Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Second Millennium Stone Age: Detailed Perfection and Pure Minimalism

by Drew Martin
Stone, in all its varieties, is known for its solidity and durability, but it also elicits a feeling of physical and emotional coldness, which is ironic considering some of the most moving and fleshiest artworks, especially sculptures by artists such as Michelangelo and Antonio Canova, were carved in marble. It also has a reputation for being archaic or even primitive, and yet for centuries it served as the medium to showcase advances in technical skills around the world.

On a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday, my daughter and I stumbled into the mesmerizing Islamic Art Galleries, and I was able to revisit one of my favorite pieces in the museum, which I had not seen for a long time. It is a red sandstone jali (screen) that was carved in the second half of the 16th century. It is airy and see-through, and it makes you rethink the function and possibilities of stone. What I like about this piece is that the geometric field of stars, which is so common in Islamic art, is most often purely decorative when used in tiled designs and filigreed plaster walls and arches, but here it has a structural function as it pushes the limit of its negative space while maintaining enough of its supportive strength. Although its design is a mathematically-inspired aesthetic solution within the centuries-old imposed boundaries of Islamic visual arts, there is something so modern in its look and feel that it might as well be a recent product of a 3-D printer.

Another stonework that caught my eye yesterday was a sphere of volcanic rock (andesite) from the Diquís culture, created sometime while these native Costa Ricans flourished between 700-1530 AD. I must have seen the sphere before but never really paid much attention to it, partly because it is stuck in a corner of Gallery 357 - for Pre-Columbian art, which is a room loaded with pure gold ornaments. This sphere and hundreds (perhaps thousands) of others made by the Diquís are amazing technological accomplishments. The sphere in the Met is 26 inches in diameter and weighs 850 lbs. but they can range from a few centimeters to more than six feet in diameter, and weigh up to 15 tons. Not much is known about how they were created or their purpose but they persist as beautifully minimal sculptures to behold and contemplate.