The vanitas, writes Art Historian Norman Bryson, is built on a paradox of “world rejection and world ensnarement.” It is 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 tableau 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 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 her 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 onto violent scenes, we are left to ask: are they macguffins, weapons, or witnesses? Removed from the ornamental realm, 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 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
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
Maintenance of this pose
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
The sea’s rhythmic surface belies an entire unseen world, an overwhelming number of dangerous contingencies. We will never find order in it, only in the 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 falters. 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