Splashes of dialogue

By Allan I. Ross

Broad guest artist gets East Lansing talking

“Can I go here?” A young woman walking through East Lansing’s Ann Street Plaza earlier this week stopped short of a maroon blotch splattered across the pavement. It looked like a giant splash of blood, about 12 feet long and 3 feet wide. She looked around. A man nearby waved her forward. “It’s OK, you can walk on it,” he said. “It’s art.” She gingerly tred on it; what looked like shapeless red blobs at first took shape into flowers, feathers and scales up close. She thanked the man with a wave and contin ued on. What transpired between the two could be called a conversation — at least it was enough to make the woman pause and talk to a stranger. And for the piece’s artist, Imran Qureshi, that’s good enough.

“Art is supposed to start a dialogue,” said Qureshi, 42, a world-renowned experimental mixed-media artist. “Whether it’s an actual dialogue between two people or a symbolic one between a piece of art and its surroundings. Art is something that’s supposed to lead to something.”

Qureshi’s mural, “Fragmented,” is a series of about two dozen abstract paintings spread around the ground, benches and alley walls of Ann Street Plaza. By no means was it preconceived. When a careless delivery driver drove his truck over a segment that hadn’t dried, Qureshi incorporated the tread marks into the piece.

“I think it says a lot about our relationship with technology, how indifferent we’ve become to the world because of it,” Qureshi said. “He didn’t even look at the ground — he just kept going.”

“Fragmented” continues two blocks over in an area across the street from the Broad Art Museum, where he has an exhibit — “Imran Qureshi: The God of Small Things” — that opens on Friday. Last year the Pakistaniborn artist was named the Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year. He has showcased his miniature paintings and created installations in museums in Sydney, Dubai, London and New York. He also dabbles in video work and theatrical performance, but won’t cop to any one medium.

“I like ambiguity,” he said. In addition to being Qureshi’s splashy debut, “Fragmented” is the first stroke of East Lansing’s new Public Mural Art Project. The program is designed to turn aspects of natural urban erosion into miniature artworks. A horizontal crack along a wall can become a tight rope; a bent bollard can be transformed into a giant stubbed-out cigarette.

“It’s part of a continuum that goes from a tiny painting on a crack in a wall to a building that competes with the best museums in the world,” said East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett. “It ties the Broad to the city and the city to the Broad.”

Qureshi typically works with watercolors on paper, but for his exhibit, that style was something he thought was “too organic” for the Broad’s soaring steel architecture.

“When I was asked to do this exhibit last year, I didn’t know anything about the Broad or East Lansing — I said yes because I was excited about (museum architect) Zaha Hadid,” Qureshi said. “But when I saw the building last fall, I thought that bringing my previous work wouldn’t be a good idea. It made me want to create something new that would make the space talk.”

For his exhibit, Qureshi made two original paintings that are designed to be displayed at angles to each other that mimic the interior faade of the Broad.

“The (Broads) windows looked like an opening book to me, so I made these to echo that feeling,” he said. “But these are much smaller, of course. It’s like father and son.”

But it may be easy to overlook the molehill for the mountain in that gallery; Qureshi has also created a massive mound of crumpled paper that takes up most of the room’s floor space. It’s another of Qureshi’s emerging trademark works, a piece he’s created in previous intallations. Over 20,000 copies of images from Qureshi’s “Fragmented”-like mural atop New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art were printed on semi-glossy 24-by-33-inch paper, wadded up by a team of volunteers and tossed into a pile last week.

“I use pictures of my own art to depict change,” he said. “It’s a connection to my previous art, but it’s also doing something new in an organic way.”

Qureshi’s pieces are artworks in their own right, but they could also be considered a single evolving exhibition, incorporating traditional and nontraditional media, trekking onward both temporally and geographically. Today’s sidewalk mural is fodder for tomorrow’s crumpled paper mountain, which may become next week’s film project. Who knows? The whole thing could become a play one day.

“I’m not trying to force anything — I’m just letting my art emerge and talk to me” he said. “It’s a little narration. When it comes naturally, it has more life. It’s about you and your dialogue with yourself.”


Ann Street Plaza Corner of M.A.C. and Albert avenues, East Lansing

“Imran Qureshi: The God of Small Things”

Friday, May 9-Sunday, Aug. 17 Broad Art Museum 547 E. Circle Drive, East Lansing, MSU campus FREE (517) 884-4800, broadartmuseum.msu.edu