions, with a vertical projection on top, but they might also just as easily read, as the name implies, like two isolated elements in a latticed screen or perforated stone grill so popular in the Indian decorative arts.
That is one of the most attractive features of abstract art; it can, as Naifeh himself explains in the lavishly illustrated catalogue that accompanies this exhibition, create “for each viewer a personalized set of resonances based on his or her own experience of the arts, experience of life.” The 26 works in “Found in Translation: The Art of Steven Naifeh” encourage the visitor to interact with them – in fact, photography is permitted in the galleries devoted to this show, particularly since some of the metallic pieces reflect the viewer, creating fleeting self-portraits or “selfies.”
For more information, call 803-799-2810 or visit www.columbiamuseum.org.
Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. For his 23 years as a cultural affairs columnist, he will be honored next month by the Greater Augusta Arts Council with its 2013 Media Award.