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At the opening of her first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, Shirazeh Houshiary, the Turner Prize nominated artist, confidently told a small group of art journalists that while they might be eager to hear her explain the meaning of her work this was something she has always struggled with. Turning to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein for support in her argument, Houshiary quoted his statement, ‘What can be shown cannot be said.’  With this in mind, Houshiary’s seven new works on show at Lehmann Maupin, six paintings and a wall sculpture, are perhaps best defined by the cross-sensory encounter they present.

Shirazeh Houshiary. Photo: Shannon Oksanen

Image: Shirazeh Houshiary, Through Mist, 2015. Exhibition view, Lehmann Maupin Hong Kong. Image courtesy Lehmann Maupin New York and Hong Kong. Photo: Dave Morgan. 

For Houshiary, an Iranian-born Briton who currently lives and works in London, making art is a journey about perception and experience. Her work Soar, 2015, for example appears to vibrate and undulate within the exhibition space; the unfocused pencil and pigment work emanates from the canvas, shifting before the eye like a mirage. The canvas is the product of two months’ careful work, in which Houshiary painstakingly applies layer upon layer of colour onto the canvas, which is laid across the floor. The end result is a staggeringly unsettled image.

Image: Shirazeh Houshiary, Soar, 2015. Pencil and pigment on white aquacryl on canvas and aluminium, 190 x 190 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Photo: Dave Morgan

Getting closer to the work, it is possible to see how Houshiary has layered the coloured clouds of pigment with delicate writing. Totally illegible, the artist has superimposed the phrases ‘I am’ and ‘I am not’ across the canvas, blurring what she feels is the paradox at the heart of our existence. By overlapping such an essential binary, Houshiary enhances this sense of flux, suspending the canvas between being and not being. In this way her works appear to be indefinable physical entities that cannot be classified. 

Overwhelmed by images on a daily basis, for Houshiary, contemporary society has become increasingly removed from physical, sensorial engagement. Existing in their liminal state, Houshiary positions her canvases as a challenge to distance being created in our hyper-visual world. Impossible to capture with a simple glance, the tactile waves of colour and lines call on the viewer’s haptic senses. The delicate nature of Houshiary’s canvases make them untransferable to the digital world and utterly embedded in the tangible. The title of the exhibition, Through Mist, aims to heighten this desire to reach past the haze of the canvases, breaking through the drifts of colour to discover what lies beyond reality. In Houshiary’s opinion, an unfocused image allows us to see better as we cannot rely solely upon sight, but must employ other senses.

Image: Shirazeh Houshiary, Through Mist, 2015. Exhibition view, Lehmann Maupin Hong Kong. Image courtesy Lehmann Maupin New York and Hong Kong. Photo: Dave Morgan. 

For Houshiary, the canvases are painted in such a way that each time you encounter them they look different; filled with a shifting energy the works appear to hold the potential to continually change. The sculpture Resonance, 2015, according to Houshiary, is most indicative of this infinite temporality as it captures a ribbon blowing in the wind, preserving one moment forever.

Image: Shirazeh Houshiary, Resonance, 2015. Painted stainless steel, 68.7 x 191 x 51.8 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong Photo: Dave Morgan

Surrounded by fellow journalists fervently recording, photographing and writing notes about Houshiary’s speech, it was a challenge to fully grasp her arguments; there was too much noise and background activity to calmly absorb the aesthetics of her works. Despite this, meeting Houshiary has created a compelling need to return during a more peaceful moment, and revel in the paintings’ experiential vitality, taking a break from the chaos of the quotidian in order to reconnect with the sensual, physical reality. —[O]

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