Steven Naifeh composes happiness by creating art.
“Found in Translation: The Art of Steven Naifeh,” an exhibition of Naifeh’s geometric abstractions, has an almost inescapable allure. Touring the exhibition is like attending a joyous celebration without music — and yet there is melody exploding on the Columbia Museum of Art’s walls.
The art is colorful and incandescent, and many of the 26 works have a geometric heart — a center — from which the patterns expand, some appearing to be in motion. They resonate, the shapes becoming notes stacked on top of notes until the gallery swells to a crescendo.
“It starts small and it explodes,” Will South, the museum’s chief curator said “And there’s nothing in here that’s negative. These things are defined, in part, by what they’re not.”
In this show, the first retrospective museum exhibition of Naifeh’s paintings and sculptures, the artist invites viewers to experience work informed and influenced by Arab and Islamic art. There are expressions of harmony, order, balance and perfection.
“It’s very positive, affirming art and it’s not completely, I would say, it’s not different from the essential beliefs of other religions — Judaism, Christianity, — all sort of embrace order, discipline, joyfulness, harmony. All of those things are present here. It’s just a different way of arriving at that same thing.”
The show opens Friday and runs through Sept. 1. A full-color, 135-page catalog, which includes an illuminative discussion between South and Naifeh, will accompany the show.
Much of the art on the gallery walls take the circuitous route, but it is a pleasing journey. For example in “Saida XX: Copper,” a 2012 work of copper on 132 steel boxes, one can see their reflection — as well as another piece of art — in the copper face. The viewer becomes part of the art. There’s a bit of playfulness in examining the patterns created by the boxes big and small before your eye moves to the floor, drawn by shadows.
“There’s a real sense of harmony,” Karen Brosius, the museum’s executive director, said. “But there’s also a sense of the infinite, because these patterns can go on and on and on. And there’s a timelessness to this. You can kind of go into the center and expand beyond any limitations that you might have set for yourself — or set for the art.”
Pieces like “Saida XX: Copper” are perfect for a self-portrait — or what is more commonly known as a “selfie.” The museum, Brosius said, is “encouraging” guests to take photographs of the art in this particular exhibition.
Naifeh (pronounced Nay-fee), who lives in Aiken, is also a well-known author. He was born in Iran, the son of American diplomats. He lived in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. When he was 10, his parents were at such a desolate post that one of the few other people there was a Dutch artist. By his early teens, Naifeh was studying geometric abstraction. Geometric design is a focal point of the elaborate and complex patterns that are at the core of some Islamic and Arab art.
“It all resolves into a pattern that has a certain harmony,” Naifeh said.
He and co-author Gregory White Smith have written almost 20 books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga.” In 2011, “Van Gogh: The Life” was a New York Times bestseller and the authors were featured on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” The museum hosted a lecture and book singing in January 2012. Naifeh and White, 1977 graduates of Harvard Law School, are the founders and editors of Best Lawyers ( www.bestlawyers.com), a peer-review publication.
In February, the museum unveiled “Jali,” Naifeh’s 13-foot high sculpture made of blue galvanized steel, on Boyd Plaza near the museum’s entrance.
Tuesday was the first time Naifeh, who designed many pieces specifically for the museum’s space, toured the exhibition. (Guests will be able to take a tour with him, too, by checking out an iPod at the museum. Naifeh was filmed and interviewed discussing the art.) The work is separated into sections with names such as Mizan and Saida. Naifeh chose the names because they are phonetically pleasing, but also because of the transliteration. For example, Saida means “happy” in Arabic. And it was his grandmother’s first name. Mizan, in scriptural meaning, is perfection.
Naifeh remarked on how much wall space was given to individual works and how Michael Dwyer, the chief preparator and exhibition designer at the museum, had cleverly darkened some walls.
“I’m really pleased with the hanging,” Naifeh said. “Mike Dwyer is incredibly talented.”
“Saida XVI,” a 2013 limestone sculpture, weighs 12,000 pounds. It’s so heavy that there was concern that the floor would have to be reinforced. The installation provides an multi-dimensional perspective of Naifeh’s intricate patterns.
“The challenge here was to raise it in steps so that it had a sense of architecture, but also was low enough that you have a general sense of the overall pattern.”
Once the art is deconstructed, discernible quadrants begin to form. In “Cyrene XVI: Gold,” a 2012 acrylic on 110 canvases, the diamonds help create squares. The squares then overlap.
“So you’re eye can’t register entirely on one element,” Naifeh said. “It moves to another element.”
“If I hadn’t told you there are Islamic precedence, you wouldn’t necessarily know it. These forms begin to coalesce into patterns regardless of where in the world they are working.”
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.