beyond the lanai

sopheap pich 3

Sculptor Sopheap Pich lives in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, working primarily in rattan and bamboo, constructing and weaving organic and plant forms which are at once solid and ethereal. His sculptures – currently installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a disappointingly offhand and rather ragtag display – move between abstraction and representation: the open weave construction allowing the free circulation of air in and out of the forms. Rattan and bamboo are ubiquitous to Cambodia, especially thriving in the wild mountains, where harvesting it is both difficult and dangerous. These natural materials are integral to life in Southeast Asia – from housing and baskets to fish traps and waterwheels – and the artist’s use of such demanding, difficult-to-tame media speaks to a generation that came of age under the Khmer Rouge-led government of Kampuchea. Combining the visualization of a painter with the spatial conceptualization of a sculptor, Pich literally draws in space with these materials, creating three-dimensional objects which consciously evoke the spirit of a very personal, poignant place.

sopheap pich 1

sopheap pich sculpture

sopheap pich 2

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god is in the details

The rise of Islam in Arabia and its subsequent spread had a profound and unifying effect on the art and culture of the Arab lands, Turkey, Iran and Central and South Asia. Underpinned by a shared Islamic heritage, each region nevertheless continued to strongly express its artistic individuality. This cultural diversity is made clear – as well as being beautifully displayed – in the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s newly refurbished Islamic galleries. Hidden from view since 2003, many of the works on display were created for dynastic rulers and nobles by workshops in the service of the court. This world is revealed in illustrated literary, poetic, and heroic texts, like the epic Persian Book of Kings or in royal portraits and precious objects for the Ottoman Sultans. Patterns of patronage extended into the worlds of trade, commerce and village life, too; expressed in carpets, ceramics, and quotidian objects rendered as items of exquisite beauty, like the mihrab or prayer niche seen above. Yet the quintessential form of artistic expression in the Islamic world was calligraphy as derived from the holy book, the Qur’an. Lavishly copied in many beautiful scripts, its sacred verses adorned architecture and art everywhere, woven into complex geometric designs, along with floral and vegetable motifs in a variety of scrolling patterns. It has been said that God is in the details. For the artists who toiled anonymously in the service of Islam, that truism was more than just hyperbole; it was the highest form of expression.

 

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in a new light at the frick

Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert is the largest work on panel at the Frick Collection, the intimate public gallery housed in the former residence of industrialist Henry Clay Frick. Portraying the medieval saint who renounced earthly riches to embrace a life of poverty, simplicity and prayer, this particular painting belongs to a long tradition of legends centered on the life of Francesco of Assisi, who was close in time to the Italians of the Renaissance and hence often a central subject. Yet this image is unlike any other representation. For one, Bellini’s desert bears a striking similarity to the Tuscon hills. Moreover, barefoot with arms extended and ready to receive, the saint appears to be in a state of mystical transport, transfigured by a supernatural radiance that emanates from a thick impasto of clouds at the upper left corner of the canvas. All this and not a furry animal to be found. Almost. It’s a masterpiece of spiritual poetry, made even more vivid following a rehabilitative trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s conservation department. Currently occupying pride of place in the museum’s main gallery the painting can also be viewed up close in a way you’d never be able to experience in person: via high-resolution gigapixel photography courtesy of Google’s amazing new Art Project.

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savage beauty

If there’s been a more evocative – or truer – title for an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in recent years, I missed it. And while Savage Beauty concisely defines the life-work of Alexander McQueen, it also tells a greater, bolder truth: this is way more than just fashion; it’s Rousseau (both of them) come to life. It’s also one of the most compellingly immersive theatrical events of the year. Despite exhausting crowds and a line that practically quarantines the Impressionists as it snakes its way through Babylon and Assyria and into the Great Hall, Savage Beauty is a head-spinning head trip worthy of the endurance it demands. In truth, by the time you’ve wandered your way through – or been carried along by the crowd, depending on how you time it – the endless jostling seems an almost calculated manifestation of the constant conflict inherent in McQueen’s designs: life or death? Lightness or darkness? Predator or prey? Man or machine? Lest you think that’s a lot of philosophical ground for a handful of dresses to navigate, this show will elevate any future expectations. What it also makes stupefying clear is that Alexander McQueen was foremost a first-rank artist.

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