Mashallah Blue, Yellow and Red series uses hundreds of ceramic tiles to create a visual and harmonious sensory perception of colour

In her latest exhibition, “Searching for Optical Wonder”, Dubai-based artist Colleen Quigley has experimented with the mediums of encaustic, collage, ceramics, laser cut acrylic and hand cut reflective materials to create beautiful, layered artworks. She has played with light, colour, surfaces, textures and shapes to explore our perception of colour in different situations.

Quigley’s contemporary compositions are inspired by traditional Islamic design. By juxtaposing handmade and machine made materials, as well as different colours and patterns, she invites viewers to contemplate the materiality of art, the sensory relationship between the viewer and art, and the significance of the physical experience of art.

Quigley studied sculpture at the University of Arts in Philadelphia and then focused on contemporary Japanese printmaking for her Master’s degree at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. She also learnt figurative painting at the New York Academy of Art. Her art practice includes painting, sculpture, installation and encaustic (art created with heated wax).

Quigley is Assistant Professor in Visual Art at the College of Art and Creative Enterprises on the Dubai campus at Zayed University and is at present researching post modern strategies of art making in relation to themes of originality, art history, popular culture, and memory.

“As an art educator and contemporary artist, I always look for opportunities to learn and apply what I learn in my classes and in my own work. I am interested in challenging traditional boundaries and combining traditional mediums with more contemporary mediums like acrylic Plexiglas. Much of my time is spent on experimentation and exploring new materials, learning how thick or thin I can go with laser cutting and what effects can be achieved with different colours and thicknesses.

“In this body of work I have combined Islamic patterns and various media, materials and techniques to explore ways in which colour and light interact upon different surfaces and create a visual perception that goes beyond looking at the surface. My aim is to establish an immediate relationship with the viewer, so I have tried to develop a complex yet simple visual vocabulary to explore perception of memory in terms of time and place, the transient nature of colour and light and the materiality of art,” she says.

The starting point for this body of work was a set of tranquil, meditative artworks depicting the sky and the sea that were created using wax, digital collage, encaustic paint and laser cut acrylic.

“These pieces draw attention to the interplay of culture and nature, and to the importance of sustaining clean water and air, especially in the context of the development of modern cities such as Dubai. The Islamic design silhouette serves as a sort of cultural lens that frames and focuses on invaluable but often taken for granted natural resources.

“I painted the sky and the sea using encaustic wax and pigment, and sometimes printed images from my camera over them. I then designed a special shallow acrylic box to display the work. The resulting effect motivated me to think about using other materials in which I could contain and layer light in some way and to use the acrylic to mute colours or expose them,” Quigley says.

Her experiments led to three series of works, which are presented in the exhibition. The “Mashallah Blue, Yellow and Red” is a series of encaustic artworks, where hundreds of handprinted and glazed, small hexagonal ceramic tiles are embedded in milky, translucent beeswax and resin to create vibrant monochrome and multi-coloured arrangements. The tiles float up at different depths, creating a visual and harmonious sensory perception of colour.

“‘Mashallah’ is a phrase my students often use when they see artworks they like. When I was making these small tiles I showed them to my students and they immediately said ‘Mashallah’ and so I decided to add the word into the work. I printed the letter ‘Mashallah’ in every other line. Some of it is obscured by the wax but can be seen on closer observation. The effect I wanted is for the viewer to make that connection of understanding,” Quigley says.

In the second series titled, “Reflecting Blue, Yellow and Red”, the artist has experimented with compositions that combine Islamic design with reflective materials and laser cut acrylic in contrasting colours.

“These compositions focus on repetition and continuous variation and juxtaposition of colour and pattern. My interest lies in sensorial effect and perception of what the colour is in isolation, in changing light and how colour appears to us in a context with another colour within a given shape. During my searches for new materials I came across reflective sheeting in a shop in Deira, which added a new dimension to the work. Because a laser cutter cannot be used on reflective sheeting, I had to hand cut it using the laser-cut acrylic pieces as a template. But I wanted to use the reflective materials to create a momentary flash as if to announce the arrival or presence of something of note.

“These pieces are meant to capture the attention of the viewers and then to interact with them as the perception of the reflecting surface changes with the movement of the viewers around them. Here I used Islamic motifs to call attention to the presence and dynamism of Islamic cultural patterns in a multicultural setting,” the artist says.

The third series, “Reflecting Wall”, also has a kinetic, interactive quality. It comprises a collection of repeating intricately cut acrylic mirrored Islamic designs. Through their reflection in the mirrors, viewers become part of the work. Their reflections create new colours and patterns that keep changing depending on where they are standing.

“In Dubai you see Islamic patterns reflected everywhere in the architecture and in design. While working on this show, I considered my audience and the traditional architecture of the XVA gallery.

“I took inspiration from old engravings of Islamic architectural details such as lattice work of ancient mashrabiya windows and ancient Moroccan door knockers. Mashrabiyas not only filter the light but allow one to see without being seen. Door knockers invite one to open doors. Both serve as vehicles to perceive something further, which is what I hope my artworks will do too,” she says.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.

“Searching for Optical Wonder” will run at XVA gallery, Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood, Bur Dubai until October 21.