Introduced in 1910, the Gestalt theory of perceptual organization, simply put, argues that the whole is greater and different than the sum of its parts. Its principles – proximity, continuity, and symmetry, to name a few – describe the human condition to visually order what we see into aesthetically pleasing patterns in an effort to achieve wholeness. Often discussed in tandem with Color Field paintings of the 1950s and 60s, Gestalt is decidedly Modernist in its applications. Modernism is enjoying a Renaissance today, evidenced by thematic retrospectives and the visual manifestations of many contemporary artists. Untitled, from the series Telesm, is one such work by Hadieh Shafie, an artist who builds and arranges colorful geometric shapes and patterns into beautiful, topographical constructions.
Shafie has been making scroll works since 2002. Born in Iran in 1969, she moved to the US as a young teenager. It is a precarious phase for anyone regardless of cultural displacement, and Shafie spent her formative years writing, absorbing new literary and artistic influences and visually merging them with symbols from her cultural heritage – namely Iran’s sophisticated book culture and related calligraphic traditions. While at Pratt, she was inspired by the Sufi dance of the Whirling Dervishes and studied the simplicity and flatness of Modernist works; she presented her thesis on the orientation of text and concentric circles.
Simple as it may holistically appear, Shafie’s Untitled, from the series Telesm, is a performance based, multi-layered construction of text, shape, color, and movement that carries diverse temporal and cultural meanings. Her process is a meditative and intensely physical exploration of time-based space. Shafie spent weeks inscribing the word eshghe (which translates from Farsi into ‘love’ or ‘passionate love’) on thousands of cut strips of US Letter-sized paper. Since 2007 she has limited her text to eshghe, making a personal statement as well as a classical reference to her cultural origins. Using this script in repetition, eshghe becomes part of a vernacular, transnational discourse.
The paper strips are stacked and spun into cylindrical ketabs, alluding to the earliest known book form wherein the complete text is rarely ever revealed. Arranged in close proximity on their sharp ends, the ketabs protectively hide the internal eshghe markings within their concentricity. On the surface, works from the Telesm series are similar to those nominated for the 2011 V&A Jameel Prize, yet these newer topographical structures have an intensifying depth that is only apparent when viewed obliquely. The initial balance of each ketab’s cylindrical shape is disrupted as its vulnerable center is pulled, rendering it a playful, conical form that is as fragile as it is menacing. The heart of the work lies in these small voids at the center of each ketab. Surrounded by rotary texts hidden by a façade of color, these are Shafie’s deliberate parallel to the dance of the Whirling Dervishes.
Shafie’s use of color on the edges of the paper strips serves a dual purpose: it is an optical instrument and a subjective indicator of emotion. She limits her palette to as few as five colors that, when combined, have the effect of generating secondary and tertiary colors. Such was the intention of Color Field painters whose experiments with chromatic relationships held abstraction as the end point. Untitled also seeks an abstract aesthetic balance through deliberate juxtapositions, both of the colors within and amongst the ketabs, and in their sidelong black and white counterparts. Untitled’s stylistic references to Modernism as well as its attention to process, repetition and time demonstrate that beauty and wholeness is found in its overall visual construction, and also in the prolonged act of creation.
Canvas July/August 2013, p. 118-19.