Arts and Culture

Shani Gilchrist



A conversation ‘Found In Translation’: Steven Naifeh’s work shown at the Columbia Museum of Art

Posted 6/28/2013 4:02:00 PM

This is one of those posts where I should take the subject at hand and translate it for those of us who don’t have an extensive background in art history. The problem is, I’m not sure that I can. I’m going to try, but there are concepts at play that I don’t fully understand — concepts of mathematics, concepts of ancient history, concepts of universal principles that Aiken-based artist Steven Naifeh doesn’t even fully understand.

These are concepts that weren’t even understood by the craftsmen who intricately carved out the ancient Islamic screens that many of the works in “Found In Translation: The Art of Steven Naifeh” are based upon. That is the glory of the exhibition that is on view at the Columbia Museum of Art until Sept. 1. The large-scale works are at once simple and complex, primitive and modern … and they challenge artist and viewer alike to ask, “what makes this art?”

I was able to have a chat with Naifeh at the museum among the large-scale works that have been capturing the imaginations of the many who continue to travel to see the show. Naifeh has a calm presence and is very humble about the depth and breadth of his artistic knowledge. Not only is he an avid collector who’s known throughout international circles, he and his partner, Gregory White Smith, have written 12 books about various topics in art. They won a Pulitzer Prize for their biography of Jackson Pollack. So one might understand if Naifeh were to come off as a bit intimidating in an artistic setting. Instead, he is engaging and curious — always excited to see what people are thinking or experiencing, and always grateful for the support of others.

We walked around the galleries and chatted. He kept looking around as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He gestured toward the huge works that Mike Dwyer, the museum’s exhibition designer, had carefully arranged. “He hung them lower than I would have, and it’s really interesting because it changes the perception of them dramatically. You almost look down at them from this height — depending on how tall you are — and they’re more personable that way. They sort of interact with the viewer more than when they're sort of up there gazing down at you … I'm very, very gratified by how well the museum hung this."

The work in “Found In Translation” could be described as modern geometric abstraction, but it’s more than that. The work that you see as you walk through the galleries reaches back in time — possibly all the way to 1000 B.C. — thanks to Naifeh’s exposure to and careful study of Islamic and North African culture. The son of American diplomats, Naifeh spent his childhood traveling the Islamic world. During the 1960s his father, who was the son of Lebanese immigrants, was one of the few in the diplomatic corps who was a specialist in Arab culture. As a result, Naifeh spent his formative years surrounded by the intricate beauties that make up the aesthetics of Islamic motifs. The culture’s ornate carvings, careful patterns and meaningful colors were an important part of his childhood. When he was 15, Naifeh’s father was appointed Cultural Attaché of the U.S. Embassy in Lagos, Nigeria. The area is considered by many to be the artistic epicenter of Africa, thanks to its rich pre-colonial artistic history and its continued strength when the British added their own culture to the mix when the country was colonized.

Naifeh had already been showing promise as a young artist, but it was after this move that he began to show serious interest in geometric abstraction. He began to study with Bruce Onobrakpeya, one of the most successful Nigerian painters of our time. During this period of study Naifeh began to work in geometric abstraction while surrounded by a culture that continued to be fed from old sources. There were the contributions of the Nok culture, which, while flourishing from 1000 B.C. until it mysteriously vanished around 300 A.D., produced incredible terracotta heads that are still studied today. The bronzes of the former kingdom of Benin were an important source of pride in Nigeria. Also, the woodcarvings of the ancient Yoruba and Ife tribes were a significant part of the national heritage.

Armed with this education and exposure, Naifeh eventually went off to study art history at Harvard and Princeton before eventually — years later — settling down in Aiken to write about and produce art. While he has continued to study the ingenious mathematical and aesthetic concepts of Islamic and West African art, Naifeh has also looked to similar concepts in India and other cultures.

The collection featured in Columbia takes the concepts that have fascinated the artist and breaks them down. Where one might look at an Indian Jali screen and see a complicated, lace-like pattern, Naifeh has taken one of the many complex patterns and blown it up to grand proportions for his Jali series. Using ancient mathematical formulas, 72 x 144-inch white canvases, and only one shade of acrylic paint per canvas, the artist created a pattern that is difficult to look away from because of its size and continuity.

One of the most fascinating parts of the exhibition is Naifeh’s Uzbek series. The idea came from a 1,000-year-old dome in an Uzbek mosque. The mosque was built in a small town along the Silk Road, so it is more crude than its urban counterparts in Damascus or Cairo. The lines on the outside of the structure aren’t quite as perfect, and the laborers who built it were likely to be less skilled. The result is a more primitive building than many of its contemporaries.

On the mosque’s interior, the dome is covered in glazed turquoise squares that are placed in a rough spiral. Naifeh took this image and interpreted it for his own. He and his team, with the help of a computer program, calculated out the perfect alignment of dots to make what is a very controlled spiral. Then, Naifeh called upon a shop that repairs fiberglass boats in North Augusta to help make the 100 x 100 tiles. Then, the tiles were sent to California, where a machine was fed an image of the spirals in order to punch holes in the fiberglass according to the mathematically mapped out pattern.

The result can be seen in the Columbia Museum of Art gallery, with an LED light shining behind the spiral that tricks the eye into seeing an image that is wildly out of control. Through this process, Naifeh has essentially digitized a primitive work, while at the same time, harkening it to the 1960s Op Art movement. It’s an incredible trifecta of juxtapositions — primitive vs. modern, control vs. chaos, and crude vs. polish.

At every step, there are surprises in the two- and three-dimensional works that appear so simple at first glance. Naifeh used whole teams of people to create pieces that are as perfect in symmetry and layout as can possibly be done. The majority of the work was done by South Carolinians; in some cases by laborers who never would have imagined themselves working on a conceptual art project. For Naifeh, this was an added pleasure to producing his work.

“When Jackson Pollack would create his masterpieces, he was constantly asking the question, ‘But is it art?’” he says. The process of creating the geometric forms that are now hanging in the Columbia Museum of Art brought that question out of an artist’s contemplation and into a greater circle of conversation. Now, that conversation has been brought to Columbia, where scores of people are arriving each day to stand in front of the huge works, tip their heads to the side and say, “Which part of this makes it art?” It is a beautiful thing.

For more information about “Found In Translation: The Art of Steven Naifeh”, please visit the museum’s website.