Thursday, 13 August 2009

Araam – Breathing Space

Araam – Breathing Space
Zarah Hussain & Halima Cassell at the Mid Pennine Gallery

This is the first exhibition I have seen since being back in the UK but the themes and content very much connect to some of the areas of interest I was able to explore in the UAE. Both artists in this show are British with roots in Pakistan and both consider aspects of this identity in their work. However, my primary interest in both of these artists is how each contemporises the ancient and complex art of geometry.

I am familiar with Zarah Hussain’s previous work where watercolours or acrylics were used predominantly as mediums for classical geometric reproduction. This show is very different. It consists of six, large oil on gesso panels with a seventh in progress in the gallery itself. Two small multi-sided pieces are redolent of her earlier work in that they conform to classical geometric discipline and aesthetics but all the others contain varying degrees of diversion. The work was all completed this year and each piece is displayed in the order it was created. This chronological sequence essentially allows the viewer to follow Hussain’s unfolding argument with geometric orthodoxy.

After the two small pieces comes the most obviously breakaway piece in which elements of each geometric motif are drifting away from their central core. This gives a palpable sense of disintegration and expansion. The next panel seems to contain the essential argument in itself as if some reassembling was necessary after the dilution in the previous panel. However, while many of the individual geometries are more robust, the very act of placing them in non-tessellated and sometimes overlapping positions is another subversion of traditional form.

The next panel is circular and again contains overlapping motifs, but this time they are very mixed. Some are basic and almost transparent geometric sketches, while others are densely complex both in colour and form. There is a freedom here which suggests that the argument has been resolved but the disparity is slightly disorientating and prompts much closer scrutiny to find an underlying structure holding it all together. However, it is the last piece that makes the biggest visual impact. This final square panel contains 25 identical geometric shapes with a colour code running through each line that seems both ordered and random at the same time. It demands attention and plays visual tricks but perfectly exemplifies the end of a process in which traditional has been meticulously transformed into contemporary. The artist has so mastered and understood the rules of geometry that she is now able to manoeuvre independently within the boundaries that those rules create. It is interesting to compare this development in geometry with the other 'Islamic' art of calligraphy. Hussain has essentially arrived at the kind of conclusion that has for some time, allowed contemporary calligraphers much greater freedom of stylistic interpretation.

Halima Cassell’s work in this show is representative of her wider sculptural practice so does not all directly reference geometric pattern. There are a range of objects in wood, stone and clay including a tall wooden totem evoking pregnancy. Although obviously linked to the subject, the phallic element of the structure dominates and this made it hard to take completely seriously. A number of small clay and smooth stone pieces suggest possibilities or ideas in progress rather than conclusions and this works perfectly in the context of the whole show. Both artists are working in residence at the gallery and there are concept and design sketches on the wall giving a sense of the process before the work reaches its final form.

What I love about Cassell’s work, however, is the incorporation of geometry into 3D sculptural forms and the remarkable way in which she can make clay give the impression of being wood. From a distance it is not apparent that a bowl-like sculpture with internal raised geometric patterns is carved from clay. Similarly a large round piece appears as if it could be made of wood.
Applying a carving technique commonly used on one material to another but with an outcome that fuses both, is a fascinating process in itself. These objects were definitely highlights for me and I also liked the more random pieces that could almost be found objects, especially the jagged chunks of wall with matching holes.

Hussain and Cassell approach the subject of geometry in very different mediums but both interpret their subject to connect across time and culture. Some of Cassell’s objects may appear to be modern and functional, but all they are made to contain is the beauty of their own design. Hussain’s paintings emerge through a contemporary creative prism and delicately reveal a fresh perception of this sublime and complex form.

Zarah Hussain

Halima Cassell

Mid Pennine Gallery


  1. "Mid-Pennines" sounds like a real estate agent's rebranding.....

    the art looks good though