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 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
—either 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, 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