Azadeh Elmizadeh’s Subtle Bodies

Images courtesy the artist and Franz Kaka

Review by Tatum Dooley

I’ve been spending too much time on Instagram, where the size and materiality of a painting are flattened beyond recognition. How many people, on viewing the Mona Lisa, have exclaimed how small it is? Or missed the nuance of an Ad Reindhart painting, rendered monotone on screen? Looking at Azadeh Elmizadeh’s paintings on Instagram does a disservice to them—their scale and temporality, which leads to a bodily response, are impossible to translate digitally. As I said when viewing Subtle Bodies at Franz Kaka, “these paintings make my heart beat fast.” 

But Instagram-viewing Elmizadeh’s work shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s where I spent the most time with her art during the pandemic. Her grad school show was mocked up in an impossibly vast architectural rendering and Elmizadeh regularly posts her paintings alongside the Persian miniature paintings that serve as compositional jumping-off points. The phantom architecture that Elmizadeh chose to show her work in hints at the work’s capacity, the potential to take up more space than the physical constraint of a canvas. 

What I’ve experienced with Elmizadeh’s work is a collective process of looking, no doubt accentuated by the pandemic and the need to view art mostly online. The first stage of looking, viewing the work on Instagram, provides an intellectual foundation, a way into the narrative avenues of the abstract paintings. Stage two, in-person viewing, represents the physical act of looking which overwhelms the senses, leaving no time to think. The end result is a 360 degree way into the work. Two words I keep returning to when thinking about Elmizadeh’s paintings: all encompassing!

There’s an irony underneath Elmizadeh’s paintings. The vague compositions are taken from paintings on the opposite side of the spectrum, miniature paintings that are so complex and detailed that they’re sometimes painted with a single hair from a squirrel. Elmizadeh translates these tightly-wound compositions loosely; gestures, movement, and colours repeat, but are morphed, expanded, and augmented. They become blurry and out of focus, a direct contrast to the precision of miniature paintings. Yet, a core feeling remains—allowing the viewer to project narratives on the aurora borealis-like compositions. The source material lends itself to a narrative, expressed in abstraction. 

Circling Around, 2020, Oil on canvas 50 x 70”

The movement of people dancing in “Circling Around,” is boiled down to its essence, the impenetrable forms and shapes only suggest bodies in-formation. So how do I know exactly that’s what I’m looking at? Even without the Instagram Easter-Eggs that show the source material, the feeling of abstract movement is communicated acutely. Looking at the painting, my mind cycles. Wedding dance > ceremony > teddy bear picnic > COVID circles painted in parks > a meeting rooms with a circle of chairs. (The circle, interestingly, is a formation impossible to replicate online. Even Zoom meetings replicate the rigid grid of Instagram). In “Diving Messanger,”  the slightest hint of a horizon line allows you to imagine a bird (or person) taking flight. I’m aware of my own desire to project narratives on the paintings, how they provoke a stream of consciousness. Elmizadeh’s paintings are easy to look at, hard to pin down 

In addition to the narrative-projections the paintings encourage, the physicality of the work can’t go without mention. The scale of the larger works necessitates a slight head tilt to view the painting, begetting a feeling of being enclosed, of being hugged (lately, I keep relating everything back to touch). Each canvas flirts with the idea you can walk right into it—a window to another world. In “Hovering Garden” a door, or window, floats. It’s either open or ominous. Here, my stream of consciousness goes to The Door by Magda Szabo, and I’m reminded that some thresholds should remain uncrossed.

If a painting is, essentially, a combination of colour and form, Elmizadeh equally balances the two. The blurred shapes are married with colour that absorbs into the canvas. The effect is almost reminiscent of stained glass, fluid shapes in saturated colours fit together like puzzle pieces. Where colours overlap there’s a lesson on colour theory to be found, a Venn diagram of pigment mixing directly on the canvas. There’s a faded quality to the work, as if they’re disappearing in front of your eyes, urging me to keep on looking. 

Passing through Nâ-Kojâ-Abâd, 2020, Oil on linen 11 x 14 inches

Voyager, 2020, Oil on linen 11 x 14 inches

Hovering Garden, 2019 Oil on canvas 49 x 70”