The vanitas, writes Art Historian Norman Bryson, is built on a paradox of “world rejection and world ensnarement.” A favourite subject of Golden Age still lives, the vanitas became a reflection on the certainty of death, but also on the emptiness of accumulation. Like the certainty that a cut flower will wilt or food will rot, the vanitas meditates on the futility of pursuing that which does not last. Porcelain vessels and trinkets, emptied of function in a still life context, become merely ornamental—meditative and devoid of touch. They exist in a tiny void space, spotlit to indicate only the vaguest sense of spatial depth.
15 vanitas still lives are exhibited in Cyanide. In these minutely rendered miniature paintings, typical trappings of the Golden Age vanitas appear and reappear: a vase with cut flowers, insects, a collection of shells, an ornately carved human skull. Like that of the Baroque painter, these are bibelots from Khatibi’s studio, fragments in a lifelong ontological pursuit of collection..
“Megalography,” writes Norman Bryson in his book of essay Looking at the Overlooked, “is the depiction of those things in the world which are great—the legends of the gods, the battles of heroes, the crises of history.” These are scenes that contain no room for triviality, for the rhopographic. And yet, as one’s gaze shifts from the focused spaces of Khatibi’s still lives to her three large-scale, megalographic paintings in the exhibition, these same vanitas objects incongruously reappear. Transported to a beautiful and murderous new place, the objects are accompanied by a familiar mortal coterie: insects, birds, reptiles, and cultivated flowers. Are they home at last, liberated from the void space of a still life? Or are they anxious performers in unsettling nature, like city slickers roving the countryside in straw hats?
The human figures in Khatibi’s dramatic scenes, invented or amalgamated from ancient imagination, appear undefined amidst their lush natural surroundings. They are primordial, as-yet-unfinished in their facture and their mythology. In one painting, three marauding women alike in appearance (perhaps sisters), chase a fourth woman who is stopped in her tracks by a hissing fox, her saviour or assassin. In another painting, two women, again alike in appearance (perhaps lovers) struggle in mortal combat: one screeches from all fours as her foe bares her teeth in anticipation of the final blow. In the exhibition’s largest painting, meanwhile, a woman (perhaps a giant) urinates over the side of a waterfall as a smaller woman dangles with piddly insignificance between the giant’s thumb and forefinger.
Life is frankly terrifying. Profuse facades betray cruel impulses. Khatibi’s paintings remind us that these impulses are not anomalous, but omnipresent facts of nature that lurk behind every tree. And here, as decorative objects once held in safe suspension find themselves transposed into violent scenes, we are left to ask: are they macguffins, weapons, or witnesses? Removed from the ornamental realm, perhaps they begin to suggest function again: a bowl becomes a basin for blood; a vial, the keeper of poison. Or perhaps they are simply in the way as reminders of another pernicious human trait: accumulation. Either way, these precious objects are imbued with hapticality they may be due, put in relation to their insatiable human counterparts. Suddenly weighted in space, they create a role for themselves—by their very presence in the these forebodingly beautiful landscapes— in the human dramas they observe.
- Written on the occasion of Sanam Khatibi’s exhibtion Cyanide at Galerie Rodolphe Janssen, 14.11.2020 – 30.01.2021
A cure for the treading mind:
Allow the bath water to drain around you
Escaping your shivering body
And pleasantly timeless
It does the work
Which is to say it flushes
Is to say gravity
It does the work
And the air
A slow dance in thuds
A song of praise
Slipping from your pocket as
Cold feet search the bed
Have you ever
Run so hard
That you started to fly?
(I did on Tuesday for one beat of the heart)
One beat, one beat, one beat of the
What do you do for a living?
Are you afraid of heights?
What time on Thursday does the garbageman pass by?
Is your mind still whirring when the morning chorus begins?
Rumble on cobble slides
and a third person
going dun dun dun dun
Your breath, the thump climax
Who makes your heart beat?
For one beat of the
And when it stops
- The original title of this work is The Rhythm Keeper (after Baraka)
- Written and performed on the occasion of Viviana Ableson’s exhibition GRAVITY at HaL Hofskulptur #5, Haus Am Lützowplatz, Berlin, 25 July – 25 October 2020
The Glassmaker (For Gaby, an Ekphrasis)
My dearest friend, you killed us with your love
You buried us in sand, lit a bonfire
Birthed us into a window to see through
Stillness as an impossibility
Maintain this pose
For the makers
Who labour on the outskirts, they’re makers
Of interfaces, makers of gluten droplets
Makers of rotten fruit light
Makers of sweet things written in sun ink
Of fluffy boats for preserves and butter
The technology of ancient remnants
Of dinner, ash, crumbs, and early mornings
Essentially an art of containment
Glassmakers are wizards who translate heat
Perform accidents of love and play tricks
On depth, only to see flatness better
Who produce darkness but never a void
A void, single mass, dense immensity
In it, there are innumerable globes, challenging
No one here’s cast in the other’s likeness
But by way of the forms we wear for others
Not alone, but in symbiosis
In serial appraisal
- Written on the occasion of Gabriele Beveridge’s exhibition at Native, Perpignan,11 September – 24 September 2019
Spoon the Air
Not all arrangements
Grow subterranean roots
But crack and fan unfinished
Spoon the air
As if to emerge from or return to
The earth aren’t the same thing but
A slow dance together
At the end of the night—
Remember our long nights?
And mornings that felt like night?
Holding each other
Without each other, collapsing
Arrangements collapsing in silk cascades
What are the colours of our nature?
The futile desire to describe their smells
An olfactory abstraction
An occidental condition
I’ll describe them
By their power of attraction
And the spaces they fill:
Our rosey-lit nostrils
The backs of our mouths
The tips of our tongues
The creases of our lips
Lingering the next day on
Like new love
Tasting origins of
Barn floors warmed by milked bodies
Marauding vines, clinging alchemy
On salt splattered cliffs
The crisp haze of grass beds
Always fragrant, pungent, perfumed
- Written for the inaugural exhibition and meal at Native, Perpignan, 3 – 9 September 2019
A famously stupid monk
Claimed he could float through thin air
The skeptics replied
He’s no mystic!
He’s no fucking mystic!
His aerial traverses
Are borne of ungracious leaps
Not slow and suspenseful levitation!
But his portrait was painted
Astronauts worship him now
What about the invading air?
For centuries it has crept into
Threatened states of repose
Through open windows
It invades thickly
Reaching down gaped throats
Snores ringing in moonlight
Limbs anchored to the moon
Compressed by gravity
For some of us
There is only sickness or health
There is only horizontal or vertical
Unworked hands further softened
for interfacing with glowing glass
5 days of hot liquids
Leave soft rings on night stands.
Liquid in measures of 75%
Kept in place by the moon
Like sun blinds breakfast tables
Or seeds search warmth
A rich boy was scolded for eating dirt
He opened his mouth for his mother
Who saw the whole universe:
Fire and wind and the birds and the planets.
In flecks of salivated earth
Yes I know that’s fucking impossible.
No one can hold the tether
that binds them to their world
- Written on the occasion of Anna Solal’s exhibition at Une, Une, Une, Perpignan, March 2018
And what about the sea? The unpredictable sea that we wistfully mistake for calm when it is really very, very unrelenting. The sea whose rhythmic surface belies an entire unseen world, an overwhelming number of dangerous contingencies. We will never find order in the sea, only in our depiction of its surface, pointed loops that calm our fears of its disorder.
Consider the lazy curve of the young bather’s back in the hum of the midday heat. How it mirrors his own crooked nose, the smoke stacks and those pensive working men who relax in the background. A man and his dog once lounged in the foreground too.
They have been cut out of Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières (1884) by Loïc Raguénès. What happens to the scene’s composition, its mood, its meaning in their absence? With whom does the agency of decision lie? Seurat’s painting, of course, is hardly his own anymore. Raguénès has edited the image via an exhibition poster, reproduced a million times, thus asking the image to continue reverberating through time, mutating—its focus shifting.
Payne’s Grey, here, masquerades at first as black, its dilutions gradually giving way to a brooding grey-blue: the colour of the Atlantic on a cloudy day. There is no true black in its pigmentation, but a muddle of ultramarine (or indigo) and sienna: vibrancy rendered mute when paired. Most crucially, it is a colour that exists for the background, originally formulated in order to better reproduce progressive desaturation in atmospheric perspective. Like Seurat’s scene, it asks us to focus not only on what is in front of us, but what may be to come, that which is just out of reach on the horizon or the edges of a painting.
Truffaut’s La Peau Douce (“The Soft Skin”) is the story of an extra-marital affair. Of off-kilter decisions. Is it the matchbook that Nicole (Françoise Dorleac) writes her phone number in for Pierre (Jean Desailly), or is it Pierre’s woefully misunderstood interpretation of her commitment to him (in the form of the apartment he finds for them) that leads to his pathetic demise? How can spontaneity, choice, self-determination be so haplessly stifled in the name of love? What is contained in a romantic gesture?
Loïc Raguénès asks us to meditate on these disparate elements as they mell with the seeming simplicity of his paintings in gouache and tempera. They are methodical, rhythmic, and serene. And yet, one suspects a certain entropy about to give way to the moment in which our ease in digesting the work will falter. Raguénès’ practiced geometry and measured colours are decisions that mask slippage into an intriguing, and much murkier world.
This, perhaps is what is contained in a tulip. The product of a bulb, like an onion, whose translucent layers contain as many possibilities as the decision to offer its flower to a person you think you might love.
- Written on the occasion of Loïc Raguénès exhibition at CLEARING, Brussels, 2018