Visual Arts Review: “Phantom Limb” — Diana Al-Hadid’s Art of the Meltdown

Dissolution is a mysterious, and constant, element in Diana Al-Hadid’s vision: feet appear out of nowhere, eyes are hollow, heads rarely appear.

Phantom Limb, Diana Al-Haldid, at the David Winton Bell Gallery, 64 College Street, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, through October 30.

"Still Life with Gold, " Diana Al-Hadid, 2014. Photo: Oliver Ottenschlaeger.

Diana Al-Hadid, “Still Life with Gold,” 2014. Photo: Oliver Ottenschlaeger.

By Mary Paula Hunter

Known for producing cutting-edge exhibits, the David Winton Bell Gallery, directed by Jo-Ann Conklin, has outdone itself with its spectacular season opener, Phantom LimbDiana Al-Hadid specializes in a blend of sculpture and painting, a mix-and-match beautifully epitomized by the shimmering floor to ceiling work Still Life With Gold. A magical mesh of dripping paint, the work reminds the viewer of Jackson Pollock’s drip art, but set in motion. That Al-Hadid’s materials are polymer gypsum, fiberglass, gold leaf, and steel increase the intriguing “what is it?’ spell cast by Still Life With Gold. The materials of a sculptor are employed to create a large-scale abstract work that seems to defy classification: a fusion of painting and sculpture.

Like an avant-garde fun house piece, the work glitters, as if it is somehow lit from behind the tight surface of cascading drips. At times, the shimmering piece seems to float. Al-Hadid achieves this effect by directing light from the adjacent gallery through holes and slits she’s pierced in the wall. Flickers of industrial lighting integrated into the vertical screen of hardened plastic drips produce a weirdly ironic natural image. Still Life With Gold reminds one of a waterfall or a variegated rock face.

The work Phantom Limb dominates the second gallery. More monument than sculpture, this assemblage reflects Al-Hadid’s fascination with Renaissance painting and Gothic architecture. The figure is an impish visual delight: a headless nude reclines atop a three-tiered pedestal structure, its disembodied feet at the base. The impression is of a cake whose humanoid icing is dripping. Dissolution is a mysterious, and constant, element in Al-Hadid’s vision: feet appear out of nowhere, eyes are hollow, heads rarely appear. Because viewers are asked to fill in the blanks to the puzzle, her deft use of deconstruction never becomes a cliche.

Diana Al-Hadid, Phantom Limb, 2014.  Photo: Oliver Ottenschlaeger.

Diana Al-Hadid, “In Mortal Repose,” 2011. Photo: Jason Wyche.

Signature fiberglass drips and delicate mesh wiring cover much of Phantom Limb, creating a distinctly modern industrial patina while bits of gold leaf scattered throughout allude to the dazzle of medieval illumination. The work appears to be crumbling, decaying before our eyes as if it had been excavated from an ancient ruin and wilted when exposed to the light. Or it could be a treasure mistakenly relegated to the junk heap, battered and broken by hands ignorant of its value?

Al-Hadid’s sensitivity to materials and her technical prowess is particularly evident in In Mortal Repose, a masterful bronze sculpture of a reclining headless nude. But Al-Hadid is not content to simply show off her impressive skill. Hardened streams of bronze run down the pedestal, an invasion that undercuts the work’s classic beauty. Will In Mortal Repose soon be no more than a pool of liquid metal? Or is the headless figure bleeding?

Nearby, beautifully shaped and disembodied feet, cast in bronze, patiently sit waiting, perhaps hoping that someday the rest of the sculpture will materialize. The amusing title, Stage Fright, pokes fun at the monumentality of sculpture, seeming to dare these these lonely feet clinging to the base of a pedestal to set off and clatter across the cement floor.

Mary Paula Hunter lives in Providence, RI. She’s the 2014 Pell Award Winner for service to the Arts in RI. She is a choreographer and a writer who creates and performs her own text-based movement pieces.

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