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ART REVIEW

Into a new dimension

At Otis, Shahzia Sikander spins tradition in original ways.

November 03, 2005|Christopher Miles | Special to The Times

A sphere rendered in a flat, pictographic style dominates the screen in artist Shahzia Sikander's seven-minute animated video, "Pursuit Curve." Assumptions of scale vary, and it's unclear whether the orb represents a world, a bush, a flower, a clump of cells or perhaps a molecule or atom.

Equally uncertain, as the video unfolds at Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design, is whether the interlocking shapes covering the orb's surface might be understood as tectonic plates, leaves, petals, scales, multiplying cells or subatomic particles. They vibrate and ripple, suggesting the wings of insects coating the surface of a hive. The shapes become more active, break free and begin to orbit the mass as a humming soundtrack ramps up. Is it a swarm? Big bang? Loose electrons? Conception?

One thing becomes clear: The pulsing, whirling shapes are in fact turban-like hats, akin to those donned by figures in the Persian and Indian miniatures that inspire Sikander.

The sequence is exemplary of the dynamism, playfulness, attention to detail and extension of tradition that defines the New York-based Pakistani artist's work and this rewarding first solo show in Los Angeles.

Drifting on through the animation, one sees men clustered on a hillside, rock formations that bristle with energy as if still forming, flower shapes that burst open like skyrockets, the dome of a hill (or perhaps the curvature of the Earth) dotted with trees, and a landscape embedded with hats. The animation has less the feel of cartoons in which frame-by-fame drawings are sequenced to create the illusion of movement than a kind of montage, or moving collage, of singular still images, drawn and painted, then digitally cut and pasted together. The images seem to slide around and atop one another, reinforcing their flat origins. That's not surprising, given that the artist's training -- and her now-international reputation -- are in painting.

Sikander was born in 1969 in Lahore, near the border with India's Punjab region. She studied painting at the National College of Arts in Lahore. Though considered outmoded, relegated to the souvenir trade, the tradition of miniature painting captivated her and she trained in its intricacies. The craft evident in her works reveals a reverence for the tradition, although she departed from its conventions in the mid-1990s while a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design. Her works borrow and freely mix the imagery and styles linked to Hindu, Persian, Muslim and Indian miniatures, and they frequently involve Western and modern references.

The Otis show, which includes two animations, a mural, and works in ink and gouache on paper, includes true miniatures as well as pieces that stretch to heroic scale. With links to precedents that include the flat, heavily lined imagery of Buddhist, Hindu and early Muslim text illuminations; the looser, more gestural Mithila village style of painting; and the Kangra style, noted for its embellishment of architecture and more naturalistic figuration, Sikander offers a sampling of history and culture while resolving all into a surprisingly cohesive visual language of her own.

Hairdos, often disembodied, and hats with or without heads beneath them, proliferate in her works, extensions perhaps of the identity, status and psyche of her characters into the world they inhabit. In the second animation piece, a meditation on representations of the angelic, the stylized coifs of a whole harem become disembodied and fly like an air force of blackbirds or dark angels in a formation of concentric circles. One of the show's smallest works, a painting titled "Turb-in-motion," shows a turban-topped man amid a whirl of the iconic headdresses.

Several small works on paper called "Land-Escapes" reveal the artist's penchant for painting landscapes devoid of humans. Combining lyrical line work with broad strokes of washes, these images, occasionally populated by animals, simultaneously imply specificity and generality. Each packs what seems to be the whole world -- some actually show the landscape floating in space -- into a representation of an isolated swatch of earth, water and sky.

Landscape gives way to a more ethereal pictorial space and a carnival of all manner of life in the exhibition's larger works on paper. Here figures dance, intertwine and flow with the curves of effortless calligraphy. Some of these larger paintings deal in a frank but playful eroticism -- an image of a woman riding on the back of a giant rooster -- and a kind of awesome brutality -- a cascading food chain in which creatures consume and morph into one another.

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