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“Poetry is what I hope I have achieved.” Robert Ayers in conversation with Shirazeh Houshiary

Shirazeh Houshiary, "String Quintet" (2011)

Excellent news for southern Californian admirers of sophisticated painting and sculptures: Shirazeh Houshiary opened a small show based around her spectacular sculpture String Quintet (2011) at LA Louver last week. Rather implausibly it’s actually her first show in Los Angeles.

I have been intrigued by Ms Houshiary’s work since I first saw it back at London’s Lisson Gallery in 1984. That was her first London show and her work was very different from the serene and contemplative paintings and sculptures that are identified with her name now. Curiously enough, although our paths have crossed many times in the almost thirty years since my first exposure to her work, the first occasion that we had to talk to one another in any serious way was when the Kiev Bienniale opened at the beginning of the summer.

I’ve already written more than enough about that fiasco here and here.

As one might expect of the maker of such sophisticated work, Ms Houshiary’s conversation is full of allusion, metaphor, and suggestion. There are no simple explanations here. Stimulation and provocation take their place.

Shirazeh Houshiary, "String Quintet" (2011)

String Quintet, the beautiful swirling thing at the center of her current show is atypical Houshiary sculpture: despite its lyricism it stands happily – and perhaps most appropriately – in an external urban setting. In addition it is so rich in associations it seems able to be several different things at the same time. Even its title can perform the same trick.

Ms Houshiary agreed with me when I proposed that, at its simplest level, the title String Quintet refers to the five ‘strings’ of steel that comprise the sculpture.

“But there is also a pretty obvious musical reference there,” I suggested, “How specifically do you intend that to be understood?”

String Quintet suggests the presence of force and field rather than physical forms,” she replied enigmatically, “and it is similar to music in that it is only sound waves.  It is the relationship between what is seen by the eyes and what is felt. Felt experiences are closer to reality.”

Shirazeh Houshiary, "String Quintet" (2011)

This faith in “felt experience” is basic to Ms Houshiary’s sense of how her work functions.

Shirazeh Houshiary, "Lacuna" (2011)

I asked her about Lacuna, a not dissimilar sculpture to String Quintet and made at about the same time.  Her response gives a sense of the complexity of what she is attempting in both pieces:

Lacuna’s forms are generated by spiral forces crashing into one another, and its s color was inspired by Jacobo da Pontormo’s painting Deposition and its use of pink and turquoise. In the painting he uses the forces of spiral forms to intertwine the bodies that hold the limp body of Christ. The spiral lines create a sense of turbulence in which the pink line gently weaves through the composition with serenity and calm. Turbulence and calm seem to be simultaneous.”

Jacopo da Pontormo, "Deposition from the Cross" (1525-28)

Turbulence and calm certainly marked the week of the Kiev opening. Chaos reigned, but hard work and good fortune meant that her own work, a splendid painting called Between (2010/11) and two sculptures, Stretch and Tear (both 2011) were in place in time for the opening. Somewhat remarkably, the room that they occupied breathed an air of calm in the midst of the surrounding panic. She was genuinely relieved when I told her that. “That’s a wonderful thing to say,” she replied, “and I’m happy that they did that. That painting’s a very important work for me.”

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Shirazeh Houshiary, "Between" (2010/11)

“My work is not really made for that kind of show,” she went on, “but this particular painting survived there. I had to put an invigilator there because people love to touch it. I can’t put a rope around it; that would ruin it. But it’s quite frightening when people get that close.”

This is an interesting dilemma for an artist like Ms Houshiary, and it relates to the sort of response that her work prompts in audiences like the one we encountered in Kiev: “It’s a different world,” is how she put it. “You must know that by now. I saw them at the opening standing in front of the paintings photographing themselves. For them it’s a souvenir. It’s a bit like Asia – Hong Kong, or India, all of these places. There’s no tradition of looking at art in a museum or a special space. That is a western idea.”

It’s no surprise that Ms Houshiary, born in Iran but now regarded a British artist, is sympathetic to different audiences having different expectations. “Someone who has grown up in a communist system,” she says, by way of example, “is in a different dimension of existence to someone who comes from the west coast of the United States. We can’t deny that.”  But she is also a pragmatist. “People are going to have to get used to it,” she said, “because the world is a bigger place. I don’t want to be arrogant and say that one part of the world is better than another. It’s just different. And at present these people aren’t really experiencing anything.”

Clearly this a crucial issue for her, and I put it to her that her work is “all about experience.” “Completely,” she responds. “I am part of that tradition.  And that’s why I am better understood in Europe and America than anywhere else, strangely. It’s a sad thing to admit. It surprises me, but nowadays when I exhibit in other parts of the world, my work is alien to those audiences. Completely alien. It’s part of a tradition that has developed in Europe. I think we all have to admit to it in the end, and I think we have to come to terms with it.”

The key question is what sort of experience Ms Houshiary would hope her audience might derive from her work. I suggest that it must begin with the physical form of the sculptures and painting.

Shirazeh Houshiary, "No Boundary Condition", installation view, Lisson Gallery, London, 2011

“Well, I’m glad that you say that, because there is a relationship between the two objects and the painting [in the Kiev installation] at the point where they meet. Somehow both the painting and the sculptures offer the possibility of looking into multidimensional spaces. And the two sculptures stretch physical space. It’s actually not the space outside of them that’s important, but the space inside. And when they stretch they begin to tear and lose their industrial quality.”  Ms Houshiary’s emphasis upon the relationship between the components of the installation is intriguing, particularly as the titles of all three pieces, Between, Tear, and Stretch, seem to refer to it. “I prefer to suggest that it is presence (or relationship) that makes us aware of the world,” she explains, “rather than fixed bodies. Even an awareness of ourselves depends on this.”

The relationships that Between sets up are fascinating. It is an imposing diptych over six feet tall and nearly eighteen feet wide, though it includes calligraphic pencil marks that are almost microscopically small. Consequently, though it is rich in associations, it is impossible to attach a scale to its imagery. If you back away from it to see it as a whole, it is as though you’re looking into the deep dark void of outer space. The darkness is shrouded by white clouds of constellations or other space stuff. In some places this shroud thins in small patches, and as your eye moves across from left to right these patches break clear through the white veil and you are given a view through into the celestial void.

Shirazeh Houshiary, "Between" (2010/11) (detail - right hand panel)

But around the perimeters of the picture it is clear that the white cloud has the more or less regular texture of a loose knit fabric stretched out across the surface of the canvas. It is as though this is a literal shroud, something actual, physical, that is not intended to represent anything. It is at this scale that Ms Houshiary’s response to my question about how she decided upon the precise shapes and positions of the black voids makes most sense: “The painting is made laid flat on the floor and my perspective is a bird’s eye view when I’m working on it,” she told me. “The positions of the black holes are related to my own physical body moving inside the painting and partly intuitive. The shape of them is generated by different pressure points placed on the weave of the veil generating openings beyond the flat surface.” (I found her 2008 window commission for St Martin-in-the-Fields helpful in understanding what she meant here.)

Shirazeh Houshiary, Commission for Saint Martin-in-the-Fields (2008)

Get really close to the picture surface and what you had taken to be the warp and weft of fabric turns out to be Arabic calligraphy repeated over and over again in pencil, like the image of a chanted mantra. (When Between was first shown in 2011, the Lisson Gallery described it as “composed using two words which are crushed upon one another and bound together as if they cannot be divided. They are repeated in alternating sequences of semantics, one an affirmation, the other a denial, one is quick, one is slow; they overlap to create a dense layer within a diaphanous space.”)

Shirazeh Houshiary, "Between" (2010/11) (detail)

Having the picture’s suggestions of imagery slide so dramatically up and down the scale of possibilities, further even smaller readings are hinted at. Is this actually some microscopic phenomenon that we’re seeing, or even the normally invisible happenings of particle physics?Despite their fugitive and ambiguous character, it is essential that we contemplate these possibilities because it is only when we begin to consider the suggestive or associative qualities of Ms Houshiary’s work that we begin to approach its meanings.

When I used the word “contemplative” to suggest this aspect of her art, she offered the word “organic” instead. Then I try out the word “spiritual”.  “I dislike the word ‘spiritual’ as it has been abused in recent times,” she told me. “We need to abandon this word and understand it from another perspective. I think it is best to say ‘reflective’ or ‘intuitive’.”

The truth is that Ms Houshiary seems to accept any and all of those readings of her picture (and her art in general) and all at the same time. This is what she meant when she came up with the title of her latest Lisson Gallery show this time last year No Boundary Condition. “The universe has many layers, many dimensions [she told David Toop at the time] so why should I have a definable boundary? I truly believe that a true artist lives in no boundary condition.”

I told her that I once heard Rachel Lehmann, of her New York dealers Lehmann Maupin, describe her work as, “Highly poetic, meditative, obsessive, very individual,” and I asked her which of these words she prefers. She laughed, and replied, “It’s very hard to say, but I guess the best one is ‘poetic’. The meditative and the obsessive are part of the poetic dimension. Poetry is what I hope I have achieved. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know.”

I ask her whether a situation like the one we encountered in Kiev allows for poetry. “These are all fantastic experiences,” she says, “because we have to test ourselves against the most difficult situations. That’s why a show like this is worth doing, from my perspective.”

"Tear" (2011)

I concluded by asking her whether that means that she would participate in the Kiev Bienniale again if she knew what she knows now. She responded with optimistic globalism: “It’s very good to be part of the bigger picture of the world that we’re living in. We can’t ignore it. I’m very glad that this planet is coming together, because the people of the planet see each other more. (I won’t say they ‘understand’ each other more because that’s a big word.) Twenty years ago we were more divided. I don’t think that’s very healthy. Now the center is broken. We have many centers now. I think it’s a wonderful thing. And even for an artist like me whose work is more quiet, I feel that things are more expansive now than they’ve ever been. That’s despite the difficulties of exhibiting in all these shows. It’s more expansive because the experience of these people is new.”

(All images in this post courtesy  the artist, L.A. LOUVER Gallery, Lehmann Maupin Gallery, Lisson Gallery.)

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