IAS371: personal reflection

If someone had said to me two and a half years ago that the pinnacle of work from my undergraduate art studies would be a black square, I would’ve laughed out loud. Minimalism never spoke to me before now and in galleries, I walked quickly past the paintings of large, clean geometric blocks and sculptures and sharp lines in favour of the more figuratively immediate, emotionally impacting or rewarding images.

I knew I wanted this project to explore grief and early on, I made three decisions that shaped the direction and seemed to me at the time (and still do), to be the best way to approach loss. The first decision was that the final works would be monochromatic; the second, to negate the figurative and any kind of direct narrative; and third, to visibly avoid expressing an emotional state and remove my personal story in the work.

I began by following the impulse to be in the mystery as much as possible and challenge the tyranny of knowing. I knew I didn’t want my work to reflect my personal story of loss but rather to explore it in a broader field but I didn't know yet what that would look like. With no other goal than exploration and experimentation, I started with the instruction to “get into the physicality of the medium” and created many small pieces in different mediums in sixteen compositions. There were lots of discoveries along the way: preparing a ground creates depth; I like soft and smudged lines; charcoal kept wanting to represent something; I’m not patient enough for watercolour; I prefer to remove colour to reveal layers rather than apply colour on top; white emerges and black recedes; and playing with medium tended to lead me into making expressive marks (and I didn’t want that). Early on in the process, there were hints at some interesting connection with geometric forms but rather than pausing and exploring that more, I stuck to the rules I laid down and kept slapping, scribbling and dripping medium on paper in set compositions. In hindsight, the clarity and peace I experienced when drawing straight lines and precise circles with a protractor was pointing me in the direction of focusing on shape all along and I’m curious about what else I might have discovered naturally if I followed that initial pleasant response.

I read a lot this semester: from diving into the formless (a body, prone on the floor while a black ceiling slowly lowers down from above was one idea) and the abject (using menstrual blood and semen as a physical expression of life and death was another); philosophy (Foucault on power and control, Kant on the sublime and Lyotard on the loss of meta narratives and presenting the unpresentable in these postmodern times); poststructuralist thought in which it’s impossible to say or create anything without making meaning (Sarah Sentilles in Draw Your Weapons and Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain); and interviews and writings on the transcendent and abstract minimalist artists, Mark Rothko, Agnes Martin and Sol LeWitt. From this internal adventure I gained an appreciation of the context into which my work is placed and how this has been expressed by others.

Eventually… after several breakdowns and breakthroughs, I arrived at a playful afternoon of drawing with paper cutouts of squares, circles, rectangles and triangles. This was an embodied way to explore and experience different compositions. To my surprise, I found each shape has a tale of it’s own to tell when I held it in my hands and turned and moved it to different positions on the ground. I don’t need to tell my story because shapes tell their own and that's enough. There’s a stillness and silence in geometric shapes that transcend the mind and emotion and so I arrived… at the black square.

"The black square is a protest against knowing." 
- Shirazeh Houshiary

Pondering the guidance received on using the triptychs of digitally edited compositions as my final pieces instead of creating five physical paintings, I found a deeper way to approach transcendence in the doing of the actual work. If those digitally edited images can be seen as an interesting commentary on approaching abstract minimalism from a contemporary perspective, then perhaps I owe it to the work itself to transcend my personal feelings of liking or disliking the process of creating them. I'm generally driven by likes and dislikes and life continues to challenge me to rise above them in many areas. Why should my art be any different? Conceptually, I began by wanting to separate my personal story and feelings from the expression of grief and here I am, separating my personal story and feelings from the making of the art also. There's a completeness to this that resonates.

Working with the pixel demands a level of perfection and this purity is something I desired the final project to reflect. I could never in a million years create the impeccably straight and immaculate line the pixel can… even with the world’s most precise technical pen, laser ruler and ultra smooth paper. Three dimensional reality is textured and messy. Photo editing also requires logic, a plan and a mechanistic approach and (like it or not), this is something I'm better at than being intuitive and freely expressive in my art work at this time. Also (like it or not), my visual art studies over the last two and a half years have existed primarily in the digital space and I've used digital photography liberally to curate and stage my physical art for the screen.

Finally, working in the digital space is the ultimate commentary on removing the personal as the artwork is disembodied, not only from my physical reality but from the viewer’s as well. Digital works are suspended and ageless, divorced from connection with its maker and divorced from place, from the body, from memory, from identity and from time and time’s affects. The digital world is an infinite space and in that, it transcends the reality of everyday life, everyday objects and everyday norms.

Shirazeh Houshiary
Acrylic paint and graphite on canvas
1902 × 1902 × 36 mm


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