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Zarah Hussain | Grids and Sub-Grids

Hopstreet Gallery, Brussels, 11 November – 21 December 2018

A review by Tony Blackmore

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Installation view. Image courtesy of Hopstreet Gallery

‘Grids and Sub-Grids’ is an exhibition of 12 wall-based artworks and a time-based light installation Invisible Threads by London-based artist Zarah Hussain. All the reliefs are strongly geometric in form: each is created from a number of identical cast resin pieces residing on a gesso plaster base. Over the surface of each Hussain has painted bold blocks or frameworks of colour against a zinc white background.  With the exception of Invisible Threads, shown in an adjoining side room, Grids and Sub-Grids can be seen in its entirety with one 360-degree turn.

Created according to the structural principles of Islamic geometry, using a pair of compasses and a straight edge, each cast piece and surface colour pattern is skilfully and perfectly proportioned. The artworks appear to unfold through the dimensions with lines and planes emerging from a central point. The planes, an array of triangular surfaces, form various solid tetrahedrons that appear to radiate outwards from the centre to the outer edge, and reflect back into the centre. The structural principles give rise to three principal polygons that are repeated across the works: the triangle, the hexagon and the square. In each work, the edge of the gesso plaster base is aligned to the outer boundary of the overall composite form, giving a sense of an enclosed domain with multiple configurations of internal forms.  These configurations are produced by the repetition, reflection and inter-relatedness of these three shapes.  The surface patterns, with their hard edges, provide each work with an additional structural device. In viewing this exhibition, the most captivating element is the dual aspect of these shapes, both in a mathematical and literal sense, together with their surface patterns.

Water, 2018. 42 pieces of cast resin, gesso plaster, paint, varnish, 85 x 85 x 12 cm. Image courtesy of Hopstreet Gallery

Water (85 x 85 x 12 cm) is one of the two larger reliefs. It is composed of 42 identical rhomboid forms with a triangular painted repeat pattern. This pattern radiates from turquoise at its central point, graduating to cyan blue, and to an ultramarine blue on the outer edge.  This pattern unites the composition, creating changing visions of rhomboids that create larger rhomboids, together with hexagons and 12- and 18-pointed stars.  

Water is the only artwork where gloss varnish, as apposed to matte, has been applied and so, like water, light is reflected from its surface. The overall effect is that of a harmonic crystalline form, suggesting the journey from water to snowflake, and reflecting the mathematical processes that underlie the atomic and molecular levels of creation.

Although not immediately obvious, Dynamic Square Series I to IV (84 x 84 x 7cm) also suggests the principal structures and processes that exist at the very heart of matter. Each square is created from 36 identical regular tetrahedrons arranged in a six by six configuration that has been rotated at a 45-degree angle, adding movement and making each appear larger than life.

Dynamic Square Series I. 36 pieces of cast resin, gesso plaster, paint, varnish, 84 x 84 x 7 cm.  Image courtesy of Hopstreet Gallery

Dynamic Square may also refer to the dynamic symmetry of Islamic geometry: a way of dividing space to create a specific relationship between its parts and its whole. This division of space is provided by the movement of the surface colour graduations within each Dynamic Square. In Dynamic Square Series I the colours graduate in rows, emanating from the central horizontal axis. In Dynamic Square Series II colours radiate from the central vertical axis, and in Dynamic Square Series III they radiate in concentric squares from the centre.  Respectively, these movements of colour appear to visually expand each work vertically, horizontally and from the heart. In its spatial relationship with the viewer, this has the effect of humanising each work.

Dynamic Square Series II, III and IV. Each 36 pieces of cast resin, gesso plaster, paint, varnish, 84 x 84 x 7 cm.  Image courtesy of Hopstreet Gallery.

The surface pattern of Dynamic Square Series IV comprises equilateral triangles painted from the apex to the base on all four sides of each tetrahedron.  These create three horizontal bands, each with the same four graduating shades of green. The effect is evocative of plant life and of light sifting through leaves.  This effect is particularly evident when viewing the work from an oblique angle, which causes the pattern to fragment and scatter. Chlorophyll is the green pigment responsible for most plants’ light-harvesting; its colour indicates the absorption of the non-green wavelengths of light’s colour spectrum. The colours of these wavelengths are the energising reds and yellows present in I and II and in the cold blues of III.  

Plant life, and the structural principles of geometry, are also alluded to in the title of Root Series I and II (54.5 x 54.5 x 7 cm). Each is composed of 16 pieces of cast resin in the form of a three-sided pyramid with a base in the shape of an isosceles triangle. In these two artworks one can see squares nesting dynamically from one square to the next, giving rise to a harmonic ratio of 2 (root 2).

Root 2 Series I and II, 2018. Each 16 pieces of cast resin, gesso plaster, paint, varnish, 54.5 x 54.5 x 7 cm.  Images courtesy of Hopstreet Gallery

On the surface of Root Series I, Hussain has painted a linear framework with a lighter green near its centre, graduating to emerald green, dark green and a dark teal at the outer edge.  A kaleidoscopic effect is created here;  lines are reflected and repeated from apex to baseline, compelling the eye to follow the framework in a myriad of shapes over the folded surface.

This kaleidoscopic effect is also seen in Root Series II. Here, rectilinear blocks of green have been painted on the face of each individual piece, with one corner joining the next at the baseline. So effective is the completely matte, flat surface that it is hard to see whether the same nominal colour has been painted on each, or whether shadow is altering the hue.

What makes the all the work so engaging is that the painted and cast forms are simultaneously simple and complex in their arrangements. Simple physical forms and their organisation can describe essentially, and not literally, very different phenomena. This is exemplified in the Hexagon Series (38 x 34 x 7 cm), the smallest works in the exhibition.

Hexagon Series I, 2018. 18 pieces of cast resin, gesso plaster, paint, varnish, 38 x 33 x 7 cm. Images courtesy of Hopstreet Gallery

Graphically, the hexagon is the shape produced by equal divisions of the circumference of a circle to form a flower-like pattern, each division joined with a straight line.  In each of the Hexagon works an external hexagon contains an internal hexagon set at a 30-degree angle. Hussain has extrapolated this graphic form into three dimensions by creating 18 pyramids with a characteristic kite-shaped base. How we then perceive each individual unit and the overall form, together with the duelling triangle and hexagon forms from which they emerge, is influenced by the surface pattern.

In Hexagon Series I, by painting the two longer sides of each pyramid with a bright fluorescent scarlet. an internal six-pointed star flanked by white hexagons has been created.  Hexagon Series II has the two shorter sides of each pyramid painted in teal, giving the opposite effect of an internal white hexagon surrounded by the points of a six-pointed star which itself itself is bounded by an outer hexagonal boundary.

In Hexagon Series III and IV the baselines are white with the outer edges coloured. In both, the coloured patterning simultaneously radiates from centre to circumference and back again while also dancing around the edge. When each Hexagon is viewed from the side the form evolves, becoming more crystalline and flower-like.

Hexagon Series II, 2018. 18 pieces of cast resin, gesso plaster, paint, varnish, 38 x 33 x 7 cm. Images courtesy of Hopstreet Gallery.

With these smaller monochromatic works, the eye is drawn to the white, which as in all these pieces, is not negative or void; it is the colour that best accentuates the form. Traces of the processes involved are visible, providing a human and emotional connection to the artworks.  

The title of Super Sonic Star (85 x 85 x 12 cm) is another reminder that cosmology is the all-encompassing discipline that studies the universe as a whole, encompassing everything from the geometry of the planets and their orbits and revolutions, to the minutiae of our lives. Super Sonic Star is created from 42 pieces of cast pyramids, each with a rhomboid base. Reducing the principal forms to the triangle, hexagon and square brings a purity that reflects the essential relationships beneath the surface of our world.  Hussain’s focus on the relationship between form and surface can be read as reflecting cosmological or biological rhythms onto which we prescribe everyday life. It is in Super Sonic Star that this relationship is most apparent.  Twin lines of ultramarine blue and fluorescent red appear to arise from each of the seven central points, stretching lengthways over two adjoining sides before disappearing into another central point. This, to me, mimics a human activity: a sewing motion. And it is this motion that that I can relate to the time-based light installation Invisible Threads.

Super Sonic Star, 2014. 42 pieces of cast resin, gesso plaster, paint, varnish, 85 x 85 x 12 cm. Image courtesy of Hopstreet Gallery.

Invisible Threads, 220 x 225cm, is an installation of 54 rhomboid-shaped light boxes arranged in a pattern of six pointed stars, first installed at the Silk Museum in Macclesfield. Its title refers to the ‘invisible threads’ linking Hussain’s family’s Indian heritage to Macclesfield’s silk industry.

There is a constant flow and graduation of coloured light, radiating outwards from the centre of the composition and travelling through the rhomboids to the outer edge, creating a highly immersive experience. I am aware that the colour, intensity and motion of the light is created from the interaction of four different algorithms. Consequently, it would take longer than the duration of the exhibition for the lighting sequence to repeat itself. The overall effect is that the viewer becomes entranced; blissfully unaware of the passage of time. Invisible Threads, with its light colours calmly changing, its brightness ever-so-slightly pulsating and its illumination extending and filling the space, hypnotises and slowly draws the viewer in.

Installation view of Invisible Threads. Image courtesy of Hopstreet Gallery.

Although light is alluded to both in the Dynamic Square Series and in Super Sonic Star, it is in Invisible Threads that we experience its spiritual and physical dimensions.  Beholden to the receptors in our eyes, we adapt our responses to colour and illumination in the temporal and spatial context.  When immersed in this environment there is no reliable objective way in which the viewer can identify or name the colours as they really are; one can only succumb to them. There are beautiful transitions of saturated colours  -  from violets to hot pinks, deep red to azure blues, lime green to sea green and a spectrum of colours in between. On leaving Invisible Threads I am literally seeing stars.

Hussain’s training and knowledge of the structural principles of Islamic geometry provides the platform on which her intuitive insights are based.  Both colour and form have been subjected to the discipline of geometry, ordered into an infinite variety of lines, triangles, hexagons and squares.  With all the artwork in the exhibition, there is a sense of emergence, whereby each whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The multiplicity of the forms created by the internal shapes reflecting, repeating and duelling with one another, and their relationship with the surface patterning, provide endless fascination, and give each artwork a sense of oneness and unity with no beginning and no end.

Grids and Sub-Grids exhibition link