A Conversation with Diana Al-Hadid
Featuring 10 artworks created between 2018 and 2021, Diana Al-Hadid: Ash in the Trade Winds highlights the artist’s unique and gravity-defying process of dripping, layering, and melding classical and contemporary materials into decaying forms.
Like floating dreams, Al-Hadid’s sculptures, panels, and drawings appear in motion as though they are dissolving before our eyes. What remains are faint approximations of their original sources—landscapes, buildings, female figures—excavated from art history, literature, and architecture.
Below, enjoy a conversation between Al-Hadid and Kaitlin Garcia-Maestas, associate curator at the Momentary and curator of the exhibition.
KAITLIN GARCIA-MAESTAS: In this exhibition, we see real and imagined histories come to life. How does history inform your work?
DIANA AL-HADID: I like to point a spotlight on lesser-told stories, or speak to the broader context for the stories we know or take for granted. I’m compelled to find patterns or similarities in stories that exist across cultures. I have a love/ hate—or, more accurately, respectful/irreverent— relationship with Old Master paintings. It’s a history I inherited from my schooling—the canon of Western art history was everywhere in my education as an artist. In many ways, I look at art history to understand the past, because I understand everything better through the language of visual art.
When you look closely at a brush mark on a canvas, you feel you can get really close to the artist’s hand, maybe sense their mood. It’s the closest way into the past, I think. It’s one of the reasons I especially love Islamic miniatures—they invite you to get as close as possible to the surface of the canvas. I love discovering new painters working in the “periphery” of their time, or artists and histories who were outside my formal education, and see if they have secrets to share.
KM: What do you hope visitors will consider while seeing this exhibition?
DA: I tend to want my audience to simply slow down and observe the thing in the round, both physically and historically, and to try to connect with the way that it’s made, both materially and narratively.
KM: I also hope visitors will take the opportunity to slow down and notice how these works were made. For example, the panel works are not made with canvas, but in fact, constructed through an alchemical process. Can you walk us through this process?
DA: I love to work with materials that transform from one state to another and with processes that take those transformations from one understanding to another. The panels are best described as a combination of fresco and tapestry. The image is built from the back and in reverse for the first stage using pigmented materials layered one over the other. The “canvas” then grows from the pictorial image, each painted mark reinforced into a single, connective membrane. I think the multi-panel works are obviously more immersive, and I do those when I’m in that mood.
KM: Much like fading memories, the details from your source material dissolve through veils of abstraction. How do you incorporate art historical imagery into your work?
DA: Memory is another way of saying “the history we chose to see.” When I bring other artists’ work into my “canvas” (which is not a canvas at all), I keep only the skeletal information of the painting. I then use that information—the basic composition, some of its colors, some of its lines—and obliterate the rest. They become structures for new “paintings” in my world. They lose all their original detail, but now my mark remains buried in there instead. Although, in some ways, even my own original mark is hard to see, because you may have to look through layers of pigmented plaster. It’s interesting how far a small notation from a remote part of history will take hold in my studio but then swerve in many new directions. It will keep becoming layered with my hand, my materials, my reinterpretations, so much so that the original source is barely relevant, and yet it remains somewhere in the core organizing principle that holds the work together.
KM: Sometimes these layers of reinterpretation come from multiple perspectives and memories, such as in My Take on His Take of His Parts of Buildings, Public and Private, where you’re adding your own spin on the architectural renderings within Sir John Soane’s house. What role does your memory play in this work?
DA: That work is an ever-expanding series of lenses and distortions that ultimately bring about a whole new mutation…one in which the latest narrator, a Syrian immigrant Muslim woman, has imprinted something on its forking path. It’s extremely contemporary, and built up additively, but it looks deep into the past and appears entirely dissolved. I am both frustrated and delighted by that contradiction.
KM: Your mastery of materials offers seemingly endless possibilities for new forms and structures. How do materials shape your visual vocabulary?
DA: Materials are most of what I think about in a day. They determine everything: the form, the narrative, the structure, the concept. You can learn almost everything there is to know about something by studying its elemental makeup. This is true of art and of people and societies. All archeologists have in studying the ancient past is materials—little fragments of lives lived—to analyze. They can learn so much from so little.
I like to work with materials that are liquid in some state, like various plasters and paints. I paint quickly so the material splatters and drips and then dries. I’ve been more and more trying to make images of clouds, mists, or sprays—or, more specifically, volcanic eruptions. I think that’s how my works begin, out of a very thin and light material that progressively builds up into a solid mass. Those masses that look ruined are actually all built up, but in a way, I’m not very precious about their construction. A lot of my work is improvisational, or responds to chance, or starts with the leftovers.
KM: How has this past year—living through a global pandemic—shaped and informed some of the work in this exhibition?
DA: Well, it’s hard to know exactly how it’s shaped the work because it’s still happening. But I definitely feel that time has seemed to stretch out and slow down in some ways. My work has become more colorful in recent months, and I have veered in unexpected directions with the sculptures and my drawings. This year has also made me reconsider older works—in particular, a piece from 2017 that is from a series of reimagined ancient time-telling devices, The Candle Clock of the Scribe. I realized that while it has been sitting in the studio, the clock should still be ticking and accumulating time, so I continued to work on it and built up more of the “melted wax” stuff dripping out of it…as if more of the candle has melted and time is still going.
KM: In this show, we see references to the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD as explored in the story of Gradiva. Are there other historical eras that you’ve looked to for insights during 2020?
DA: I recently read an article that described the worst year in history to be 536, long before the flu pandemic and the Black Death plague wiped out most of Europe. In 536, there was reportedly a mysterious fog that darkened most of the earth for 18 months. It was the result of a volcanic eruption, actually two in succession, and devastated food supply and economies worldwide as the winds blew the mist across continents. In recent years, I have been obsessed with an old, illustrated manuscript from the sixteenth century called The Book of Miracles that depicts various biblical and non-biblical unexplained natural phenomena that they took for signs of miracles, many of which we now understand scientifically. It’s very easy to forget that there have been even more difficult times than the one we are now facing, and easy to forget how much better equipped we are now to deal with pandemics. I’m not downplaying what is happening today, but it always helps me to gain as much perspective as possible, both to feel gratitude and also not to succumb to irrational superstitions, which one is prone to do in times like these.
KM: After 15+ years working as a professional artist, what are you most proud of? And what do you hope to accomplish in the next 15 years?
DA: I’m proud that I’m showing my work here and at several other institutions this year and next. I’m proud whenever I am close to my work and learning new things. I want to get closer and closer to my work times infinity, and everything else can follow from there. Without an authentic connection to your work, no accomplishment big or small really means anything.
Diana Al-Hadid: Ash in the Trade Winds is on view at the Momentary now through June 13, 2021. It is free to view.