With “Hourglass,” a new series of large-scale drawings, Alyssa Pheobus Mumtaz extends her interest in textiles into a full-in exploration of pattern as a mode of metaphysical inquiry. Mumtaz reduces her ornate shapes and designs—many based on decoration she encountered while living in Lahore, Pakistan and New Mexico—to their minimal bones, enlarging their often intricate labyrinths into sizeable drawings that range in scale from about 60-by-40-inches to as much as 103-by-72. The geometric designs often focus around a central point or space that beckons simultaneously inward and outward, appearing both as the source of the pattern and a path beyond it. The seeming outcome of the artist’s use of drawing as a meditative tool, the drawings also invite the viewer to engage with them in a similarly intimate way. This invitation comes addressed on sheets of hand-made paper, the bottoms of which curl into the viewer’s space and tempt him or her with their tactile surfaces.
This new series grows out of Mumtaz’s earlier work, which was similarly large-scale and labor-intensive. Now, the artist’s abstracted excerpts of text have given way to fully abstract shapes. The nesting rectangles and notched forms unavoidably recall Frank Stella, not to mention the kind of labyrinthine patterns associated with a breadth of ancient cultures. But the drawings rarely come off as derivative. Instead, they propose a universal graphic language that presents a public face without sacrificing its private content.
Some advance this proposal more successfully than others: the graphite designs in Waxing Crescent, 2011 or Station, 2012, are so generic that they displace the artist’s subjectivity almost completely. Cool and geometric, they appear at odds with the warm, tactile surface of the paper on which they’re drawn. At the other end, the two works on hand-dyed cowhide, Burial of 2011 and Novitiate of 2012, let their sensual surface dominate too strongly. The pattern and buttery hide merge so fully that the drawings end up resembling cheap tourist reproductions rather than anything authentic.
When she works with color, however, Mumtaz is much better off. The colored dyes and paint interact with the paper in more noticeable ways than the graphite. In Awake, Sleeper, 2012, a rich, navy dye accentuates the sensual surface of the paper into which it absorbed. Somewhat contrastingly, the works in acrylic, like Observatory, 2011, contain solid forms, layered to the point of smooth opacity, that obstinately sit atop the surface. This effect is even more pronounced in North, 2011, where the hyper-brightness of the sky blue induces an almost hallucinatory push-and-pull with the natural hue of the paper. These different interplays between medium and surface draw attention away from the work’s final design back toward the process of labor that went into making it. As moments of acceptance and denial, acquiescence and refusal, they evidence the epiphanies and pitfalls of spiritual inquiry.
The unfortunate thing is that Mumtaz’s work may just be too en vogue: her geometric patterns are currently on trend in commercial spheres that lay far afield of her eschalogical concerns. While this may attract attention to Mumtaz’s work, it further displaces the artist’s presence, putting her abstract language at the risk of seeming detached and even insincere. When her presence comes through, however, the works effectively attest to the continued possibility of spiritual discovery, precisely in the face of such commodification.
“Hourglass” is open at Tracy Williams Ltd. from March 22 to April 26, 2012. All images courtesy the artist and Tracy Williams Ltd.