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'Constructed Landscapes'

Seher Shah's collection best if viewed through one's own eyes first

Reviewed by Matthew Irwin, Fri., June 21, 2013

<i>Object Relic (Unité d'Habitation)</i>, by Seher Shah
Object Relic (Unité d'Habitation), by Seher Shah

'Constructed Landscapes'

AMOA-Arthouse at the Jones Center, 700 Congress, 512/453-5312
www.amoa-arthouse.org
Through June 30

Seher Shah's exhibition "Constructed Landscapes" is full of esoteric ideas about the divergence of art and architecture through the convergence of interior and exterior space. The work is a reaction to modernist structures, vis-à-vis Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, and a continuation of the theoretical work of Daniel Libeskind and Bernard Tschumi. In other words, the collection is art about art. It assumes viewers enter the Jones Center with some understanding of its provenance, an assumption that AMOA-Arthouse attempts to steward with lengthy written explanations, an essay by University of Texas School of Architecture assistant professor Igor Siddiqui and an artist interview performed by Associate Curator Rachel Adams.

The descriptions do provide some entrance into the work, but the pamphlet containing the essay and the interview is more alienating than the exhibition left to its own devices. It's full of difficult-to-parse artspeak, until we come to similar conclusions on our own.

Approached blankly, Object Relic (Unité d'Habitation) reveals the space contained within a structure by reducing it to a footprint and beams (no walls), with banner flags flowing freely throughout, releasing the space from the form. And yet, the graphite and gouache piece reminds us of the imposition of the building on the space it occupies with a solid monolithic sheet, working against the three-dimensional elements of the drawing. It also reminds us that architecture begins on paper, with ideas. Shah – who was born in Pakistan but lives in Brooklyn – repeats this motif in Mammoth: Aerial Landscape Proposals, a collection of archival digital prints also on display.

With Object Repetition (Line to Distance), an installation piece in the lobby, she goes further, using sculpture to explore the idea of repetition, which is appealing on paper but in reality feels autocratic. It calls to mind photos of Chinese government housing, seen from the air. The only pieces that suggest a human presence (other than the viewer's) are Geometric Landscapes and the Spectacle of Force and The Mirror Spectacle, which do so by interpreting the coronation ceremony at the durbar in Delhi, India, from a ground level.

Returning to Object Relic, the structure itself has been removed, so that we can see, again, its volume and, therefore, its influence on the landscape. The piece, we learn by reading the description, is specifically defamiliarizing Le Corbusier's housing concept Unité d'Habitation, famously applied to low-income housing in Marseilles. We might, then, read Object Relic as Shah's commentary on Le Corbusier's commentary on low-income housing (cheap, cold, utilitarian).

As the exhibition literature attempts to show, Shah reveals architecture as a practice by which ideas become reality, and in the most imposing way: by affecting the space we inhabit. And yet, art, which serves no practical function, gives us a venue to explore the effect on our lives.

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