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LOU'S VIEWS: God is in the details

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Lou Harry

Throughout world history, religion and art have had a complicated relationship. At the extremes are cultures—or, more accurately, periods within cultures—that reject art completely. At the other are those that embrace art as a human representation of the divine spark. Most, though, existed somewhere in between, navigating in varied ways the tricky terrain where humans attempt the God-like and/or God-given task of making something from nothing.

While the Western world often sees Islam as a faith characterized by repression and one with heightened sensitivity—if not open resistance—to adornment and human representation, the reality is more complicated than that.
 

ae-119-heech-nothing-1col.jpg “Heech (Nothing),” by Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli, gives dimension to calligraphy. (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art)

Which brings us to “Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture,” a stunning exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (through Jan. 13) that offers a mind-expanding introduction to a rich tradition of faith-infused artistic creations.

The layout of “Beauty and Beliefs” makes clear that we shouldn’t narrow our thinking about Islamic art to one specific era or place. A time line on one wall stretches 16 centuries, while a map represents the Islamic reach from Kuala Lumpur to Seville, Spain. The circular show begins and ends with the same 14th-to 15th-century scroll, whose varied calligraphy and inclusion of maze-like sections, geometrical patterns and what seem like marginal notes speak to the quote from the prophet Muhammad that “God is beautiful and loves beauty.”

That theme runs through the entire show, manifesting itself in manuscript pages, architectural elements, jewelry and even a jug filter whose detail would have been difficult, if not impossible, to see by the mortal using it.


ae-21-bowl-15col.jpg Calligraphy is also key to this tortoise-shell ivory-inlaid bowl from Turkey. (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art)

Clearly, that didn’t matter to the artist, who most likely saw its creation as part of a divine mandate to beautify even parts of the world that only the divine can see.

My expectation that there would be a sameness to the art in the exhibition was quickly dispelled. Gallery after gallery revealed surprises. As in previous IMA shows where anonymous antiquities are prominently featured, there’s a strong sense of history.

In this case, though, that sense belies a deeply rooted culture that’s still in dynamic transition (consider the Arab Spring). And while “Beauty and Belief” never becomes overtly political, it can’t help but be seen in context of recent historic events. If there is a message, it’s that Islamic culture is far from static.

In fact, two of the strongest pieces, for me, were relatively recent ones: Charles Hossein Zenderoudi’s dizzyingly vibrant “VAV + HWE” acrylic and Parviz Tanavoli’s bronze sculpture “Heech (Nothing).” The rich curves and elegant heft of the latter created a compelling paradox given the meaning of its represented symbol. It left me standing with it for a disproportionate amount of time. And looking forward to a revisit.
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While I intend to dive into every gallery show, performing arts production and book with the same level of optimistic open-mindedness, the truth is I do approach some of my reviews with a bias. Works occasionally come along that I’m predisposed to root for. Case in point: James Still’s play “The House That Jack Built,” having its world premiere at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

For one, there’s the risk factor. It takes enormous faith to offer an untested work at an institutional theater. Indiana audiences don’t exactly flock to the unknown, and offering it can lead to marketing nightmares. While having a quality theater that offers the tried-and-true is important, I also want the IRT to take more chances.

There’s the unique thrill of having a first look at a show, having little idea about the characters, the plot, or even the tone of the work. Seeing a new play means being thrown into the deep end of someone else’s world. And I love that.

I’m also eager to love a play by Still, the IRT playwright-in-residence (who actually resides elsewhere) whose last few works haven’t given me much to praise.

Alas, “The House That Jack Built” doesn’t change that. The uninspired Thanksgiving story is about friends getting together, along with their respective partners, for a holiday meal. The complication is that the Jack of the title (the brother of one/husband of the other) has died and his loss is still deeply felt.

Peopled with characters whose traits feel pinned-on rather than organic, the play has the guts to quote Chekhov without the vision to stand up with him. A good Chekhov play makes you ache for its characters—for their humanity and for their ability to love and hurt one another, often at the same time. They are also rooted in place and time.

Still’s characters, in a generic Vermont setting, don’t feel capable of doing much damage to one another, rendering the friendly ending a foregone conclusion. The production itself doesn’t help. Everyone is amiable but there’s no bite, no bile and no energy in the relationships. I’m still not sure if couple Jules and Eli actually are attracted to each other.

Even the anticipated arrival of the play’s token eccentric doesn’t pay off. She turns out to be another collection of often-inconsistent traits rather than a full-blooded human being. Emotions seem to last only about as long as the speeches about them, then fade away.

None of which would matter much if the play were particularly funny or insightful. “The House That Jack Built” contains a few smiles, a few laughs and some writing that may have seemed dynamic on the printed page. Here, though, it comes across as just barely warmed-up leftovers. 

Thanks, nonetheless, to the IRT for trying something new.•

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This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com.

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