“Remarkably Clear, Almost Invisible” is a lesson in the substance of language. Crafted by Monia Ben Hamouda and Michele Gabriele (both artists are based in Milan, though Ben Hamouda also lives and works in Al Qayrawān, Tunisia), the show presents a generous dialogue between two kindred spirits who nonetheless carve their own distinct paths. Since 2016, the artists have scoured the terrain that connects communication and silence, finding common ground in their use of fabricated objects to create tactile sculptures rich in both history and fantasy. The exhibition here, their first in the United States, arrived on the heels of a two-month residency at lower_cavity in Western Massachusetts in a region known as the Pioneer Valley, where the landscape is as rich with natural beauty as it is riddled with the corroded relics of its industrial past.
The similarities between their work and the environment in which it was made are undeniable: Dusty shades of rust and clay coalesce against sooty hues and the emerald tones of oxidized copper. In Ben Hamouda’s Denial of a Red-Winged Blackbird Fighting a Jinn (Aniconism as Figurative Urgency), 2022, the aforementioned colors literally drip onto the gallery floor. This sculpture, more than nine feet tall, is crafted from laser-cut steel and suspended from the ceiling. Its surface is coated with a granular dusting of spices—flavorings often used in Arab cuisine, a nod to the artist’s Tunisian heritage. The metal is shaped into a mesmerizing pattern of linework that teeters between Islamic calligraphy and pictorial abstraction, depicting what appears to be a harrowing fray between a majestic bird and an arcane phantom. Below the object, the seasonings have gathered into a subtle dune, a windswept mound of auburn and carbon black.
Ben Hamouda’s ongoing series “Aniconism as Figurative Urgency,” 2021–, from which Denial and another sculpture in the show (Denial of a Red-Winged Blackbird [Aniconism as Figurative Urgency], 2022) are derived, evaluate aniconism, or the absence of figurative representation in doctrinal art within Islamic culture. As the daughter of a skilled calligrapher, the artist is sensitive to not only the craft and traditions of Islamic script but also the sacredness it embodies, whereby writing acts as a vessel for the divine. Each cut of steel is fashioned with the considerations of the most expert calligrapher—and through this acuity, a remarkable feat occurs: The weight of her vast metal structures is rendered ethereal, as if the artist had preternaturally inscribed their forms onto thin air.
Ben Hamouda’s jinn, however, isn’t the only imp that haunts this space. In the rear of the gallery, Gabriele gives us three sculptural beasts in various stages of decay, fashioned from 3D-printed elements, thrift-store finds, and industrial scraps the artist salvaged from around the residency site. Egolatra I–III, all 2022, are hung on the wall like traditional paintings, yet they are closer to crucifixions than canvases. Ghastly appendages, such as oversize fangs and residual limbs, sprout from each sculpture. Their bodies have been meticulously crafted from a mosaic of materials: cracked rubber, worn strips of leather, dusty wood, and rusted steel. In the center of each piece, a puggish face of weathered copper returns the viewer’s gaze with a smirk or a wink. Despite its abominable presence, each alien figure appears at ease, affectionate, exuding the disarming warmth of E.T. or perhaps even Shrek.
Embedded into all of Gabriele’s works are small, glimmering treasures: strings of pearls, iridescent shells, chain bracelets, and feathers—objects that feel like the remnants of a time and place that vanished long ago. If Ben Hamouda explores the visual possibilities of language, then Gabriele acknowledges what might remain after language has dissolved, when all that’s left of this world is ruins and dust.
— Gabriel H. Sanchez