Our first meeting took place at a Brazilian feijoada at Laura’s in Chelsea. A Flamenco guitarist’s nimble fingers plucked at his nylon strings and we all reclined about in the shadows, as if in an opium den. Suddenly, a piercing cry broke my repast and I looked up to see an imposing figure with high heeled black boots and tightly-curled dark maroon hair. She was singing in an unrecognizable language, which I learned from the others was Farsi. There was tenderness in her voice at first, but it became shrill and startling as she expressed loneliness and heartbreak in universal and intuitively understood tones, the tones of agony. She and the guitarist blended elements from the middle-east, Spain, and the Blues, when she started scatting. I’d never heard the like. This is Sholeh, and singing is only one of her hobbies; she’s actually a painter.
Sholeh spent the first half of her life in Tehran, Iran, and a good part of the second in Portland, Oregon. She told me, “I didn’t feel like I had a home for most of my life. I’m an immigrant, what is home for an immigrant? But, when I moved to New York City, I finally felt at home.” She described the dynamic atmosphere in Iran during the revolution, during which people were questioning everything openly, the existence of god, the need for women to wear the veil, etc. During this exciting period, she was influenced by the social realists of Mexico, like Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Orozco. She fled the country with her two-year-old daughter after the war started with Iraq. Bombs were exploding everywhere; just to go to the store, pushing a stroller, was terrifying. She said she felt totally paralyzed, desperate, and fearful of everything. The airports were closed, so she took a bus to Turkey and sat at the border for eleven hours, just to see if she could get out. And she did.
After arriving in the Portland, where some of her family members lived, she had a recurring nightmare in which she would be walking down the street and her clothes would start to fall off her body. In the dream, she desperately struggled to keep her clothes from falling off and awoke in a panic. If that took place in Iran, she would have been arrested and possibly banished, or stoned to death on the spot, and her dreaming mind was still in Iran. She has not returned to Iran since she left, over twenty years ago, because, she admitted, “I was bitter for many years, and I didn’t want to risk bringing my daughter there, because some relative could try to keep her there. But now my daughter is grown and I do want to go back.”
Sholeh says that her painting is half about the palate, the pigments, the shapes and images, and the other half is about her experience as a woman from Iran. She went through a transformative period after coming to the US during which she was painting on ten wooden doors. Up until that point, she was committed to becoming a figurative artist. In the project with the doors, her perspective slowly evolved from painting a female figure in a landscape, coming closer and closer to that figure, until she became the figure herself and was no longer depicting the experience of another.
“When I was in grad school in Oregon, I thought of my own experience and my body executing the work, and the person, the icon became myself, and the act of painting became a very vibrant and even erotic experience. That feeling of eroticism and the ritual of moving my wrists and my arms in this way, if I did that in the society of Iran, in the middle of a square, standing, without being covered and defying the traditional expectation that a woman should keep her posture submissive, the very process, as an Iranian, is very significant and reconstructive, in terms of the traditional experience of being a woman. From then on, I wasn’t worried about what my work was going to look like, or what story I was trying to tell. For me, it is more realistic, in a way, and not related to abstract expressionism.”
In her development as a painter, she has gone from poetic realism, to gesture expressionism, to a style she describes as, “synaestheticism”, by which she means, painting “inspirited and sublimated” by music. She first experienced synaestheticism in a mural painting she had been commissioned to do for a public building in Portland. She was painting while a jazz drummer played in an improvisational dialogue, which took place between them in sounds and gestures. She said that she could feel the sound traveling through her body, putting her into a trance on a very high level and took her experience of painting to an amazing and different place. Over time, through listening to jazz, traveling, and letting the act of painting facilitate the conversation between head and heart, her style became founded in improvisation.
Now, her painting has evolved further, the spontaneity and improvisation have given way to rationality and design, in a layered and geometric style with which she tries to express very subtle poetic ideas that flit away from the conscious mind as she walks, as we walk, the streets of New York, bumping into hundreds of people and seeing just as many signs and advertisements. One can feel this frenzy in her paintings, where “rectangular-shaped units drenched in bright complimentary colors and interspersed throughout the canvas correspond each with the others, in a dense, dialectically-formed cornucopia of color and shape, bringing to mind the structure of a musical composition.” This design, she says, takes great inspiration from the ancient arts of Persia, especially miniature-painting, carpet-making, and architecture. The inspiration she takes from these arts find expression in her work through, “the liberal use of the geometric form, rich, vibrant colors, and above all, a deep sense of spirituality and inner peace.” And she continues, “The shallow picture plane invites the eye to survey the multitudinous colors and shapes as a part of a much larger universe that extends far beyond the canvas.” Truly, Sholeh conjures her notes and her brush-strokes from a rich and vibrant universe that deserves to be expressed.