Blurring the Line Between Nurture and Nature: A review of Waseem Touma’s Emergence
May 14 — June 12, 2011
Though artist Waseem Touma is a “product” of his Arabic heritage and his Australian background (having been born and raised in Sydney), his sculpture, installations, murals, and drawings blur the lines between nurture and nature.
Rather than indulge cultural issues or differences, Touma’s work ever since he received his BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2002 has concentrated more on what we all have in common. Taking his cue from nature, by exploring and interpreting our connection to it metaphysically and creatively, he is more interested in nature’s presence within ourselves rather than our place in or impact on it.
This is especially so with his current solo exhibition, Emergence, and Touma’s brief exhibition statement sets the tone for viewers: “Just like any creature of adaptation, we are strongly influenced by our surroundings. Life and death glide along the fragile path of creation and continuance.”
Although the artist experimented with ceramics and drawings that focused on extinct and endangered flora while an undergraduate at KCAI, Emergence avoids such environmental representation and issues. Instead, the exhibition features a curvilinear installation — the show’s title piece — made of Lycra, steel, vinyl, and thread; it hangs from the ceiling and winds its way throughout RNG’s three galleries in serpentine fashion between head and shoulder height.
As the title work, Emergence is highlighted by the exhibition’s major motif of orbs or disks and other circular objects that in fact undulate or move in an orbital trajectory. This engaging installation composed of many fully formed translucent disks resembles the filters placed in front of recording microphones as they cascade, bobbing and weaving like a child’s Slinky® toy.
Nothing else in Emergence (the exhibition, not the title work), is nearly as dramatic or sophisticated as this installation, but Touma’s charcoal drawings and 3-D work, framed and unframed, enjoy a conversation with this large piece, both in form and theme. Circular shapes and other figures abound in each medium as do Emergence’s rhythms, but they can be broken and distorted as well. Complexity and fragility continue to be an integral part of Touma’s aesthetic.
There is nothing childlike in this installation, but there is a sort of cosmic wonder that transcends its visual appeal. Emergence the sculpture begins with a funnel in Gallery 1 that appears to emit a cacophony of these white, black, and red orbs — and you simply cannot resist following its visual and physical flow (while inadvertently ignoring the auxiliary works on wall and in the corners), and before you know it you’re at its end in the third gallery.
The end of the installation resembles some sort of receptacle, an eye perhaps. We have to look at this somewhat metaphorically of course, as maybe being the mind’s eye fed by a series of insights and experiences, by a kind of cornucopia to be absorbed and used by the imagination. These interpretations aren’t mutually exclusively, though, as the work is entirely interactive — at least as it has been installed here by Touma and the gallery’s owner and director, Rob Gilmer. Emergence flows down the center of each gallery, and viewers tend to emerge, disappear, and then reemerge in three different stages of existence or evolvement: spirit, material, and shadow (in no particular order).
This rather cosmic metaphor references any number of cultural beliefs and myths, but it suggests Touma’s feeling that we are all connected in a universal network of common beliefs, hopes, fears, and aspirations, however we express or interpret them. Instead of concentrating on the latter, Touma’s “skeleton” is about the harmony and melody of its players rather just the individual lyrics or styles. Just plug in, he says, and play along.
His charcoal drawings, particularly Lifeline, Microcosm, and Cluster, are just as inviting, but the mood and tempo are quite different. All three are characterized by the medium’s emphasis on line, gesture, texture, and smudge. Touma overlays all into an image that is highly expressive and faintly figurative. The effect is rough, almost crude, as each image is dominated by another set of orbitals, eyes, and funnels that overlap and sweep across his canvas. And they do so with a certain flare analogous to a particular musical genre or style.
Lifeline is a large symphonic refrain echoing back and forth from three mountain tops and across their valleys by three soloists perched atop them. It’s not just that the figures resemble musical notes embedded and connected on the same wavy, sensuous staff with several reed and string instruments. The title refers to a special lifeline that echoes deeper than a rope and ladder. The penultimate Muse, it sustains both body and soul and stretches across all boundaries and spaces that divide us. It is a stretch itself perhaps, but Lifeline captivates with the same harmony and scope as the main Emergence installation.
Less obviously harmonious but equally imposing is Touma’s Cluster. It features the same cluster of visual/musical motifs as Lifeline, but this time the three soloists are improvising like Hawkins, Gillespie, and Parker in a spirited rendition of Bebop. Others might see 2Pac, JayZ, and Nas in a similar rap call-and-response, but they all create with the same rhythmic, discordant pattern akin to the visual style within Cluster.
Meanwhile, Microcosm is so dense that it gives discordance a good name and makes improvisation seem ordinary. A microcosm of what, one wonders? With its multi-layered patterns of street art/graffiti and the general neglect and abuse of urban blight, this is, simply put, life in the inner city. Sonically, this aesthetic is white noise to some, bedlam to others, and for a few, music to their ears in the style of free-form jazz.
Not everything in this exhibit can be understood or reduced via a musical metaphor. Touma’s framed or window-boxed assemblages and his sculptures suggest similar themes of balance, harmony and connection—or lack thereof—in a style and form all their own. Again, disks dominate, whole or halved, framed, sitting on a pedestal or hanging from the ceiling.
Crossing Paths and Settlements are two framed companion assemblages of resin, wood, paint, and porcelain. Each features undulating rows of embedded tea-size Chine plates, but while the former is rather simple and unassuming, the latter belies its ironic title with its rows of half-plates that threaten to burst from their “shelves.” What sort of emergence is this? A flood perhaps, one of emotions, insight, or inspiration attempting any form of creation outside its box.
Fossils in Life and Coexistence are two additional assemblages that resemble studies or specimens, albeit of connections to a past that have reemerged as if to remind us of similar origins — structure and DNA. The first, its title a bit of a paradox, is a delicate, sinuous, accordion-like fossil of prehistoric backbone or seahorse, perhaps both. Continuing this theme of familiarity despite differences, Coexistence features two porcelain columns alongside each other, one concave, the other convex. As obvious as its title is, as are most in this exhibition, it does reinforce how two similar objects, the first seductive and feminine like flute or clarinet, the second more rotund, pushy and masculine like a stand-up bass, can complement one another. Either metaphor seems to work.
Though Emergence, the installation, dominates this exhibition, one additional, less assertive piece speaks its themes as eloquently. Spinal Column, a mobile sculpture of porcelain, vinyl, and cord, is a series of bone-like plates hanging from ceiling to floor that easily lives up to its title. Though elegant and stately, this spinal column sports a few slipped disks of imperfection, similar to the unlikely connections of stalagmite and stalactite in a prehistoric cave. It’s as if this artist is reminding us that any act of emergence, however creative and individual, can be a painful, yet rewarding joint merger.