The glowing light that seemed to emanate from Azadeh Elmizadeh’s “Subtle Bodies”—a suite of nine paintings presented in Franz Kaka’s new year-round location—was a welcome reminder of the material elegance of paint. Against the fatigue of experiencing everything on screens, here was an opportunity to feel the embodied presence of large, ambitious artworks directly and without mediation. Elmizadeh’s first solo exhibition couldn’t have come at a better time.
Working at an impressive scale (five of the canvases are more than four feet tall), she produced these works by slowly layering translucent glazes of oil paint over linen and canvas and then burnishing the surfaces to produce atmospheric gradations of colour. The earthy and elemental palette—fire, air, water all equally evoked—masks barely visible fragments of form (a hand, an arm, a silhouette) beneath swathes of striking colour. Some figures appear veiled, as in Circling Around (2020), while others move through doorways, windows or smoky shadows, as in Hovering Garden, Canopy and Flaming (all 2019). The effect is a scattering of shifting, moving surfaces. Instead of the illusionistic depth that oil paint is so adept at conjuring, here illusionistic space is flattened and compressed into a kind of painted collage.
In the smaller, more intimate works, the textured surface is evident, recalling the way that ceramic or fresco also offer rough, earthy surfaces well-suited to loose forms of narrative painting. In Voyager (2020), you can make out a figure, perhaps two, emerging beside what looks like a horse. Although there is barely a hint of detail, the imagination projects into the space what this journey might entail—is this a mountain pass, a forest, an ocean? Are we past, present or future? Even at this smaller scale, the frame feels barely capable of containing the cosmic expansiveness produced by fluid fields of colour.
I found myself considering how dynamic and energetic these largely abstract works were, and this quality of action was borne out in their verb-heavy titles: hovering, diving, circling, flaming, passing. These were paintings in, or of, various states of transformation—like the swirling surfaces of gaseous planets or the changing light of atmospheric particles at dusk or dawn, when the sky is aflame for brief moments. The images at hand seemed in constant flux. Rather than imparting frustration, the lack of resolution encouraged the viewer to engage these surfaces like one would a puzzle that can only be completed in one’s mind.
Many of the references in Elmizadeh’s works are drawn from Sufi cosmologies and the conventions and compositions of Persian miniature painting. In Circling Around, the references are specific to the swirling, spinning movements of dancing dervishes in the work of early 16th-century miniature painter Kamal al-Din Bihzad. Elmizadeh’s geometric lines here are impressive, offering enough for the eye to form shapes into a continually tightening spiral of dancers, a centrifugal force of gathering and radiating. In others, she reflects on “The Red Intellect,” a story of transformation and voyage by 12th-century Sufi mystic and philosopher Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi, where an archangel cloaked in red stands at the boundary between the spiritual and material world. It finds resolution in her work through flames and flame-shaped apparitions, vignettes, doors and openings used to partition space, all metaphorical references to liminality and transition.
Reading these works through miniature painting is instructive, as it offers a way to consider Elmizadeh’s material techniques within the legacy of Persian visual culture. But the interpretative possibilities are much broader; these paintings are neither entirely abstract nor precisely figurative, which is what makes them so pleasing, and puzzling. Colour shimmers; it is hazy, unformed, atmospheric. The gestures are bold, confident. Just as you start to sense a narrative surfacing, it is subsumed again under clouds or plumes or dust. In a game of constant looking, patterns and combinations deny you the chance to decipher a scene beneath the surface.
That you can read into so many art historical references without needing to understand a specific lineage makes the work highly relatable. Indeed, part of what makes abstract painting—and abstraction in general—endure across so many canons and cultures of art is that we recognize it for its formal and aesthetic qualities. Elmizadeh manages to combine the power of abstraction and colour-field painting with a nuanced use of figuration in way that is both elegant and enigmatic.