The Akron Art Museum, a Knight Arts grantee, was utterly accurate when they sent out a notice that "Nolli's Orders," Diana Al-Hadid's sculpture, "transforms" the museum's contemporary collection gallery. It seems like almost an understatement as well, for the room-size installation piece is nearly overwhelming, along with being jaw-dropping for most of the visitors who saw it at an opening night reception a week or so ago.
As soon as we laid eyes on it, we thought immediately of some public square fountains in Italy – monumental, old looking as though heading to ruin, rife with grandeur, and seemingly a little the worse for wear. All that is actually the kind of thing that Al-Hadid is interested in.
The artist began this work, it is told, by looking at Northern Renaissance and Mannerist paintings and then, as she has said, freed the statues from each other and the setting in which she viewed them. Part of her process then is to eliminate even more of the sculptural content and build a new setting for them and what remains.
In this 13-foot sprawling architectural piece, Al-Hadid includes motifs like Roman era pedestals, but also has bare scaffolding showing as well. It becomes hard to tell if the idea is that the monument is growing ever more magnificent or falling apart. Al-Hadid seeks that kind of tension in her work.
What was certainly evident at the opening of this exhibit is that visitors couldn't take their eyes off it, even younger viewers. Seemingly everyone took time to walk around the massive structure and look at it from different viewpoints – which, incidentally, is a good thing to do. Details surface as you go along, but the realization of the gigantic undertaking and thought process to put this all together and make it work becomes ever more apparent.
Equally interesting are the materials the artist works with – steel, polymer gypsum, fiberglass, wood, foam and paint. Also telling is that you can see the construction materials and how they work to make the piece come alive. These materials parallel the kind of inventiveness seen in the companion paintings done by Al-Hadid, where she uses Mylar as a base on which to put charcoal, pastel or acrylic, and perhaps polymer gypsum, plaster and pigment.
The three large paintings (the artist goes for grand scale in them as well) convey similar feelings as the architectural piece, in that they are suggestive of works either being completed or falling apart. Al-Hadid uses a resist technique that allows her to apply a material that can be worked on with drawings or paints, but then removes the material to reveal the blank space underneath. They are worth a long look in their own right.
"Diana Al-Hadid: Nolli's Orders" will be on display 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. on Thursday through March 16 at the Akron Art Museum, One South High St., Akron; 330-376-9185; www.akronartmuseum.org. General admission is $7 ($5 for seniors and students).