Monday, 21 May 2018


An edited version of the following text accompanies Talar Aghbashian's impressive show 'Transposition'. That's currently on view at Marfa' Projects in the Lebanon, which has an excellent programme. London-based Aghbashian has an Armenian-Lebanese background.

Floating Island, 2018 - 61 x 76cm


April-July 2018 at Marfa' Projects,  Beirut

Of what does the world consist? According to the early Wittgenstein in the Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus (1921) ‘the existence and non-existence of states of affairs is reality’.  It’s natural, despite the balance apparent in that formulation, to focus on what is the case rather than on what isn’t. Wittgenstein’s balance, however, seems particularly evident in Talar Aghbashian’s paintings: what’s present crowds in, yet what’s absent has a palpable force as well.  I’m reminded of Arshile Gorky, whose synthesis of expressive and surreal, abstraction and landscape, personal and symbolic finds definite echoes in Aghbashian’s work. Perhaps her background - Lebanese of Western Armenian descent  – contributes to that affinity as well as to how those places’ histories inform  paintings which are successively built up and ground down so that, in her words,  ‘some layers remain transparent, others dense, some blur, expand and shrink, get wiped, ever evolve and coexist’. 

Hybrid, 2018 - 95 x 80 cm

Aghbashian’s most characteristic canvases mesh aspects of landscape, still life and body to yield psychologically intense hybrids.  Indeed, Hybrid (all paintings oil on canvas, 2018 unless stated) is itself a good example:  a landscape setting, judged by the chain of distant mountains, is dominated by a structure which might – depending partly on our reading of scale - be seen as a building; a still life object; or a sculpture.  There’s just enough detail to suggest all three, but not quite enough to settle on any one of them. Then again, in the way of the duck-rabbit which flickers between the interpretations our mind places on it, we can look at Hybrid, encouraged by its portrait proportions, as a head. A rather empty head, to be sure, but with a good crop of hair, a green tongue and a notional nose hanging like a grey bag off the underpinning skeleton-come-scaffold. 

Mountain Chain, 2018 - 76 x 61cm

As its title suggests, the geological landscape is more prominent in Mountain Chain, but it remains possible to read all those same elements into what is in other ways a very different painting. Now the face is craggier, and the architectural aspect not so obvious unless we know the ‘Park of Memory’ building in the Ukraine (A. Milteski, 1985), which was one of Aghbashian’s inspirations.  The sculptural strand, consistent with her use of her own clay models as another source, is the most immediate in Untitled, though the way the main form is propped also suggests a building which has been bombed and then hastily shored up. 

Untitled, 2018 - 102 x 76cm

Aghbashian’s methods reinforce the ambiguity and precarity. The limited colour range serves to blend one passage into another. The flatness of the painted surface in its actual physical presence is sometimes countered by passages of the perspectival illusion, sometimes not. Look at Site: the attempt to unpick ‘what lies in front of what’ draws us in to a claustrophobic space. 

Paper Forest, 2018 - 102 x 76cm

That seems like a lot to be in the paintings: landscape, still life, sculpture, bodily presence.  An interesting contrast is with the 1980s ‘dust paintings’ which Carolee Schneemann identified as her  response to the war in Lebanon: they reduce the painted world to crushed remnants mired in ash. In Aghbashian’s case, one might rather ask what isn’t in the paintings, as a means of pinning down their essence. You’d be hard put to identify the eponymous four woods and one river, though there is a Paper Forest and there are copious flows: of paint, especially, and the energy of its application.  There are no depictions of figures in a straightforward way, certainly no fully realised people, and few whole things at all: we’re in a world of breakage.  There are no bright colours: grey, brown, ochre and muted blues are dominant. There are no expanses of sky: we seem hemmed in despite being out in the open. None of the still life suggestions look like nourishing fruit. Indeed, there’s minimal vegetation. It’s all consistent with scarred buildings in a desert landscape. Even Aghbashian’s tendency to sand down her paint as she moves between layers has the sound of the desert about it. And what is the desert if not the landscape of dominant absence.

Perhaps that gives the impression of a narrowly focused practice, of the kind of artist who ratchets up the intensity by obsessively revisiting their compulsions. In fact, having set up that atmospheric backdrop, Aghbashian varies the tone by introducing different elements.

Untitled, 2015

Untitled, 2015 (for which she was shortlisted for the prestigious John Moores prize in 2016) zooms in on a hand which seems likely to have broken away from a discredited politician’s monumental statue.  

Afloat, 2018 - 77 x 102cm
Afloat lightens the landscape setting, lifts the central sculptural elements into a floating cloud-come-explosion, and plays with braided hair as the main bodily reference. Once you look for it, hair becomes a recurring element, as in the pony tail of Floating Island and the curls cascading from Totem.

Totem, 2018 - 100 x 80cm

That surreal twist is most prominent when elongated balloons appear, infusing colour and complicating the reading of scale. They’re explicit in Lido, Island and Machine, but can also be read into Tube City and Ruin Site. Balloons are a double-edged incursion, however. In summoning the comic tradition of the clown they evoke the cliché of sadness beneath the knock-about surface, a cliché which has a long art history as well as a contemporary presence in, say, Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman and Ugo Rondinone.  Moreover, these particular balloon forms suggest intestines, as indicted by the title of Inside Out. And who knows when everything will go pop?

Inside Out, 2018 - 95 x 95cm

Aghbashian, then, is a more varied artist than might at first appear. What is most consistent is her obvious interest in her medium, the way she develops ambiguity and interest through the unique opportunity it offers to move us between paint as paint, and paint as what it represents. Underpinning that, Aghbashian’s images balance trauma with painterliness, what we can see with what we can’t, with quiet yet penetrating power. 

Note: it was too obvious to state to a Lebanese audience, but as Aghbashian was born (in 1981) to Armenian parents, two historic events are bound to be important to her. First, her grandparents fled across the desert to Lebanon to escape the 1915 genocide in which the Ottoman Turks exterminated 1.5m Armenians. Second, she grew up mainly in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90. After studying at the University of Fine Arts in Beirut, Aghbashian moved to London to take an MFA at St Martin’s 2007-08. She stayed, but still goes back to the Lebanon regularly.

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About Me

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Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.