Embracing Chaos, Studio Visit With Fatemeh Burnes
“Look at walls splashed with a number of stains…you can see various battles, and lively postures of strange figures, expressions on faces, costumes and infinite number of things…” -Leonardo da Vinci
“If you do not know where you are going any road can take you there.” -Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
By Gary Brewer
Memories are woven together with filaments and tendrils, the sway of a branch or the curve of a river’s course; layers of improvised painterly processes all spilling forth in expressive spontaneous gestures – intricate layers of technique and images, the forms taking shape as though guided by an external impulse. The overall work expresses itself in a singular cohesive whole composed in fragments of thought, emotion and imagination. Fatemeh Burnes is a ‘medium’. Her depth as a painter allows her to be Sibyl-like, spilling forth visual utterances. It is a form of free association that places her in a line extending from da Vinci’s suggestion, to allow the stains on a wall to inspire compositions, to Max Ernst’s surrealist frottage techniques.
She begins a painting by using a spontaneous, expressive, abstract approach to lay a ground for the worlds that she will generate. From these initial improvised marks she allows her imagination and mind to wander; a stain becomes a figure, a pattern develops and spreads like a cosmic map across the background. Small marks – single strokes of paint – create a pattern of lines, like musical notations, which she may sing while making them. From this kaleidoscopic approach she channels the world, her life history and memory. A deluge of thought impressions captured in a private form of hieroglyphics, the myriad details are a palimpsest of her experiences. She is an avid reader and stays immersed in the current state of crisis in our world. These inform her work; an image from the war in Syria, a reference to the Armenian genocide, a suggestion of the tragedies both current and historic pulse through these paintings, adding layers of narrative content to the rich compositions.
As we spoke she explained her process; with a dramatic physical gesture she spread her arms wide and with a swoop she dropped down and reached out, drawing in as much space as she could encompass, and then as she stood up, she pulled it close to her heart, caressing it in an intimate gesture. “I want to take in as much of the world as I can, the beauty and pain, the joy and suffering. Painting is a way to draw the opposites together, to weave them into something meaningful. It is a process of reconciliation, some kind of spiritual metaphor that one can embrace all of this chaos and create something whole and beautiful. I used to argue with my mother when I was young. She was a Sufi and she used to say, “ If a rope is broken and you tie it back together with a knot to mend it, is it better or worse?” and I would say “It not as good as an undamaged piece of rope.” She would reply, “No, it is better because it brings the two ends closer together!” That has always stuck in my mind and I think there is something about that metaphor within my work and my psyche.”
How does one communicate ‘self’ – this quixotic, quicksilver constellation – the strange nebulae of shape-shifting thoughts and feelings, memories, inherited genetic traits, and the experiences that life and fate have imposed upon us, shaping those ingredients into the person that we are. To attempt to communicate this complexity is a ambitious affair, but in the hands of Fatemeh, it is a love affair with the medium and the capacity of free association to open the doors of perception to places within the soul that must be discovered by going through the rabbit hole. Indeed one of her paintings “Wonderland” is a reference to Alice in Wonderland; the artist must go through the rabbit hole to discover the key to the door they were not aware existed.
These are complex paintings; they are ambitious and beautiful, they seduce and draw one close to see hidden details where shapes become protean forms – looking like a musical note, a figure, the muscle and sinew of the body, or a map. All of these things are woven together with a refined visual vocabulary and a powerful understanding of composition. There are rhythms and cadences in polyphonic interplay between the foreground and background elements. Tree branches may manifest, their bold movement becoming a dominant player in the image – stains and drips of beautifully considered chromatic chords cascade down the surfaces. These seeds from a potential universe are cast to the wind; her mind and imagination become the fertile soil in which they germinate and sprout. There is a clear allegiance to surrealism and its heir – abstract expressionism. Added to these impulses are layers of her own life, her memories unfurl; a map of Tehran reduced to an abstract pattern becomes a layer on the upper left section of “Wonderland”. References to other histories emerge: a small building suggesting a concentration camp, photos she took while walking through a German mine field from WWII. All of these histories are a part of her need to be awake and present in the world, not in a journalistic sense, but to feel that she is engaged and informed, in order to remain a fully present human.
Her works are not political but they touch upon our world in crisis. A current series about immigration that Fatemeh is working on is titled “Crossover”. It will be a grouping of 16-inch square paintings displayed in a grid format. Each painting is a reference to a place – El Paso, Bangladesh, Greece – areas in the world where people in crisis are being forced to leave their homes, in transition from one world to another. The series will mirror the number of countries in the world, and will also include the ones that are not technically acknowledged as countries yet. She spends time researching each location, reading of its history, it literature, music and poetry. It is a way to embrace the ‘place’ more completely.
Fatemeh said of this, “Some will never fully make that transition, they are in between worlds, left in an unstable place where their histories have been lost and their identities altered. I emigrated from Iran as a teenager and still at times feel this nebulous uncertainty about whether I have fully made the transition, sometimes feeling a step behind. Hearing some slang word that is new to me or some other thing unfamiliar, brings up that lingering feeling of foreignness.”
Her paintings become a way to create a composite of self, a tapestry to weave all of these elements and histories together, to rebuild one’s self and identity again and again. Indeed memory is a continually recreated experience. We rebuild it anew each time we recall our past.
Painting is a profound ritual of building complete universes out of modest materials; earth and seed oil are the mud of creation from which new worlds arise. Indeed Fatemeh makes many of her own pigments to add depth to her relationship with her medium. It is in the process of deeply channeling memories and stories both personal and from the world about us that Fatemeh Burnes is able to rebuild herself anew. Each painting embraces more of the world and melds it into her body, to release upon the canvases the sense impressions, memories and stories of her self and the world threaded through the eye of a needle.
Fatemeh Burnes has a solo show opening Nov 2018 at High Noon gallery in NYC