Selections delves into the rich world of detail, meeting 10 artists whose work depends on paying careful attention to the little things
From the delicacy of the miniature paintings prized by rulers from India, to Iran, to Turkey, to the intricate patterns of Islamic art, to the complex tableaux captured by early Flemish painters like Hieronymus Bosch, detail has played a crucial role in art across cultures and eras. Selections meets ten contemporary artists whose work is built upon painstaking attention to detail, exploring the diverse practices they use to transform the smallest of things into the most important.
Ashville-based designer, architect and painter Randy Shull, British graphic artist and jewellery designer Emma Parker and South African artist Jonathan Freemantle discuss the importance of detail across diverse disciplines.
In the context of his latest solo show, Idea of Landscape, at ROPAC in Paris, Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi explains how his delicate miniatures drawings explore landscapes in the context of post-9/11 violence.
Beijing-based artist Ye Hongxing uses hundreds of tiny pop-culture stickers to create colourful tableaux, which she describes as expressions of a state of mind or frozen moments of thought. Her compositions reflect on the rapid changes taking place in China and the cultural collision between East and West.
Ibrahim El Dessouki’s time-consuming paintings and charcoal drawings capture day-to-day life in his native Egypt. Taking up to a month to complete, his works are studies in patience, demonstrating painstaking attention to each and every line.
Saudi Arabian artist Sara Al Abdali tells the story of how she went from being one of the first graffiti artists in Jeddah, to an expert in traditional Islamic arts, creating delicate plaster carvings and intricate miniature paintings exploring contemporary themes in a traditional format.
Working in multiple media, including painting and photography, Syrian artist Khaldoun Chichakli celebrates the beauty of vanishing Levantine heritage, under threat from rampant development.
Iranian-American artist Novin Kasmai explains how her colourful paintings of the New York skyline express her complex feelings about the city, in which excitement is readily available but everyone remains ultimately alone.
Finally, Mohammed Orabi explains how the conflict in his native Syria and birth of his daughter changed his outlook and his artwork, imbuing it both with mourning for the ongoing violence and hope for a brighter future. All these complexities are capturing in his characters’ expressive eyes.
Devil in the Detail
by Daniel Scheffler
It’s universally acknowledged that the small things can be as important as the big ones. Three detail-oriented artists from very different disciplines tell Selections why the little touches can be the most important
In centuries past, the expression “God dwells in the details” was a ubiquitous reminder that close attention would be rewarded. Later, it was often changed to “the devil is in the details,” serving as a starker warning not to overlook the small things that might make the difference between success and failure.
The original expression speaks to the merits of doing something of worth, as author Maritz Vandenburg reiterates throughout his explanations of the work of German-born architect Ludwig van der Rohe, to whom the expression was attributed by The New York Times. An early version of the expression — “Le bon Dieu est dans le detail” — was coined by French writer Gustave Flaubert. But it is the pejorative word “devil” that seems to dominate contemporary usage of the phrase, signaling the difficult nature of work well done.
“Details are components that make transitions from surface to material extremely important,” said Ashville-based Randy Shull. “Or maybe it’s when materials change with some kind of transitional device that illustrates that change in scale and surface.”
Shull, whose work includes furniture design, architecture, painting and landscaping, is currently working on designing a new space for the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Centre in downtown Asheville. “I think the art world is in fact the detail of how we live our lives,” he says. “It’s both the person executing the detail and the one taking the time to appreciate it.”
For Emma Parker, a graphic artist based in London and owner of Alexandra Jewellery, details are simply “the finishing touch” that can either repel or attract people. “Elsa Schiaparelli commissioned her artist friends to decorate the buttons for her couture gowns and believed that there was immense beauty in such minute detail,” she says, adding that that some artists use it to achieve the opposite effect — to unsettle. “I remember seeing Ron Mueck’s Dead Dad,” she recalls, “a perfect miniature of his late father, and being transfixed by the individual hairs implanted into his lifeless legs.”
Jonathan Freemantle, an artist based between Edinburgh and Cape Town, sees detail as connoting a kind of refinement. “In the same sense that a Zen master who has painted the same view of Mount Fuji all his life, or Cezanne with his Mont St Victoire and Giorgio Morandi with his small collection of humble objects, painted and repainted and constantly returned to with a kind of singularity — this is the kind of refinement that comes with the knowledge that perfection — detail, if you like — isn’t so much about a final polish, or the outside appearance, but a kind of refinement and immersion into the subject so that only the most important details remain.”
Details have a very unique, and poignant, way of infiltrating the work of the artist. Shull, for instance, says that he works hard to make sure the “details have a relationship to the overall gestalt of the project,” whereas Parker tries to “economise on detail without losing the meaning of my work — this includes subplots in my drawings that intrigue, and hopefully make people smile.”
For Freemantle, making artwork starts from the moment of waking. “Each moment is connected and in preparation,” he says. “And at the moment of crisis when everything is screaming to give up or abandon the work, this pursuit of ‘detail’ is the scintilla that sparks me to push me that little bit further into the unknown.”
Whatever the history of the expression, the changing force evoked to lend it power indicates a shift in attitude, from a sense that hard work and attention to detail would be rewarded, to an awareness that to dwell too deeply on the minutiae risks losing sight of the bigger picture. When it comes down to art, however, artists across multiple disciplines can attest to the fact that the importance of detail cannot be underestimated.
A History of Violence
by Rajesh Punj
Imran Qureshi’s miniatures explored landscapes scarred by conflict at ROPAC
Imran Qureshi is at a point now where he possibly spends much more of his time hovering just above the clouds than he does rooted to earth. Softly spoken and looking exhausted for all of the accumulated air miles under his belt, Qureshi is fundamentally a very honest and well-intentioned artist, who still has trouble comprehending his own success.
For his inaugural solo show at ROPAC, Paris, which comes off the back of two major 2014 site-specific commissions — And They Still Seek the Trace of Blood at the Bibliothéque Ste-Geneviève, for which Parisians were invited to queue to enter the academic enclave well into the night; and Two Loves at Quai d’Austerlitz — Qureshi drew together a body of miniatures that deal with landscape as a battleground for a new kind of emotional aesthetic. He describes these works as “either including the human body or those that have the aura of his body present.”
Idea of Landscape, which ran from September 12 to October 17, read as an entirely two-dimensional show, consisting of sizable canvasses and delicate drawings. The decision to deliver Qureshi’s show in September ensured a great deal of autumnal light, which flooded the impressive central space and illuminated the artist’s canvasses, pacifying the inherent drama of some of Qureshi’s canvasses.
The exhibition became an emotional wrestling match between the head and the heart, as viewers were left to assess whether Qureshi had succeeded in retaining the power of his original approach, or whether his works had become entirely decorative.
Tormented by the invasiveness of violence, Qureshi explains that “the idea of landscape has changed since 9/11, because the land, which is full of life and of nature, is in a second transformed into a bloody mass of landscape. And it’s quite a disturbing thing, because when we think of a landscape painter we have very peaceful images in our mind, but here it is something else. It is a different kind of landscape, which is more about the reality of the situation.”
His new works certainly merits attention, but it is as interesting to purvey the artist’s sudden and vertiginous rise to fame. Qureshi fondly describes the turning point as his Sharjah Biennial commission in 2011, for which he decorated the courtyard of the Beit Al Serkal building with the work Blessings Upon the Land of My Love. The artist’s signature style of layering beauty over violence was heralded in the work, which won the year’s biennial award. This recognition was topped when he was named Deutsche Bank’s artist of the year in 2013, which in turn led to a whole series of high profile shows in less than twelve months.
Qureshi’s ROPAC works displayed lashings of creative spirit, reeled in by pockets of miniature detail that appear to anchor his work, and give it its cultural currency. As reluctant as Qureshi originally was to take on miniature painting, it has proved the making of the man, and the merit of his new show.
Beauty Through Complexity
by Valerie Reinhold
Beijing-based artist Ye Hongxing uses tiny stickers to create complex works that reflect on China’s swiftly changing culture and society
I never thought I would hang Hello Kitty in my living room. And still, there it is, together with toy cars and even Pokemon cards. Thousands of these little stickers are meticulously combined on the canvas by Ye Hongxing to create phantasmagoric, kaleidoscopic scenes. Each little piece tells its own particular visual story up close, but from the distance the stickers come together to form a cohesive whole. Individually they are playful, delicate, funny. As a whole, and through their juxtaposition, they raise questions about what culture is truly about.
Hongxing likes the density that the small “fragments of materials,” as she calls them, give to the piece. She is also interested in challenging traditional and conventional mediums and in creating new visual experiences. Hongxing describes her work as an expression of a state of mind — every symbol is like a frozen moment of thought. Together, these thought fragments form a record of a certain mood. And that’s when a state of mind is naturally presented on the canvas. All the images are common symbols found in daily life everywhere. She uses them in the hope of communicating with audience spiritually, and likes to leave space for imagination and interpretation.
Based in Beijing, Hongxing responds not only to the culture that she sees changing around her, but the environment as well. Reflecting upon the increasingly worrying levels of pollution in China, The Secret Garden series of stickers on canvas contrasts heavy-duty modern gas masks with traditional Asian imagery, such as wooden pavilions, birds, butterflies and classic Asian imagery.
Hongxing describes her work as “a reaction to the swift change of China’s social system,” focusing on fusion and a sense of confusion as visuals battle for supremacy on her canvasses. “The rapid changes that are happening in China have a very profound impact on me, sometimes exciting, and sometimes contradictory and confusing,” she explains. “China, after all, has a unique history and 5000 years of civilization, which often makes the collision of Eastern and Western cultural ideas seem more intense. My works are usually filled with ambivalence and uncertainty, instability, chaos, crowding, overlapping. Inserting symbols and figures that are of different times and spaces is a reflection of current mentalities.”
Hongxing makes us wander in her fantastic world. By incorporating both realism and the visionary in her compositions, the artist achieves beauty through complexity.
by India Stoughton
Painter and draftsman Ibrahim El Dessouki captures the mood on Cairo’s streets in his meticulous, time-consuming pieces
A heap of newspapers is captured in all its intricate detail on Ibrahim El Dessouki’s canvas, picked out with meticulous brushstrokes in layer upon layer of delicate oil paint. The breathtaking detail of the piece didn’t come easily — the Egyptian artist spends up to a month working on each of his paintings.
“My work is very related to what is happening in Egypt,” El Dessouki explains. “I try to paint reflections on my time. I painted newspapers in a period in 2004 when everybody was expecting a change and trying to find it between the lines in the newspapers. We had a routine during that period. We’d go out after midnight every night to buy the next morning’s newspapers, expecting a change, expecting something new to happen. So I painted stacks of newspapers, reflecting the reality of what was happening in Egypt, when everyone was expecting a change that never came.”
El Dessouki has a laborious working process, building up layers of paint — some opaque, others translucent — only to scratch away at them with the blade of a razor or knife, and then paint over them once again. The time he lavishes on each canvas means that his work is in short supply. “In a year I do 12 or 13 paintings,” he says. “In a career of 25 years I’ve only done two solo shows, because usually I show two or three pieces in a group show.”
Forming a sort of visual diary of life in Egypt, his paintings capture everything from desert landscapes, to pastoral views of the Nile, to the sunlight shining through the spectacular columns of the Temple of Luxor. A recurring subject is women. In his portraits, El Dessouki abandons his meticulous realism to paint figures lost in thought, their eyes pools of darkness.
“You have to look back at the Egyptian legacy of painting women,” he says, “from the Pharaonic era, to the Coptic era, where there are very famous portraits of women called the Fayum portraits, which they did in the coffins of everyone who died. We have a long history of doing portraits. I studied the work of Western portraiture and was especially impressed by Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon. But I have a tendency not to sympathise with the model. I don’t do eyes, which is the part which reflects all of the personality. I just paint the model in a very neutral way.”
Currently, the artist is working on a series exploring life in Egypt since the 2011 revolution. “I had the idea years ago, when the revolution began, but I was too connected to the revolution,” he says. “When I started them in 2011 I started with a very positive and cheerful approach. I think the way I am doing them now is very nocturnal. It’s very dark, and it has very complicated details that somehow reveal how bad things are in Egypt… We’ve been living what happened for three years, so it’s gone from being on par with our expectations to where we just wish that things would return to how they used to be before the revolution. It’s a little bit dark, a little bit pessimistic, but this is the way things are now.”
by India Stoughton
Saudi Arabian artist Sarah Al Abdali made a name for herself through her powerful street art, before pioneering a new form of contemporary miniature painting
In 2011, Sarah Al Abdali was working in a graphic design studio in her native Saudi Arabia when she gave into a whim that would skyrocket her to international fame. Disturbed by the changes being wrought by excessive development, which she felt was altering the character of the country and threatening cultural traditions, the young artist created a stencil and began spray painting it on the streets of Jeddah.
“I started doing street art right after I graduated from college,” she recalls. “I studied graphic design, so something completely different, but I was thinking that there isn’t much visual culture. When you walk in Jeddah, for example, you don’t see much going on in the streets, except for very flashy neon signs for shops — nothing artistic, or that speaks to any concept of what’s happening and what people are thinking about.”
Entitled Makkah Street Sign, her first stencil was a replica of the road signs indicating the way to the holy city. In Al Abdali’s version, the image of the Kaaba was replaced by a cluster of skyscrapers. Street art was very rare in Saudi Arabia at the time, she explains, and her image provoked a powerful response both locally and internationally, where it was covered by major media outlets like CNN and The Guardian.
“I was really surprised by how people were taking pictures of it and posting pictures of it on social networks and it was becoming viral,” she recalls. “That kind of encouraged me to do more… I didn’t really expect people to interact with it this way.”
Al Abdali decided to do a Masters course to expand her skill base, and found herself drawn to London’s Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, where she studied a diverse range of techniques. “We did everything from ceramics, to miniature painting, woodwork, geometry, and even the philosophy behind it,” she says. “I specialised in plaster carving and ceramics, so that was a shift in terms of my career. It’s a big transition. I stopped doing graffiti then, because I felt like it was too different and it didn’t connect with what I was doing.”
Her focus shifted from the boldness of street art to more intimate, detailed forms of expression. “I started doing miniature paintings, but with a contemporary twist — something that would speak of our time, rather than just copying a traditional piece, which is how we were taught,” she explains. “Most of the traditional artists that you find now are into copying the old, not creating their own designs. What we’re missing now are the masterminds — the designers. So I thought it would be interesting to combine my design background with what I studied at the Prince’s School. This is what I’m doing now, experimenting with miniature paintings and what I can express through them, and also with plaster carving.”
Currently, Al Abdali is working with non-profit organisation Turquoise Mountain, which is collaborating with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Natural Heritage to renovate traditional houses in Jeddah and revive traditional arts and crafts, including plaster carving.
The artist’s intricate miniatures, meanwhile, echo the themes found in her graffiti, from the politics of capitalist development, to historic amnesia and gender and socioeconomic inequality. These contemporary themes are neatly packaged into her tiny, incredibly detailed paintings, whose bright colours and delicate lines combine traditional Turkish, Persian, Mughal and Indian techniques.
“What really inspires me about that form of art is its simplicity,” she says. “It shares something with street art, although they are completely different mediums: it’s a simple form of art and anyone who sees it can relate to it.”
Manhattan on My Canvas
by Marwan Naaman
Iranian-American artist Novin Kasmai expresses her complex views about New York through her distinctive skylines
Painter Novin Kasmai loves New York. But she’s the first to admit that her feelings toward the city are far from simple. There is an appreciation for this international metropolis, certainly, and a certain amount of passion, but Kasmai also experiences solitude, always wondering if the city is in fact where she belongs. Single and in her late 30s, she’ll tell you frankly that even though New York is exciting and offers unparalleled opportunities for artists, hers is a lonely life. That feeling of being alone only disappears when she’s in front of her canvas, creating a universe that expresses her conflicted emotions toward the North American city she calls home.
Born in the United States to Iranian parents, Kasmai has led a nomadic life, spending her childhood in Malaga, in southern Spain, and then moving repeatedly between Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Florence and Barcelona. She earned an undergraduate degree in fine arts and graphic design from the University of Maryland, and then a Master’s degree in interior design from the Florence Design Academy in Italy. She’s been living in New York since 2010, and has exhibited her work at multiple venues across the city, including Siemens, the Empire Hotel and Broadway Gallery.
“I decided to do a series of skylines of New York the year I moved here,” Kasmai recalls, “and I got very positive responses. So I continued creating more skylines and more figurative city paintings where people can actually recognise what they see.”
Kasmai works mostly with acrylic paint, and her singular skylines all share certain common traits: they’re generally rich in colour, and at the same time point to that feeling of isolation that seems to afflict so many New Yorkers. One work, entitled Rain in Manhattan, is doused in grey colours and shows a solitary figure in the foreground huddling under a black umbrella. Another work, Midnight in Manhattan, is intended to show a series of skyscrapers, but these buildings almost come to life as individual beings, standing incredibly close to each other but never communicating, perhaps reflecting the typical New York experience.
In addition to her own artistic expressions, Kasmai often creates custom works for customers who want to adorn their interiors with one of her New York skylines. Her style remains the same for each commission, but she will tailor the work by using colours, canvas sizes and locations that reflect each customer’s desires.
Reflecting on her nearly two decade career as an artist, Kasmai says she feels blessed to have been able to achieve her dream of becoming a painter. “My life has been very exciting for the past 20 years, and I can say that I have reached one of my main goals by making a living in New York doing what I love and being my own boss. It’s priceless.”
As for the future, Kasmai says that her time in New York may be coming to an end, and that she may soon embark on a new adventure. “Maybe I will stay in New York for a few more years, or perhaps go to Paris instead for some time,” she muses. “But eventually, I want to settle and go back to Malaga, where I grew up. I want to end up where I started, with a suitcase full of memories and experiences.”
Flashes of Hope
by Aya Ibrahim
The birth of his daughter inspired Mohannad Orabi to create detailed portraits that mourn the tragedy of war while championing hope for a brighter future
Round faces on figures with minimal, child-like features have characterised Mohannad Orabi’s work since he began his career circa 2005. But there was a marked turning point in his oeuvre, pivoting around the events of 2011, which is highly apparent in the deep and expressive eyes of his characters. Orabi used to paint the eyes of his nameless portraits as dark, black holes, which cleverly conveyed emotion despite their blankness. But ever since 2011 — the year in which his daughter Sama was born and the civil war in Syria forced him from his homeland — the eyes of his portraits veritably sparkle with piercing detail.
“In 2011 everything changed for me,” says Orabi during a studio visit prior to the opening of his latest show at Ayyam Gallery’s DIFC location. “When the war started we saw so much violence and blood; our lives were filled with confusion and fear. I also became a father. I was looking at my daughter and hearing the sound of war and suddenly, in my paintings, my characters became more real. Their eyes opened and their faces were clearer because they were no longer a symbol but representative of the children around me, the victims of war.”
In the four years that have followed, Orabi’s characters have only matured into their newly detailed appearance. His latest show, Family Portrait, is a condensed selection of 11 powerful works that capture the absurdity of war, the bleakness of modern existence and, just as importantly, hope for the future.
In one image, untitled, as are all of the works in the show, a woman draws her four children close. Although all of their eyes seem to be tear-stained with grief, they stare out of the canvas with a steely will and address the viewer directly, demanding attention and perhaps even searching for answers.
“The woman here is very strong,” says Orabi, as tenderly as if he has conversed with her many times. “Yes, she is sad, but she is protecting her whole family.”
The five figures are all painted with dense texture and pattern that is subtle but typical of Orabi’s style. A thin white border outlines the contours of their bodies and separates them from the dull grey background. This formal detail, explains Orabi, has a dual purpose — to keep the family together and shield them from the stark greyness of their lives.
In other pieces, the family portraits, rendered in the same monotone palettes, show a mother and daughter or children alone, with eyes and faces full of sorrow. Yet there are a plethora of emotions bubbling under the surface. These are shown by threads of colour and detail that have been painted first and then painted over. They only become visible once you take time to look closely at the paintings — in the same way as if you were peering at your reflection in a river and then suddenly looking beyond it and perceiving the river bed. A red rose or a smiling teddy bear also bring hints of joy or perhaps irony to the portraits.
“I like to throw in some contrast,” smiles Orabi. “I like people to use all of their senses.”
But these finely drawn incongruences are not simply about Orabi’s own sense of play; they are what make his work masterful rather than quotidian. Although, throughout our interview, Orabi refers to himself as a simple man who expresses himself in lines and colour, his paintings are subtle reflections of the reality of his time and the human condition. Yes, to a first time viewer they may seem drenched in sorrow and mourning for the loss of a generation to the horrors of war, but you only have to return to the eyes to discover the artist’s true feelings and to be buoyed up by flashes of resilience.
“My work is not just about the suffering of the Syrian people, it is reflecting reality for people all over the world right now,” Orabi says. “There is great sadness in my work but somehow there is hope. I have put light in their eyes and that light is not far away. After night we have the morning; we have to believe in the future. I only have to look at my daughter to remember that. I believe that if I raise her well and teach her to respect other people’s differences, then we can all live together in peace.”
Family Portrait runs from September 15 to October 30 at Ayyam, Dubai International Financial Centre.