Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Bansie Vasvani reviews Etel Adnan at Callicoon Fine Arts in New York City.
On the heels of Etel Adnan’s inclusion in Documenta 2012, and concurrent to her inclusion in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, the octogenarian painter, poet, and playwright’s solo exhibition at Callicoon Fine Arts in New York offers exhilarating insight into her abstract works dating back to the 1960s. Etel Adnan highlights the characterization of Adnan’s work as “a study in displacement and alienation.”[i] In fact, the Lebanese-born artist, who has lived in the Middle East, the United States, and France, and who is well versed in French, Turkish, Arabic, and English, has often referred to the inadequacy of language to express her thoughts, and to her use of abstract signs and symbols in her paintings to communicate her experiences.
Adnan’s accordion-folded painting Late Afternoon Poem (1968), displayed in a glass vitrine in the gallery, unfolds as an engrossing and highly emotive response to the Vietnam War. Her diluted pastel palette and evanescent watercolor brushstrokes appear aimless and fleeting, yet aptly evoke war’s pointless destruction and capture the impermanence of a place, time, and feeling. Late Afternoon Poem—inscribed with hand-painted verses such as “Why is a newsman caught in a crossfire while reporting something he does not care to know?”—lies compressed with unspoken and often inaccessible emotions.
The artist’s black-and-white symbols in an untitled work from 1973, which is also folded like an accordion, are the work of a semiotic virtuoso. Like the early 20th-century painter Joan Miró, Adnan’s biomorphic forms attain maximum intensity with minimum lines. For example, The Bay on the Bay (1986) is composed of signs and symbols that resemble doodles and squiggles. Yet her combination of color and stray shapes re-create the Northern Californian landscape and the glory of its mountains, water, and flora. Repeatedly, Adnan’s strange shapes and symbols are sentimental components tempered only by their technical acuity, richness, and originality.
For Adnan, place is paramount to her work. The unspeakable beauty of the Bay Area, and specifically the city of Sausalito where she lives, is captured in her block-like compositions. Two vibrant, untitled oil paintings from 2012 express the urban topography and light of the landscape through her exuberant application of pigments. Adnan stresses shapes and planar masses that often appear as painterly gestures and non-rectilinear structures. Through her eloquently minimalist configurations and inventive technique, Adnan fortifies her place as a master of abstraction.
Etel Adnan is on view at Callicoon Fine Arts through May 23, 2014.
Bansie Vasvani is an art historian and critic who lives in New York.
[i] The Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Volume 28, Number 4 (Winter 2003).