Maryam Amiryani, Paper Boat, Zebra (Toward Noah’s Ark), oil on linen; courtesy Jonathan Cooper Gallery, London
Maryam Amiryani keeps it simple. Her still-life paintings, most no larger than twelve inches in either direction, are devoted to spare arrays of objects–one, two or three things placed on a tabletop. She doesn’t stray far from home in selecting them. A loaf of bread; a sunflower from the garden; takeout sushi; sugar cubes from the kitchen–Amiryani’s motifs are close at hand and redolent of everyday pleasures.
The objects are, at times, highly personal and idiosyncratic: An opium pipe, a green “Mao” cap with a brash red star, a jumble of plaster hands and a pair of plastic fish dangling inside a wine glass, suspended from its lip by a string attached to a fork.
The paintings reveal an artist who believes that the things accumulated during a lifetime–whether they are silly, odd or disposable–are worthy of attention. Memories or associations can be divined within them–even a miniature toy pig offers a repository for experience.
Forget for a moment that we don’t necessarily know what import a given object may hold for Amiryani. It’s enough that the paintings embody its significance or, if you like, specificity. There’s nothing arbitrary in Amiryani’s art. Her still-lifes are imbued with, if not life exactly, then a meditative reflection of it. A sense of private worth permeates the images.
All of which makes Amiryani’s art sound dreadfully metaphysical. Mooning over intangibles can lead to art of slim means and meager reward. That’s not the case here. However entranced Amiryani may be by the ineffable, the physical is recognized and gratefully embraced. In that respect, she is a materialist–an artist firmly in love with a world full ofstuff.
The still-lifes set in front of Amiryani’s easel are concrete, actual. They are, in that sense, inescapable. The physical presence of things has to be taken in to account. Representation–the way in which oils can give body to light or how it can endow a series of forms with heft and volume–is of primary import. Amiryani wouldn’t have it any other way.
Amiryani’s materialism is equally evident in her paint handling. An artist is successful to the extent to which illusion is fostered while allowing the materials to retain their independence. Image and material bolster themselves or, rather, the distinction between them is rendered seamless. Amiryani does so with a modestly stated élan.
Alternating transparent washes with opaque passages of paint, or abrading the surface of the support, Amiryani brings tender grit to her surfaces. She’s likened this approach to printmaking, pottery and weaving–modes of expression wherein craft is overt and dependent on the ministrations of hand, muscle and process. Material sensuality is held in check, yet it is deeply felt and gentle in its intensity. Calm, not extremity, characterizes the work.
Amiryani’s brush grapples not only with representation, but also with what could best be termed temporal accuracy. Time is acknowledged but not surrendered to. Like the 18th century French painter Jean-Baptiste-Simeon, an artist whom Amiryani admires, the paintings make permanent, sometimes unnervingly so, transitory phenomenon. The bread we bought this morning will be eaten by tonight. Cut flowers will soon begin to droop. Amiryani stills these actions, forever fixing them in oils.
Of course, all paintings are static in material fact. It is the artist’s challenge to animate the motif and thereby give it meaning. Amiryani’s images move, but do so only with great deliberation. She doesn’t seize a moment; she slows it down and sustains it. By compelling us to take in a single event at one time, Amiryani presents an alternative to the anxieties bred by our fast paced, multi-tasking 24/7 world.
Better to know one thing deeply, the paintings suggest, than to know many things in passing. Amiryani brings solidity to a necessary sense of respite. That is her achievement and her gift.
(c) 2008 Mario Naves
Essay for catalogue accompanying an exhibition of paintings by Maryam Amiryani at Jonathan Cooper Gallery, London.