Hamad bin Khalifa University Student Centre Gallery

March 28 to April 10,2012

Doha, Qatar

Review by Ruth Bolduan

“Our First Time in the Gulf” features work by Painting and Printmaking Department Artists in Residence Cosima Storz, Vreni Michelini Castillo, and Lauren Gillette Pakradooni. The artists were given studio space at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar and were invited to spend the year working with VCUQ students, while exploring Qatar and producing new work.

This is a somber show. An underlying sense of the elegiac and the fragmentary, of crumbling architecture and disjoint forms, fills the exhibition with subtle tension. The evocative images by Cosima Storz reveal dark and fuzzy city views of partially constructed buildings. Like dimly recalled family portraits, these seem familiar, yet unsettling. What do we know about these buildings, often unoccupied, as we strain to comprehend their facades? Do they welcome or repel? Are they engaging or mute? Similarly, the inked lines in Lauren Pakradooni’s etchings hold a world and a vision together in tenuous fragility. Vreni Michelini Castillo’s exuberant mark-making is tempered by glimpses of mysteriously darkened private spaces.

Rituals of religion, of spirituality, of life and death, are suggested in the works of all three artists. Cosima presents a plaster cast of her head and shoulders, mounted on a plinth and resting on an ornate “gilt” plastic cloth. Her eye sockets are open holes with red wax flowing from them, like the tears of a saint. Lauren’s small image of a candle in a niche is the essence of memento mori, an image made to remind the viewer of death.  In her video performance, Vreni, dressed in black, enacts a Mexican ritual of purification. In Doha, we hear the call to prayer every day, and we accommodate our students when they take time from class to pray. Is it coincidental that the spiritual seems to have played a role in the work of all three artists in Doha?

Lauren Pakradooni’s work ranges in scale from megalithic to intimate. A vertically stacked grid of printed arches, darker at the bottom and ascending toward light, at a height of fifteen feet off the ground, suggests the black arches and bleak perspective of Italian metaphysical painter Giorgio De Chirico. In another piece, strips of shiny black recording tape are mounted horizontally from the floor to evoke a partial pyramid, a great plinth, geometrically solid, but shimmeringly evanescent, above which rest two small shelves. Here we encounter the strength of Lauren’s work, small etchings with fleeting glimpses of fragmentary spaces and objects: tiled floors and walls and oval mirrors reflecting dark views. Mounted like paintings on wooden stretchers, these tiny pieces lean against the wall in meditative silence. One image of a light gray wall has the words “CALL ME” scratched onto its pale cinderblock surface, more a hope than a desperate plea. It calls to mind Emily Dickinson’s lonely sensitivity toward beauty in her poem:

“There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.”

The slanting line and the rectilinear line are Lauren’s main protagonists. They come together with particular poignancy in a video projection on a wall, which I first saw with the video turned off. How boring, I thought: nine horizontal prints mounted in a grid on the wall. All contain slanting diagonal lines, with the darker ones at upper left moving down toward the lower ones on the right. With the video turned on, the viewer sees two framed mirrors or windows projected at angles on each side of the print array. Suddenly, viewing this, I felt like a small child looking out of a window at the rain. Much of Lauren’s show contains the transformative nostalgia of memory, of half-remembered places, or of seemingly insignificant moments that somehow matter a lot.

Next to Lauren’s wall is Cosima Storz’s installation of paintings constructed from multiple layers of glitter and of prints on stretched fabric. The glitter pieces are made on small wooden panels painted black. Seen from a viewing distance of about ten feet, the scattered multicolored glitter masses into a deep space filled with thousands of stars, taking the viewer on an imaginary journey far, far from Doha. The pieces on fabric bring us right back, as they are based on photographs Cosima took at Msheireb, a huge construction project in downtown Doha. They present a very different sensation from the noisy and busy activity of this place, with suggestions of buildings enveloped in warm gray tones, as though one looks through a darkened glass, not at the present, but the at past. They are suffused with the soft gray-tan dissolution of the desert.

On the opposite wall, Vreni Michelini-Castillo creates an installation comprised of varied media: large prints, drawings, paintings on canvas, photo-based images on fabric, and a transparent plastic tablecloth decorated with a motif of roses and lace doilies, hanging from about twelve feet high and falling to the floor, where a pile of brilliant magenta pigment rests like an aesthetic offering on top of the roses. Two of the prints, recalling Lauren’s pieces with oval mirrors, show a young woman with long black hair looking at herself in a hand-held mirror. She holds a yellow card with unintelligible numbers on it. Vreni conjures mysteries, and perhaps the most mysterious piece is the smallest, a four by four inch tiny painting, which, from a distance, looks like a black square with a lighter rectangle inside it. Up close, the viewer sees a room in darkness, backlit by intense light coming through a transparently curtained window. Light from the window falls on the surface of a low table. In front of this is the silhouette in black of a woman, seen from the back, her arm reaching toward the table, her head covered in a thick scarf or shawl. Other objects in the room are dimly lit, suggesting a domestic interior space. The intense sunlight of Doha and the corresponding blackness of interiors, when the eye is blinded by the sun, suggests the dematerialization of presence in this tiny painting  and a sense of loss.

Construction and its nemesis—destruction—are one of the underlying themes of this exhibition, reflecting the privileging of construction as a primary motif of Qatari national pride. Cosima references this directly in the documentary photos of a piece she performed last fall. Dressed in construction worker’s overalls, she cleans the large yellow three-dimensional letters that dot the Education City campus, spelling out inspirational words in Arabic and English. Carefully sweeping their surfaces, she fills small jars with sandy dust, all that remains from this hot and tedious job.

Vreni leads the gallery goer into the darker space of a concrete chamber behind the exhibition space, taking us “behind the scenes” to a place where panes of glass and electrical tape form the reflective and dangerous floor for a video projection. The desire to enter the darkened room begins with sound, that of a woman’s voice, singing softly the same close range of notes over and over again, a crooning lullaby or dirge that seems eternal. Two projections are next to each other on the wall. One shows a grainy, shadowy picture of birds flying around a large cage-like structure, close-up, but unfocussed like a distant memory. The other image is a performance by Vreni, dressed in black against a black wall, so that only her lower arms, hands, and face are visible. She rubs a white egg slowly across her hands, her face, and her body. She holds the egg in her tight fist, and it produces blood, like a stigmata, in reverberation with her own voice.

If this were all that the exhibition consisted of, this would be enough to give it thumbs up as a show not to miss. However, the closing night reception, featuring performance work by all three artists, was unexpected and magnificent. Lauren, Cosima, and Vreni had adventurously decided to incorporate the large storage room behind the exhibition space as part of the show. The raw concrete floor and a conglomeration of pipes overhead gave the feeling of a real art space. Some one remarked that it felt like a “Crit Room” at VCU in Richmond. The florescent lights were turned off, leaving only a few candles and dim lights, and Lauren began her piece, a wild, even manic at times, intense musical riff of endless permutations and aural challenges, crackling with sharp beauty. A Qatari student whispered, “For the first time, I don’t feel like I am in Doha.”

The second act was Cosima’s. Wearing a rather pert 1950’s-looking white dress with cowl neck and long sleeves that she designed and made, she stood in front of a blue plastic tarp curtain. Her male assistant, dressed in a white work suit, stood nearby and handed her a quart box of mango juice. Cosima leaned her head way back and began to slug mango juice, her neck moving as she let it slide down her throat. Juice began to spill out of her mouth, as she frantically continued to drink, throwing the empties on the floor and grabbing the next one, until all five quarts were drained. Her dress looked like the wall behind a fountain, all stained yellow, and a small pool of mango juice accumulated around her feet. How simple, how perfect, how utterly incomprehensible.

In Vreni’s permanent installation for the exhibition, the back room had been transformed into a meditative and healing space. Now, she activated a different mood, singing a very different group of songs, which combined her own fascinating vocal range with electronic sounds moving from deep thunder to squawks, frantic overlays of jarring sound, and tender muted cries. The backdrop of her projected image engaged in the ritual of cleansing herself with a white egg seemed both angelic and diabolic in the context of the musical narrative she created for this performance.

At the end of all three performances the audience gave a rousing ovation, and the energy continued to flow into the main exhibition space. The three Painting and Printmaking Department Visiting Artists have set a high bar and paved the way for more cutting edge work here in Doha. Like Qatar itself, this exhibition represents a beginning, with aspiration toward lofty goals, not always met, yet moving inexorably forward. The show embodies a sensitive and insightful response by Lauren, Cosima, and Vreni to their lives in Qatar.



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