Art review: Diana Al-Hadid sculpture at Akron Art Museum

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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Diana Al-Hadid, Nollis Orders, 2012, steel, polymer gypsum, fiberglass, wood, foam and paint, 156 x 264 x 228 in., Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York �Diana Al-Hadid. (Joe Levack/Studio Akron)

It makes you think of that Trevi Fountain scene in La Dolce Vita or, oddly (and contrarily), of some of the photographs of Detroit’s worst decaying structures in Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled.

But Diana Al-Hadid’s Akron Art Museum installation, Nolli’s Orders, has little to do with either specifically, but everything to do with the evocations of each.

The title of the installation, on view through March 16, refers to the 18th-century architect Giambattista Nolli, whose map of Rome tried to create a contextual reference between the buildings, the sculptures and the surrounding landscape.

This iconographic 1783 map, originally titled the Pianta Grande di Roma and now known as the Nolli Map, consists of 12 copper plate engravings that measure 69 by 82 inches. It was ordered by Pope Benedict XIV to survey Rome in order to help create divisions for the 14 traditional districts.

While Al-Hadid’s work mingles landscape, architecture and the human form, how this sculpture relates to that map is difficult to see. And even the museum’s commentaries on the work avoid such comparison, saying only that it hovers “between architectural ruin and figurative sculpture.”

Indeed, the entire work seems to be simultaneously rising as a sculptural mass even as it’s falling into shambles.

She was born in 1981 in Aleppo, Syria, but Al-Hadid’s family moved to Canton when she was 5 years old. A 2003 graduate of Kent State University with a BA in art history and a BFA in sculpture, she earned her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. She lives and works in New York City.

Using a variety of inventive methods to construct and augment her work, Al-Hadid has said that she is “fascinated with boundaries — where something starts and stops, how we define a place … is it architectural, sculptural, experiential, etc.”

This tendency to question, even blur boundaries is almost the definition of baroque art, defined by the Encyclopaedia Brittanica as work that is “stylistically complex, even contradictory. In general, however, the desire to evoke emotional states by appealing to the senses, often in dramatic ways, underlies its manifestations. Some of the qualities most frequently associated with the Baroque are grandeur, sensuous richness, drama, vitality, movement, tension, emotional exuberance, and a tendency to blur distinctions between the various arts.”

Nolli’s Orders, created in 2012, measures 156 x 264 x 228 inches, and is constructed in steel, polymer, gypsum, fiberglass, wood, foam and paint.

Starting with a solid, gridlike base made up of rectangular pedestals, it builds into a loosely pyramidal form that incorporates figures from Northern Renaissance and Mannerist paintings, with cloud elements and veils of cascading water disguising the underlying grid of supports.

An enlightening video clip on the museum’s website of Al-Hadid’s studio and working methods features this work, and shows it being taken apart for shipping, but not how it’s put together. In the gallery, however, it’s easier to see how it’s anchored to that boxlike grid and builds from there.

The installation is accompanied by three untitled paintings by Al-Hadid that seem to be based on iconic images from art history, especially the history of photography (recall Alfred Stieglitz’s notable Winter, Fifth Avenue, 1892).

“She’s very interested in Northern Renaissance painting, said Ellen Rudolph, AAM senior curator, who supervised the installation of the exhibit. “Especially Jan van Eyck, whose landscapes become almost secondary to the central figures.”

Those who have seen the Ghent Altarpiece and the van Eyck brothers’ contributions to certain illuminated manuscripts might disagree about the secondary nature of their landscapes. However, if the point is about Northern Renaissance landscapes before, say, the first quarter of the 15th century, then it’s well placed.

The work itself, though, is Italian Baroque all the way, with even a tip of the toe into the fountains of fripperies and furbelows of the Rococo. Note the almost pastel tints to the cloud shapes that insistently refer the viewer to those puffy, spun-sugar clouds in Rococo ceiling paintings.

Indeed, her work seems almost to float above the gallery floor, defying gravity through some alchemical wizardry and her ability to keep the work nearly transparent through the creation of lightweight shells that give the illusion of being fully formed objects.

“She always talks about not starting out with a specific purpose or idea but using the materials to explore what’s exciting to her,” said Rudolph.

“It really is an open narrative with a sense of decay and destruction, with worn surfaces and plaster on the figures that exhibit signs of age and erosion. It looks ancient and worn away, but it was created in 2002.

“She says she’s not trying to depict destruction or the materials of destruction, but she does get very rough with the materials, so some of that may be what we’re sensing,” Rudolph said.

Then she added: “For all of the roughness and irregularities, I think it’s an incredibly elegant structure overall.”

And it looks incredible from the street at night, when the only lights in the museum are those shining on Nolli’s Orders.

The museum has planned several events in conjunction with this work, including:

• Jan. 30 — Elisha Ann Dumser, University of Akron assistant professor of art history, gives a 6:30 p.m. Art History 101 talk, Diana Al-Hadid’s Art Historical Roots.

• Feb. 13 — Rudolph gives a 6:30 p.m. Art History 101 talk, Diana Al-Hadid and Contemporary Sculpture.

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or

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