Ways of Marking – Mohammed Kazem at Aicon Gallery in New York City

by Siba Kumar Das

Located on a quiet street slowly stirring into economic life after years in the doldrums, Aicon Gallery has taken on a task that surely would have pleased Andre Malraux. Novelist, art theorist, Minister of Culture under Charles de Gaulle, Malraux said half a century ago, “In our imaginary museum [that is, the world of art] the great art of Europe is but one great art among others …” Located on the Western edge of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in Great Jones Street, Aicon is promoting modern and contemporary non-Western art with an emphasis on South Asia. While it is doing this at a time when a global approach to art is a growing reality, its strategic goal remains supremely necessary. Knowledge and appreciation of modernist and contemporary art outside Europe and North America is even today but an infant phenomenon.

Take the case of Minimalism. A 2016 Aicon show on Minimalism in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa caught the eye of Holland Cotter of The New York Times, who said in a review that this exhibition, together with a Metropolitan Museum survey of work by Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi, had brought home to New Yorkers that a Minimalist strain was a substantial feature of contemporary art in South Asia. Cotter also noted that two Middle Eastern artists included in the Aicon exhibition were featured in a New York Guggenheim Museum group show But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa. One of them, Mohammed Kazem of the United Arab Emirates, is again the subject of an Aicon exhibition – a topic to which I’ll turn shortly.

Cotter also referenced the inclusion in the Aicon show of Pakistani-British artist Rasheed Araeen whom he saw as an “exemplary senior figure … who is still going strong in his 80s.” The previous year Aicon had put up a solo show devoted to Araeen. In a review at that time, Cotter noted this: “In the early 1960s he [Araeen] developed a version of what would come to be called Minimalism before its introduction in New York by Donald Judd and others.”

Notwithstanding this advocacy, a recent show in New York recapitulating and analyzing Minimalism’s long history from the 1960s to today – the Mnuchin Gallery’s Minimalism and Beyond (September 13-October 18, 2017) – included not one non-Western artist save for On Kawara. In a major new study, A Theory of Minimalism, published in 2017, Marc Botha of Durham University, U.K., and the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, drew up a canonical list of Minimalist artists. With the notable exception of Ai Weiwei, he did not include a single non-Western artist, not even Araeen.

That Aicon Gallery is carrying out a much-needed mission no one could possibly doubt. And so it is greatly to be welcomed that it is following-up its 2016 Minimalism show by a solo show featuring selected works from the oeuvre of Mohammed Kazem. Ways of Marking (January 18-February 24, 2018), curated by Murtaza Vali, a critic and curator who divides his time between Brooklyn and Sharjah, concentrates on one strand – a primarily Minimalist strand – of Kazem’s artistic practice. Kazem’s still-evolving oeuvre spans multiple things: mark-making on paper, conceptual and performance art, photography, video art, etc. The current exhibition showcases a selection of his works on paper – artistic outcomes embodying a subtle lyricism and an allusiveness that is quite mysterious. Back in 1964, iconic Minimalist Frank Stella famously said of his own paintings, “What you see is what you see.” Kazem, born in a region at a crossroads of history and inheritor and acquirer of multiple cultures, is a different kind of Minimalist. He makes paper images that transport you beyond his marks.

When still a youthful artist and yearning to transcend the boundaries of oil painting, especially the thick short brushstrokes he was then applying to canvas, Kazem began to experiment in 1990 with creating forms and patterns on paper by methodically scratching it with the point and edge of a scissor. To this day he is developing this technique, which enables him to make art in a meditative way that recognizes the artist’s hand. By combining scratches resembling a line with parallel and crisscrossing strokes similar to shading and hatching, he produces effects similar to those emanating from metalpoint drawing. He has so mastered this technique, he makes today art that is so subtle, so suggestive, so liminal you cross a threshold as you look at it intently. To do it justice, you must gaze at his work and not pass it by after a brief glance. The celebrated Middle Eastern artist Mona Hatoum recently said she “likes her art to offer a physical experience in the first instance and then certain thoughts … almost as an afterthought.” She might as well have been thinking about Kazem’s work.

Let’s start a concrete look at Kazem’s scratch mark oeuvre by gazing at his 2013 piece Sound of Angles, a set of six drawings comprising scratches on paper. His friend and mentor for more than three decades, Hassan Sharif, questioned early on what curator Reem Fadda calls “the spread of calligraphic abstraction in its most simplistic forms within the Arab world” as an Arab response to Western modernism. Brice Marden riffed on Chinese calligraphy in Minimalist vein. You could say that Kazem riffs on Arabic calligraphy even more infinitesimally. By moving closer to zero or nothingness, he is, paradoxically, creating space for a profound experience akin to epiphany. He transcends by far the simplistic aesthetic that Sharif derided.

See now Kazem’s Acrylic on Scratched Paper (Copper), which he made in 2008. Does it make you think of a desert landscape of the sort you find in his country? Of course, it does. But think also of the nearly imperceptible superimposition he has added to the landscape, which was starkly beautiful to begin with. By carrying out this addition so minimally you can barely discern it, Kazem makes evocative an image that integrates the riffing discussed above with a color sensibility honed by millennia of life and art in his native region. Andre Malraux said art’s purpose is not to represent reality, but to transform it. Think of this and look afresh at Kazem’s work.

A similar piece Kazem made in 2008, Acrylic on Scratched Paper (Gold), seemingly depicting a gilded desert scene with undulating rivulets radiating from a crater-like geographical feature, throws additional light on his art. It makes you think of Roni Horn’s Gold Field (1980-82), which was part of a solo show in 1990 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. As recounted by Pac Pobric in a catalog essay accompanying the previously discussed Mnuchin Gallery show, when fellow Minimalist Felix Gonzalez-Torres saw it the first time on a visit to the show, he said, “It didn’t need company, it didn’t need anything.” In discussing her own work, a rectangular sheet of compressed gold lying on the floor in an otherwise empty gallery, Horn said, “I wanted to put the gold out there, self-sufficient, purified to the fullness of what it is and laid out on the floor – not as an accompaniment to some other idea, but just in itself.” Gonzalez-Torres’s initial reaction was entirely in accord with Horn’s intent. But then he went on to have an epiphany, as Pobric says. What ensued was a deeply lyrical response to Horn’s golden sculpture. He saw it as this: “A new landscape, a possible horizon, a place of rest and absolute beauty. Waiting for the right viewer willing and needing to be moved to a place of the imagination.” That’s exactly the kind of place to which Kazem takes you with his field of gold.

Let’s look now at Kazem’s Receiving Light III (2016), which consists of scratches on an inkjet print on Hahnemuhle paper. The print depicts a geometrically reductive scene extracted photographically from built and natural surroundings lit by sunlight. The artist’s scratches have the effect of de-familiarizing and rendering evocatively strange this day-to-day scene – so much so the shadows resulting from the scratches allude to the passage of time even as you, the beholder, look at an underlining photographic arrest of light and time. The magic Kazem creates is spellbinding because you contribute to it. The two of you together create a transformative experience. The great Minimalist painter John McLaughlin wrote to Jules Langsner, art critic and psychiatrist, in 1959: “ ‘Art’ then is not in the canvas but in the mind of the beholder.” This was a great insight but McLaughlin was not totally right. We need both the canvas and the beholder.

Kazem’s scratch art not only alludes to the passage of time; it also recreates in the beholder’s mind a sense of the sounds that arose from the scratches being made. The art has a synesthetic quality. Kazem studied painting at the Emirates Fine Art Society in Sharjah and, more recently, took a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA. But it is also important to note that he is a trained musician who continues to sing and perform the oud privately.

If you apply your mind attentively to the five paintings displayed in the Aicon Gallery show with the common title Soundless, you will find in them, too, the working of a musical sensibility. Composed of thousands of tiny pastel scribbles overlaid with washes of acrylic paint or ink or both, the top parts of these works have reminded beholders of Mark Rothko’s color fields. But the resemblance to the great Abstract Expressionist has another dimension. Christopher Rothko says in his 2015 biography of his father that Rothko Sr. was not only a ‘philosopher who painted’ but also a ‘painter who aspired to be a musician.’ Their title notwithstanding, the Soundless pieces sing out as you look at them. Look at Soundless I and absorb the effects evoked by the painting’s different densities and hues of magenta and by the allusive lyrical beauty of the flows in the bottom part.

Marc Botha reminds us: “The most radical minimalist works seek to eschew all external and mimetic reference.” No illusiveness therefore – but going beyond this, no allusiveness is possible either. Yet, as early as 1966, as Pac Pobric tells us, Rosalind Krauss argued persuasively that, despite Donald Judd’s stated intentions, this iconic radical Minimalist created art objects that were both illusive and allusive. And years later she recalled Judd’s work as having “beauty” and “strength” and unsuccessful in abandoning “meaning.” Mohammed Kazem says, “My work has two aspects – objectivity and subjectivity.” His mark making on paper creates art objects that draw attention to their own presence. In that sense, they are self-referential. But they also embody and draw attention to the processes that bring them into being, and it is indeed striking in this context that Kazem says he gets new artistic ideas not from some preceding inspiration but through the physical act of art making. His paper creations are beautiful and allusive, and the Aicon Gallery show brings home to us that they are not merely objects in themselves – they are expressive in a transcendent way. Minimalism is alive and well in the world at large and the artists practicing this style in non-Western regions are confirming to us something that Minimalists like Agnes Martin and Anne Truitt knew very well. In making art, “meaning” cannot be abandoned.