Are contemporary artists eschewing the secular and returning to the metaphysical? For the philosophically minded, that might well be the question prompted by Rider University Art Gallery’s current exhibition of watercolor and gouache paintings by the Kuwaiti-born artist Basil Alkazzi.
“An Odyssey of Dreams: A Decade of Paintings 2003-2012” features 34 vibrant abstracts that, some think, speak to renewed interest in the metaphysical in art after a period of secular involvement.
The question will be discussed this Thursday, February 20, at 7 p.m. when Michael Royce, executive director of the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) introduces a conversation by two leading art historians/critics, prompted by Mr. Alkazzi’s work.
In “From Secularism to the Mystical in Contemporary Art,” Donald Kuspit and Matthew Baigell will discuss the artist’s work within the broader context of a perceived turn from secularism to the expression of inner feeling, particularly the spiritual, among contemporary artists.
One of the most eminent art critics in the United States, Mr. Kuspit is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art History and Philosophy at Stony Brook University and a senior critic at the New York Academy of Art. His writings appear in Artforum, Artnet Magazine, Sculpture, and Tema Celeste magazines, and he is the editor of Art Criticism. An influential author, his art criticism includes The Rebirth of Painting in the Late Twentieth Century; Psychostrategies of Avant-Garde Art; Redeeming Art: Critical Reveries; and The End of Art (and that just since 2000).
Mr. Baigell is one of the nation’s leading art historians. His books include A Concise History of American Painting and Sculpture, The American Scene: American Painting of the 1930s, and Artist and Identity in Twentieth Century America, which examines the work of such artists as Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn, and Frank Stella, relating their art to the social contexts in which it was created, and identifying recurring themes, such as the persistence of Emersonian values, the search for national and regional identity, aspects of alienation, and their personal and religious identities as revealed in their works.
A public reception will follow the program, which was organized by Harry I. Naar, director of the Rider University Art Gallery and Judith K. Brodsky, Distinguished Professor Emerita at Rutgers and founding director of the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions, who also curated the exhibition.
But one needn’t be an art historian or an art critic, to enjoy Mr. Alkazzi’s vividly colored large-scale works on hand-made paper.
Enigmatic and Mystical
The paintings are abstract in an organic rather than geometric way. Enigmatic and mystical, they conjure up warmth, pre-verbal memories, other-worldly landscapes; just the thing to transport the winter weary from the reality of snow shovels and slushy sidewalks.
They range in size from 13 x 18 inches to 40 x 30 inches and their titles convey a romantic and tender sensibility: Kiss of the Butterfly, Ascending Angel, Whispering Dreams, and Ascension in Beatitude II, on the cover of the full-color 136-page exhibition catalog.
Mr. Alkazzi has said that he hopes the show will inspire viewers with “a feeling of awe at the sublime soul within life and nature, and so, within themselves.”
In speaking of his work, Mr. Naar makes comparisons to Wassily Kandinsky and Mark Rothko; Mr. Kuspit, who has written two books on Mr. Alkazzi and has been observing his oeuvre since the 1960s, speaks of Jung.
“My paintings of nature are the Life-Force embodied in nature, all of nature, and that includes mankind,” said Mr. Alkazzi, who describes himself as a man of faith rather than of any particular religion.
This traveling exhibition started at the Bradbury Gallery at Arkansas State University and traveled to The Anne Kittrell Gallery at the University of Arkansas before arriving at Rider where it will continue until March 2. After that it goes to the Rosenberg Gallery at the Maryland Institute College of Art and then to the Sheldon Museum of Art at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
The artist’s long career dates from 1973. He first discovered a talent for drawing and painting as a child at boarding school in Beirut. After attending art school in London, he spent time in Greece and then Crete and regularly exhibited his work at London’s Drian Gallery, from 1978 to 1987. Since 1985, he has lived on and off in New York and was granted U.S. residency as “an artist of exceptional ability in the arts.” Currently, he lives in Monaco.
A prolific and self-described “compulsive” painter, he has work in the public collections of museums worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.
“An Odyssey of Dreams — A Decade of Paintings 2003 — 2012” is at the Art Gallery in the Bart Luedeke Center on the Rider campus, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, through March 2. Gallery hours are: Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call (609) 895-5588.