The two rectangular 3D floor sculptures that come together to make up Engage seem to be caught in a rather intimate moment, lending them an almost human quality. Leaning on each other, perhaps in a whisper, the vertical structures appear to defy their own materiality. Made from sheet metal and painted in bands of matte colour, they could be resting, in the process of deflating, or about to collapse - but they are frozen in that instant. It is their imperfections that make them seem alive.
A diptych from 2018, Engage is the central piece of Shaikha Al Mazrou’s debut solo show, Extension / Expansion, which runs at Lawrie Shabibi until 1 November. Exploring playful visual illusions, this exhibition has emerged from the Emirati artist’s deep and longstanding fascination with material and manipulation. It borrows formally from minimalism and intellectually from conceptual art, with references paid to Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt and Carle Andre across her practice. Like them, Al Mazrou is concerned with aspects of physical space and as such, her sculptures dominate and recede, exuding a an intriguing presence.
“The ability to change the perception of material – that is what best describes my work,” she says. “I love the capacity of material and how you can manipulate its physical presence.” Each work in the exhibition is linked both formally and aesthetically, with one beginning where the other leaves off. Expand is a single bright red cuboid that bulges out from the wall like a pillow, while Excel is made up of two circular forms painted in opposite concentric colours. They look, to me, like helium balloons beginning to sag as they lose their air.
Extend is comprised of three vertical forms in a similar state of activity, but here, their colour and the shadows they cast on the wall create a triumphant and lively optical illusion. She has manipulated the metal to come alive, chosen the paint colours to add dimensionality, and deliberately forced the viewer to question their own perception.
Titled Expansion / Extension, the exhibition’s name draws from the artist’s own experience as well as from each individual piece. She has expanded and extended her research into the meaning of sculpture, material and its representational function - and expanded and extended the metal with which she works.
In Exhale, a large coloured glass sheet seems to be forcing its weight upon a folded bean-bag-like form and at the same time, balances precariously between the wall and the floor. This piece is perhaps most indicative of the artist’s playfulness, all the while maintaining absolute control. “There is a lot about control in this exhibition,” she says. “I am controlling the material, controlling how my viewers see it and engage with it but paradoxically, I am also forgoing some of the control to the material itself.”
It is this push and pull, this ongoing relationship that she has with the material itself that amounts to the success of the work. Before Al Mazrou can allow the viewer to experience optical illusions or to see the metal lose its original quality, she must truly understand her medium. To do that she must enter into a dialogue with it, reign it in under her artistic vision and then allow it to act alone within the parameters she has set. It is a choreography of sorts, between artist and material, one that ultimately results in a triumphant control over form.