LUSTER Exhibition Review

Peter Frank, May 11, 2019

Haleh Mashian does not paint trees. She does not paint forests. She paints the condition that persists between trees and forests and those of us who enter those forests, who approach those trees as manifestations of energy and mood. These are paintings of presences, and at the same time of emotional and mental weather. These are not evocations of places so much as evocations of feelings.


In other words, these are abstract paintings, in the true sense of the word. They abstract phenomena in the seen world into stimuli in the felt world, as painters have done throughout the modern era. They are images of trees and are designed to remain images, not to depict trees. That they more closely resemble birches than they do banyans is the artist’s response not to lived experience but to envisioned experience. She paints the trees that best suit her abstract goals. The birch happens to cluster into forests of a certain type, the species’ rigid verticality compiling into a forbidding yet inviting density, a homogeneous texture that, in this pictorial context, functions as a neutral format, a seeming tabula rasa that sucks in light and radiates color. Monet did not make pictures of haystacks, he painted paintings in which haystacks function as a self-effacing subject that all but disappears under the artist’s brush. They are the exact opposite of icons: they are points of departure. Similarly, Mashian’s trees are not vegetation, they are structural and textural devices. 


It is not Mashian, then, who can’t see the forest for the trees. She makes forests out of trees. It is we who behold these tableaux and confabulate impassible copses and ominous fairy tales. There’s nothing wrong with this, unless it takes us entirely away from the act of seeing to an act of imagining. Such a removal renders us blind, heedless of optical stimulus. It is Mashian’s job to imagine, it is ours to see. As long as we see these paintings and not read them, we’re on the right track. 


This is not to insist that we not look for “meaning.” Our associations are as valid as they are inevitable. Furthermore, the current condition of the world gives new, urgent meaning to living things, casting every plant and animal as a component of a doomed, crumbling biosphere. Mashian’s trees advocate for ecological awareness because they represent the environment even before she paints them. But they don’t glower because their environment is proving increasingly hostile; they glower because the humans viewing them have complex emotions and tend to anthropomorphize not just fellow living things, but depictions of them. 


These paintings are sly and alluring in their refusal to be simple or straightforward. But in the wake of modern abstract art, this circumstance is itself readily understood. Haleh Mashian’s paintings may be complex in the way they use subject matter to divert attention away from subject matter; but they are quite direct in their address to the history of art and the self-awareness of the contemporary audience. They reaffirm the Impressionists’ and abstractionists’ claim — demonstration, really — that what you see is what you see, it just happens not to be what you’re looking at.