Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington
“Archive of Longings,” Diana Al-Hadid’s current survey (on view through February 6, 2022), acts on two levels: as individual, autonomous sculptures both abstract and figurative and as a collective “archive” forming a series of passages and encounters fraught with peril, dismemberment, and death. Realized through extraordinary material accretion, Al-Hadid’s works assemble countless fragments that struggle to coalesce into a complete whole. Unstable and shifting, they describe the movements and lives of displaced people—whether during the horrific civil war in the artist’s homeland of Syria or in Europe at this moment—capturing the refugee’s longing for home, while embodying more general ideas of borders, barriers, and destinations unattained.
The exhibition focuses on 13 works made between 2010 and 2021, generously spaced by curator Shamim M. Momin so that the huge, skylit gallery designed by the late Charles Gwathmey easily contains objects that need to be observed from all sides. How else to realize that the truncated bronze limbs, awkward and askew, semi-buried in Subduction (2019) and Magmatic (2018–19) uproot classical ideals with gestures drawn from catastrophe? Al-Hadid has replaced the cliché of the grasping hand with the more troubling reflexes of the human leg. This is one of her greatest strengths as a sculptor: she has assimilated all of Western art history, grafted it onto the brutal realities of seemingly never-ending carnage in the Middle East, and emerged with something viscerally powerful and heartrending.
Bleak resilience and survival in the face of human cruelty are dominant themes. Three Blind Busts (all 2012) are not immediately visible behind Smoke Screen (2015), one of several suspended metal and painted plaster filigree curtains. The Blind Busts play with and mar bronze with stainless steel struts, all dripping in oil paint, which serves as a stand-in for blood. The figures’ dignity is further degraded by spoofing the nobility of pedestal sculptures and the classical world’s elevation of the individual to the status of potential god. Not here: additional plinths placed atop each pedestal support an eroding head, head and shoulders, and head and neck, as if each bust were a stage of torture and execution. There is something both appealing and disturbing in these works, reminiscent of how we might disapprove of Francis Bacon’s sensationalism but cannot look away.
The same could be said for the suspended curtain walls, which have a ceremonial character of flickering concealment and revelation. The crowds glimpsed in the shredded cascade of Smoke Screen could be charging into the unknown. The wall-mounted Volcanic Split (2018), which seems to abandon references to current events unless one sees it as an omen of climate change, displays a signature Al-Hadidian contradiction—the struggle to express the horrible without undue recourse to the beautiful. Its split rectangular forms recall Barnett Newman or Sam Gilliam more than Anselm Kiefer or Cy Twombly, too attractive to be scary. Gradiva (2017–18), which is not as convincing as the other works, exposes the hazards of a theater-set approach (front matters more than back) and dramatic spectacle; it seems alien to Al-Hadid’s otherwise fully three-dimensional conception of sculpture.
Moving Target (2014) straddles paradoxes. Stepped like a staggering ziggurat, it impossibly magnifies steps to freedom and escape from the terror of violence. Gold drips give a heavenly quality that reinforces the dialectic between salvation and danger common to all these sculptures. Al-Hadid’s pathway from work to work illuminates her brilliant trajectory over the past decade. The curtain screens, ghostly and insubstantial with pervasive drips, express the transitory and transient nature of her subjects. Given her themes, they are the only possible solutions for now.