By Francisco Calvo Serraller
How can one begin to define the work of Arita Shahrzad, born in Tehran, educated in Geneva, converted in to a painter in New York and now presenting her first individual exhibition in Madrid? One might reply that not only is nobody today surprised by such cultural mixtures to which, on the other hand, one has access without leaving the house in our telecommunicated global village, but that they announce what our immediate future will be. This is self announce what our immediate future will be. This is self-evident , and I can assure you that I would not have bothered to mention the fact if, like so many others either voluntarily or through force of circumstances, Arita Shahrzad were simply an emigrant, an exile or a globetrotter. The fact is that I have no idea whether this young Persian is any of the these three things or all three at once; what I do know, however, is that here she presents herself as a painter, an activity in which this geographical dispersion that marks her still short career must not be overlooked, not even when the cosmopolitan language of the avant-garde seems to have wiped out all traces of individual identity.
For the rest, knowing that the language of painting is universal and does not require translation, in theory no great importance should be attached to the corrosively homogenising action of the avant-garde. Neither the immediacy of the image, nor even modernist reductionism can eliminate the sense of roots inherent in contemporary art, which searches essentially for originality and, consequently, carries with it constant reflections on the theme of origins.
The problem with which we are faced here is to discover what Arita Shahrzad’s true artistic origin is (if, indeed, only one exists) for this, among other things, would help us to understand why she decided to devote herself to painting. Although the definitive key is to be found in this decision, for the moment we must content ourselves with a much simpler question; how and why does she paint? In our quest for the answer, we are assisted by a number of biographical facts, such as her sojourn at the prestigious Art Student League of New York School. If she had no explicitly indicated this close link with Pousette-Dart, I wonder whether I would have been capable of detecting it; however, having been given prior notice, I see how the pieces fall in to place, above all when bearing in mind not only the American painter’s surrealist tendencies, but also his taste for oriental calligraphy, thick impasto, figurative recourse to totemic elements, and, above all, the constant presence in his work of lyrical atmospheres.
Recounted thus in abstract, it is true that each of these facets characteristic of Poussette- Dart can be seen to converge in what we now see of Arita Shahrzad’s paintings. However, the same can be said of many artists of his generation, among them Grace Hartigan. In any case the problems is not so much where or on the basis of what Arita Shahrzad began to paint, but rather how she does it, which is our best clue towards the discover of who she is. This time has therefore come to contemplate and question her imagery.
The first image is the gaze, represented in the form of wide-open eyes, without lashes, that seem to pop out of their sockets. They are eyes possessed of that strange, fixed quality of fright. Of all the canvases I have been able to contemplate, only in one painting the eyes stare directly at the observer, transmitting a certain melancholy which softens the sensation of anguish that is nevertheless what shows through. They are clearly the eyes of a young woman which, besides looking directly forwards, fill the foreground, leaving visible only the top part of the face, as if this were covered with an oriental veil or as if its owner were spying furtively and fearfully through a window, daring to reveal only the forehead.
We feel the terror or the melancholy of these lonely eyes, but we can not perceive what they are staring at or why they reflect such anxiety. On the other hand, what we can observe is the setting that surrounds these figures or these faces that seem to be reduced to purely ocular elements. This setting is almost always a landscape, but a kind of landscape transformed in to an atmosphere, as if its figurative outlines, which at times evoke an urban background, had been practically erased, all the remains being a number of circumstantially very violent lines that mark the horizon. However, even these lines, independently of how violently they my stand out, appear above all as frontiers between different areas of colours: chromatic atmospheres which saturate the space with their own life. The colours smoke, boil, crackle, condense, and even when they give the impression of having cooled they are like a kind of rain of particles in suspension; a dry dust which on settling, buries a lustreless reality.
The Atmosphere, in any case, is always a material charged with incidences whose fundamental component ( since it is thanks to this component that they exist) is light. Arita Shahrzad’s light is always back light, light that glitters from the background of the canvas. Sometimes it is dimmed, like that of a lamp placed behind whose dull vibrations allows the observer to glimpse the transparent density of the bodies and the crackling of the accidents. On other occasions it takes the form of violent sheets capable of passing through layers of ice or compact in the only way possible, as a luminous wound; flooding everything with reds, blues, yellows and organs…
Vapours or crystals, these decidedly lyrical atmospheres- of a lyricism that envelopes, embraces pain, as if clearing a desolate horizon, with sharp sensation, as if clearing a desolate horizon, with sharp sensations, like two eyes that cut through reality- are indeterminate spaces in which man loses gravity and is left floating in the air. In the wall-less spaces cries are deprived of an echo, they are drowned cries without resonance; in the state of the bodily levitation the wide open eyes perhaps see nothing precise, and their fearful fixity is vertigo, a sounding of solitude without frontiers. Thus face is thus merely a look of fear, while the body, in its condition as support, as kind of spindle or needle that attempts vainly to become fixed in a decidedly vaporous, unembraceable reality.
I am repeatedly reminded of Paul Klee, the Klee of the final period with its simultaneously grotesque and terrible angles, fiercely human, with their bold black outlines silhouetting the void. That wise and dispirited Klee, whose scrutinised gaze swept a horizon in ruins, nevertheless moves us b virtue of his cruel pity, so far removed now from impertinent sarcasm and so resembling a prayer in the olive grove or a plea for forgiveness from the cross. Arita Shahrzad, however, is a young Persian lost in the world or, in any case, a cosmopolitan suffering from vertigo. The crossroads in time and space possess secret harmony decipherable only from a lofty, cosmic perspective. Let us not forget that Paul Klee found himself when he went to North Africa, during an oriental Tunisian night; from the East to the West, Arita Shahrzad has built an inverse scale for herself with the same sense of finding herself in reverse. The silhouette of an angel may well embrace a firmament of desolation an redeem it, like a doll in human form, slender as a pin in whose head shine two searingly brilliant eyes, and may also become the magic amulet of a young disoriented painter who desires to penetrate reality even though it bleeds.
Where, then, do these two eyes gaze in a veil of mist? We do not know; but what we do know for sure is that this lost vision attempts to fix reality, needs a support, demands a floor, seeks an origin. As regards this, I certainly do not know why Arita Shahrzad chose to paint, but I am convinced that paintings supervenes when one’s own identity must be imagined, when caught in a vertiginous dream one must pinch oneself to discover if one is dreaming and, awoken by the pain, realising that wide-open eyes notwithstanding, everything that is happening is simply a nightmare. This could be a cautionary tale- a dream not even painted- of one of the thousand sleepless oriental nights in which art is what is must most profoundly be; a strategy for survival whether ( and this makes no difference) in the east or in the West. This, at least, is what my eyes see or imagine thanks to or at the expense of the enchanted images of Arita Shahrzad, a young Persian painter, educated in Switzerland, residing in New York and now, for the first time, presenting her work in Madrid.
Francisco Calvo Serraller
Born in 1948 he served as director of the Prado Museum in 1993-1994. Bachelor of Arts, Complutense University of Madrid, is a doctor with honors in Art History.