New YorkMiguel Abreu Gallery
January 13 – February 24, 2019
Raha Raissnia’s atmospheric new paintings, drawings, and projections share much with the work she exhibited at The Drawing Center last winter. The first things a visitor to Miguel Abreu’s Eldridge Street location will encounter, in fact, are twelve drawings that were included in the earlier show and which collectively share its title: Alluvius (2016). These drawings, as well as the bulk of what follows, incorporate and transform photographs of a ruined fourteenth–century mosque—Raissnia discovered them in a discarded collection of 35mm slides marked “Sultanate Architecture.” Despite this continuity with past projects, the new exhibition is far from a retread. It has its own distinct logic and consistently highlights tense interchanges between photography and painting, architecture and the body.
Although much of Raissnia’s recent work originates in found imagery, the relationship between source material and a finished painting or drawing is anything but straightforward. Often, the process of translation involves a cannibalism of images. Raissnia will create a graphite drawing loosely based on a slide, then project another slide onto the drawing, photograph it, and produce another work from the result. This process may continue for several cycles, and in large-scale propositions usually involves the addition of dark oil paint and a thick gel medium. The result is a near-monochrome palimpsest of ambiguous images and painterly marks that, in the most extreme cases, approaches total abstraction. In Untitled (2018), one of the most inscrutable works included at Miguel Abreu, a wide band of aggressively textured black pigment traverses the breadth of the painting, largely obscuring the indistinct images below. Pale rectangles in the upper right quadrant of the panel—windows, perhaps—dissolve into a frenzy of gestural handling as they encounter this passage. Here, Raissnia’s transformative process is demonstrated in microcosm.
Traces of descriptive subject matter do, however, remain. In several of the Alluvius drawings, spectral faces and hands emerge from the walls of the ruined mosque, suggesting how the bodies that inhabit and move through architectural space endow it with meaning and historical weight. In similar fashion, Aviary #3 (2018) turns the mosque’s decorative program into writhing, amorphous figures that seem to body forth from their architectural setting. The visual distortions that produce this illusion are owed to the dramatic texture of heavily worked paint, as well as Raissnia’s photographic procedure: when re-photographing the source slide she approximated the effect of an anamorphic lens. Untitled (2018) makes use of other imaging technologies, combining a motif previously used in the Alluvius drawings with an x-ray and a sonogram. The viewer sees through the skin of the built environment to bodily forms beneath—architecture literally impregnated with a human presence. This work notably features the most dramatic color in the show, a rich red that covers half the painting and intensifies its organic, visceral effect.
The centerpieces of the show are two projected works, Galvaniscope 1 and Galvaniscope 2 (Film A and Film B) (both 2018). Raissnia is well known for performances in which she manipulates two analog projectors in real time, combining images from each in an improvised dialogue that parallels her way of working with photographic slides, drawing, and painting. By contrast, the projectors at Miguel Abreu run automatically, each showing a predetermined three-minute loop. They nonetheless highlight the complexity, even unpredictability, of Raissnia’s process, and at the same time develop the bodily and architectural themes of the paintings and drawings on display nearby. Galvaniscope 2 (Film A and Film B) consists of two projectors, facing each other from opposite ends of a large gallery space. Between them hangs a rectangular box, fabric stretched across a wooden armature. Each projector casts a series of images onto the box, but its surface is transparent, allowing the two projections to blend. Because of the fact that whichever projector is nearer imposes its images more powerfully, each side of the box displays a distinctive combination of the two films. Galvaniscope 1 uses the same two series of images, but Raissnia has already combined them so they can be shown from a single projector. The two films, however, are not simply overlaid one on the other. Raissnia actively manipulated each of them, so that the final work approximates the experience of her performances. Together, the two Galvaniscopes testify to the surprising and diverse effects Raissnia can produce from a set repertoire of found images.
The Galvaniscopes, like most of the exhibition, foreground the “Sultanate Architecture” slides. Here, however, the material that Raissnia has combined with them is extremely dynamic, featuring dramatic effects of movement, shifting light, and shadow. This animates the viewer’s relationship with Raissnia’s found photographs, and evokes the embodied perceptual experience of moving through an architectural environment. Not only can we imaginatively project ourselves into the space of the ruined mosque, but we become, at the same time, acutely conscious of the gallery environment itself. The rectangular boxes which the Galvaniscope imagery is projected onto respond to the shape and dimensions of the exhibition space, activating the visitor’s passage through the show. It is here that the installation, designed in close collaboration with Abreu himself, particularly shines. The Galvaniscope boxes occupy surprisingly large expanses of empty space, allowing a genuinely environmental experience to develop. In this way, the design of the exhibition responds to the content and effect of Raissnia’s imagery, lending her enigmatic architectural and bodily fragments a resonance and immediacy that might not otherwise be so obvious.
Benjamin Clifford is a PhD candidate at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.