The Writing's on the Wall

Persian calligraphy and mysticism suffuse the art of Kendal Kennedy.

Disappearing calligraphy, reflections with shadows, poetry written by a whirling dervish -- these are the makings of art for an Iranian American artist steeped in the literary and religious traditions of her homeland.

To create the works for her exhibition Common Grounds & Epilogue at the Joseph Gross Gallery, Kendal Kennedy has drawn on everything from 13th-century Persian poetry and 17th-century Persian architecture to centuries of Sufi literature. The results are two series of works on paper and an installation of mirrors.

Kennedy was born in Tehran in 1965 and moved to Germany with her family in the late 1970s before the Iranian revolution. She spent the balance of her childhood in Germany and the United States, moving to Greenwich, Conn., in 1980. She has a master of fine arts degree in painting from Pratt Institute and now teaches at Columbia University where she directs its Macy Gallery. Kennedy also is working on a doctorate in education at Columbia.

Kennedy's exhibition at the Gross Gallery includes three works from a series titled "The End of Shahnameh." In each piece, off-white pigment is delicately spread on small sheets of blue-gray paper. Calligraphic Persian letters are scratched into the white, and touches of brown add a sense of age to the paper. The letters are so entwined that like many illuminated manuscripts it seems they would be indecipherable even to a native speaker. The poetry of contemporary Iranian poet Mehdi Akhavaan Sales helped inspire Kennedy's series and an excerpt from one of his poems accompanies the artworks. Its final line reads, "We are the Narrators of Forgotten Tales." The irony is that Kennedy is a contemporary artist recreating a document of the past that is an illegible, if lovely, tribute.

Kennedy posts a poem by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi as a statement before the ramp leading down to her pastel-on-paper series "Epilogue 1-8" and her installation "Common Grounds." Rumi, a Sufi mystic who is widely considered one of the most important poets in history, is well known for his poems about the "Beloved." Rumi's writings are full of seeming contradictions like finding the soul by losing it and going joyfully into death to find life. Dualities about forsaking something to discover something else recur in Kennedy's work.

For "Epilogue 1-8," Kennedy uses pastel on brown paper, which suggests a child's tools for practicing the alphabet at school. What may look like repetitive strokes of chalk on each piece are actually single letters from Farsi (contemporary Persian), transcribed again and again to create patterns. In the first pieces, the letters are clearly rendered. By the last three works, Kennedy's hand has grown loose, so that the letters are blurring into abstract forms. What could be the letter "a" seems more like blades of grass waving in the breeze.

In "The End of Shahnameh" Kennedy uses the artful form of calligraphy to abandon words, and in "Epilogue" she uses a child's medium to let go of letters. Her installation "Common Grounds" takes the letting-go further. The installation uses a grid pattern of 12-inch-square mirrors arranged on the main gallery floor in front of two benches for viewers. The room is dim, and overhead spotlights are positioned so that the mirrors cast a multitiered grid of reflections on the three walls that surround the mirrors.

The reflected rows of bright white squares seem to cast gray and sepia shadows on the walls. Even the angled shadows seem to cast another set of shadows. After seeing the progression of words and letters fading away in Kennedy's other works, the bright white reflections seem like blank sheets of paper fading into shadows as even the medium for the message is lost. What is the self without language? What are we as a civilization losing as more and more languages become extinct?

Kennedy has said that "Common Grounds" can be viewed either combined with "The End of Shahnameh" and "Epilogue" or outside the context of the two. By itself, the installation seems more about the reflection of thoughts and how they can slip away into shadow. This evokes the same questions about the connection of self to language, although in this case language is not the written word.

"Common Grounds" is a visually engaging and meditative work. The two series of works on paper are appealing, too -- "The End of Shahnameh," in particular -- but none of the three rises to the level of mystical engagement. That's a difficult task, yet many contemporary artists seem willing to tackle it. For example, the "Rumi 2000: Whirling with the Cosmos" conference included "Contemporary Artists Reflecting on Rumi and Islamic Mysticism," an exhibition of artworks by 16 artists at the Robert V. Fullerton Art Museum at California State University, San Bernardino.

Viewing art like Kennedy's that functions within a larger context, such as literature, philosophy, or science, can be difficult for many viewers. The artwork is more or less successful with its audience depending on just how much outside knowledge is required to understand it. Ideally, sophisticated artworks offer something for many viewers. If an artwork is layered, those who haven't read Persian poetry or studied chemistry can still appreciate the form or have an emotional response to the art.

Of course, many artists couldn't care less about accessibility, and much of the general public didn't want to try and understand modern art. Yet we couldn't have written off several generations of 20th-century art because people didn't like it at first.

Reading traditional Persian poetry and seeing period calligraphy is worth it, not just to further understand artwork like Kennedy's, but because they are wonderful arts. Rumi's poetry is easy to find at libraries or bookstores because he is a best-selling author in translation. Although reproductions of Persian calligraphy are available in books at the Middle East Collection at the University of Arizona Library, most of the texts have not been translated. Of course, some people appreciate these traditional arts more than they enjoy the work of contemporary artists who have been influenced by them.

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