The inaugural KMAC Triennial features twenty artists who live or have roots in the state of Kentucky. Selected by jury from a pool of over 200 applicants, the variety of work attests to the vitality of creative practice currently happening in or loosely stemming from the state, but stops short of defining or locating any thematic or conceptual lenses through which to understand the state of contemporary Kentucky art.
The show uses the title Crown of Rays, referring to a particular genus of the Goldenrod, the state flower of Kentucky. The gallery text makes allusions to ceremonial headwear and deifying haloes tied to the flower as well as pollination and ecology, using the flower’s botanical and symbolic properties as what curator Joey Yates sees as an elastic concept for grouping such a diverse array of artists and practices. Sadly, an image of the flower appears nowhere in the galleries, either as a visual reference point or botanical metaphor, severing any coalescing work the title could perform and leaving the disparate selection of artworks to each stand on their own with little conceptual or formal connections between them.
Philis Alvic, ‘City Windows’, woven collage, 72″ x 42″ x 3″, 2012
Philis Alvic, ‘Vienna Window’, woven collage, 69″ x 42″ x 7″, 2012
Fortunately, there are a number of strong pieces in the show, particularly those that engage with the museum’s historical engagement in craft, but with the contemporary art sensibility KMAC currently pursues. Philis Alvic’s handwoven panels evoke windows from all over the world, creating a tension between the accumulation of pattern and fabrics on a rich, tactile surface and the illusionistic picture plane. Hunter Stamps’ ceramic pieces, which hug columns, seep out from walls, sink into the floor, or plop down as undignified specimens on a hospital gurney, similarly make process and craft evident through their surfaces and biomorphic forms, while at the same time viscerally alluding to open wounds and sores on the body.
Installation View, KMAC Triennial with floor sculptures by Melissa Vandenberg (foreground) and Mary Carothers (middle ground). Multiple works by Rachel Frank (background). Photo credit: Ted Wathen
On another floor, different craft traditions coalesce into compelling installations. Rachel Frank’s tabletop display of stoneware, video, and plant assemblages against the backdrop of her hanging fiber and beadwork Pattern for a Yurt III (2016) makes the most explicit reference to Kentucky ecologies in the show (albeit sans Goldenrod) through new and old media. Melissa Vandenberg’s Shed (2019) alludes to the animal world through multiple genealogies of craft, featuring two sets of intertwined, snakelike legs reminiscent of Sarah Lucas’ work. These forms appear to be molting an aging and deteriorating quilt as they sprawl across the second-floor gallery space, capped with boot-shaped glass components completed during the artist’s residency at the Corning Museum of Glass.
Vinhay Keo, ‘Kissing Kissinger’ (Portrait of a Nobel Peace Prize Winner), 2019, Acrylic paint, photograph. Photo credit: Ted Wathen.
Not wanting to be limited by an at-times parochializing focus on traditional craft forms, the jury chose a selection of artists spanning a number of different media. Two conceptual works that traverse the stairwell of the vertically-oriented museum’s three gallery floors best realize the potential of KMAC’s space, though perhaps at the expense of working formally or conceptually with the other works in the show. Vinhay Keo’s Kissing Kissinger (Portrait of a Nobel Peace Prize Winner) (2019) entails a photographic portrait of Kissinger from 1973 surrounded by a sea of individual red body prints of the artist’s lips. Running down a wall that cuts through the gallery’s main floors and fading just before hitting the floor, the sea of lip stains produce a performative, punning, and queer re-reading of Kissinger’s name while also darkly alluding to the millions of Cambodian lives lost or displaced due to the former Secretary of State’s policies. Complementing Keo’s installation is a site-specific sound piece by Aaron Rosenblum, High, Low, and In Between (2019). Merging pure tones with urban and rural field recordings, these sounds move up and down speakers set throughout the open stairwells and resonate throughout the gallery spaces.
The geographic push and pull generated by the two site-specific works in the stairwell carries throughout most of the show, but without much rhyme or reason. On the second floor, dizzyingly complex conceptual black and white photography of the KMAC gallery spaces by Casey James Wilson lies between Sean Satrowitze’s somewhat ideologically muddy installation of a proposed funerary ritual for the decapitation or removal of Confederate monuments in the region and Vian Sora’s Max Ernst-inspired abstract paintings responding to the artist’s traumatic experiences in her native Baghdad. From the hyper-local to the geopolitical, and the coldly conceptual to the intensely internal, these works benefit little from proximity to each other, and possibly need more conceptual room to breathe (particularly Starowitz’s, which would benefit from further research and a socially-engaged public component).
In the following room, Elizabeth Mesa-Gaido’s assemblages and prints juxtapose the playful forms and textures of piñatas with images from revolutionary Cuba and toiletries and essentials commonly unavailable on the island, where her family has roots. Complementing Mesa-Gaido’s meditation on need and abundance through mass-produced commodities are Lori Larusso’s sign-painted still-life installation Pastiche of Good Intentions (2019) and Kristin Richards’s Donald Judd-inspired vats of a rainbow of Dawn dishwashing soap that sit oddly atop a paneled wood staircase, a work that similarly needs some air, possibly as two components in a larger installation.
Next to this gallery are perhaps the show’s two biggest misses: a horizontal installation of Jimmy Angelina’s pop culture-inspired black and white drawings, which work much better in the coloring book form available in the KMAC gift shop, and the only primarily moving image-based work in the show, Sarah Lasley’s Totality (2019), a kitschy panorama of dramatic National Park scenery overlaid with individual karaoke singers belting different songs in street clothes. Lost in the shuffle are Andrew Cozzens’ interactive and conceptual meditation on art consumption and forms of biological and cultural extinction, which is unfortunately tucked away in a rear gallery and was not functioning when I visited, and Harry Sanchez, Jr.’s compelling prints of families torn apart at the U.S.-Mexico border, a work whose urgent tone and direct politics are effective but feel out of place with the other works in the show.
Biennials (and by extension triennials) are tricky, but they have come to dominate the contemporary art world in the past three decades, for better or for worse. Spreading out from former art world centers in order to keep pace with an increasingly globalized world and afford smaller cities—like many in this region—the chance to elevate their artists or local creative economies onto a higher and more visible platform, these recurring exhibitions ideally function as barometers of the contemporary art world. More often than not, however, they merely add to the noise. The KMAC Triennial, with its small size and (somewhat) regional roster, departs from the sprawling city-wide scale and superstar artist list of Front in Cleveland or FotoFocus in Cincinnati, smartly focusing on artists who the curator and jury feel deserve a broader platform. Once raised on this platform, however, the artists seem to be each belting their own tune, echoing the confusing soundscape of Lasley’s video and retreating to the dangerously forgettable form of the open call, juried group show.
Lacking a thematic consistency or coherent dialogue among the works, I wonder about the show’s ability to present these artists to new audiences, which, in the end should be the goal of evoking the biennial format. As an inaugural event, the 2019 KMAC Triennial shows great promise in its ability to attract and showcase important work by artists with ties to Kentucky, though those ties are at times weak. With a clearer concept and focus, either through the selection of work or roster of artists, hopefully future versions will advance beyond merely shedding light on important practices in the region. My hope is that future iterations of the triennial will not only showcase artists but ignite important discussions and generate lenses through which to understand their work, or—ideally—prompt us to re-imagine the broader contemporary art landscape entirely.
About the Author: Annie Dell’Aria is Assistant Professor of Art History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Her research concerns the intersection of contemporary art, moving image media, and public space. Her writings have appeared in Afterimage: Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, International Journal of Performing Arts and Digital Media, Public Art Dialogue, Moving Image Review and Art Journal (MIRAJ), Millennium Film Journal, and other venues. She is currently working on her book, The Moving Image as Public Art: Sidewalk Spectators and City Screens.
One of the showcase pieces in KMAC Museum’s inaugural triennial survey of contemporary art in Kentucky (up through December 1, 2019) is a trio of sumptuous, pretty, scary paintings by Vian Sora, an artist currently living and working in Louisville, and originally from Baghdad, Iraq. According to the wall-text, in the three paintings Sora “employs expressive painterly abstraction as a means to convey the emotional and psychological trauma brought on by her time living in and fleeing from her home in war-torn Baghdad.”
Installation view, KMAC’s Triennial “Contemporary Art of the Commonwealth: Crown of Rays”; pictured on right wall is Vian Sora’s “Last Sound”, 2018, Mixed media on canvas, 60″ x 85″
All that’s true, I’m sure, but witnessing the gorgeousness of the three paintings on site is an altogether aesthetic experience, not exactly free from trauma, but stubbornly transcendent, referencing what art can do when it’s not tethered to actuality, even though it is made in response to what has actually happened.
The wall-text helps you navigate the reasons why Sora has created what’s on the wall, but it can’t explain the moment when you first see Sora’s work and have your own thoughts woven into its blasts of color and form, its Matisse-on-fire urgency and just plain corrosive prettiness. The meaning, in other words, is a negotiation outside of biography and intention: it’s the meeting of memories and ghosts on both sides, the viewed and viewer.
Installation view, KMAC’s Triennial “Contemporary Art of the Commonwealth: Crown of Rays”; pictured in center on the column is Hunter Stamps, “Engulf”, 2019, Ceramic, 96” x 18” x 24”
To me, that’s what makes visual art so necessary now in a world where every cultural idea/pose/construct/narrative seems to be explained ad nauseum, thanks to social-media posts and pundits, the saturation of explanation becoming the way we not only take in but respond to “the world around us,” even our own biographies and struggles. Visual art, like Sora’s paintings, need to exist outside of information for them to truly register, to foment meaning beyond intention, that moment when you as the viewer see what’s been made, disconnected from root causes, and make the match in your own head.
The wall-text, in other words, just becomes gravy, biography a beautiful afterglow.
“Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it. And his/her hope for other people is that they will also make it exist by observing it. I call it ‘creative observation.’ Creative viewing,” William Burroughs wrote.
I’ve been reading Burroughs’ fiction and non-fiction lately, as his teeming, satirical, scatological takedowns of addiction and language and America all speak directly to our current times. He was vitally interested in how all forms of art try to get at experience while also dislocating it, finding meaning outside of actualities, so that what we see and read and hear blur reality to the point of it escaping and learning from the escape.
What Burroughs seems to be pointing out in the above quote is that merger of making and observing, creating and taking, an ongoing metaphorical and ontological pollination that gives art its main function, to uncover routes of escape, that impulse to make meaning once the art is outside of the artist’s control, even the artist’s resolve.
Installation view, KMAC’s Triennial “Contemporary Art of the Commonwealth: Crown of Rays”. Pictured here is a series by Bette Levy.
“Pollination” is at the center of KMAC Museum’s triennial, subtitled “Crown of Rays,” according to more wall-text introducing the whole gig: “In 1926, Kentucky lawmakers adopted the Goldenrod as the official state flower. From meadows and prairies to polluted city environments, it flourishes, heartily, among wide ranging conditions and soil types.” It turns out “the Crown of Rays is one of over a hundred cultivated plants within the Goldenrod genus, distinctive for its spears of clustered tiny yellow flowers that jut out like sunrays and that recall the halos of saintly iconography.”
“Iconography” is at the core of another triennial artist’s work, in direct contrast to Sora’s abstract-expressionist forms. Jimmy Angelina pulls out cinematic images and poses and places them outside of themselves in a series of itchy, R.Crumb-like drawings all done in black ink and installed horizontally on a banner of black paint. The fractured dramatic moments Angelina depicts erase the meaning of their origins, and transform into a parade of ghosts without progenitors, floating through space like celluloid in search of a projector.
Lori Larusso’s wall-haiku, “A Pastiche of Good Intentions,” is an amazing assortment of food and other iconographies stolen from billboards and magazines and other media. The materials she uses (ribbons and flat acrylics on polymetal panels) lend the whole piece hilarious authenticity while also providing sweet little moments of total smart-ass side-eye. It’s a tour-de-force of meaninglessness finding meaning, kind of like an e. e. cummings poem turned into a Barney’s window display.
Kristin Richard’s installation right across the way from Larusso’s piece, titled “gentle platinum antibacterial essential botanical escapes” is made up of Dawn dish soap, water, glass, laminate, wood, lighting, and form, and pushes forward a sort of laboratory elaboration on the strangeness of what is already there, always there: cabinets, Mason jars, Formica, shelves, all crystallized into a sci-fi moment, an altarpiece to boredom churning into worship. The colors of cleansers become the aesthetic impulse that pulls us through. You can attach all kinds of meanings to Richard’s gorgeous constellation, but at the end of the day it all seems to be orbiting Burroughs’ idea of existence created by observation. Taking banality and transforming it into otherness by simply displaying it outside of its purpose and premise.
“Narrator”, 2019 Oil, acrylic, sand on canvas 30” x 42”
John Harlan Norris’ series of phosphorescent portraits (done in oil, acrylic and sometimes sand on canvas) take banality and dance it into surrealism, abandoning seriousness in favor of play and ingenuity and punchlines that don’t have jokes to go with them. They are basically pictures of ghosts made up of fashion fragments and plastic doodads, all completed in those cold glow-in-the-dark colors that encapsulate pop-culture and pop-art memories of the early 1980s. Each painting is a fever-dream album-cover for synth-pop masterpieces that never got made, and yet still linger in the collective unconscious. “I want my MTV” becomes beautiful oblivion.
Another sort of playfulness, completely serious, comes to fruition in Harry Sanchez, Jr.’s two portraits, both acrylic on Styrofoam, from a series of prints in which he appropriates media images of deported immigrants. The images are distorted somehow into clarity and create meaning without being embedded in it. Sanchez chisels those pictures into Styrofoam, pulling mundane portraiture into a game of insight and integrity. His work in the show provides a witty moment of silence, while also forming the best kind of protest: saying something very clearly without contributing to the overall noise.
“Hiss”, 2019, Match burn on Arches paper (96” x 24” x 33”) and “Shed”, 2019, Vintage quilt, polyester, glass (12′ x 3′ x 28″). Special thanks to the Rockwell Museum and Corning Museum of Glass for making the sculptural glass components possible while Melissa Vendenberg was artist-in-residence at CMoG.
Two snakes intertwined in the middle of the second floor is what I want to end with. Melissa Vandenberg’s “Shed” is a sculpture produced from an old stuffed quilt with what look like glass booties on each end. Snakes of course are so symbolic they almost short-circuit their own symbolism; they can signify associations with all kinds of institutions, religions, nations, myths. What Vandenberg’s piece gets at is a moment of poetry outside of all that chuffah: the symbol is the thing, and the thing is almost terrifying enough to make you want to retreat into symbol. However, the piece has an inherent innocence about it, a Holly-Hobbie texture and context that slides the intertwined reptiles into glassmuzzle dream.
“Dream” is a loaded word and term of course. Historically visual art has often retreated into “dream” during turbulent and insane times, but many of the artists in KMAC Museum’s first triennial take the concept of “dream” and find a way to both comment on and satirize how “meaning” in our meaning-saturated times can sometimes become a way out of literalness and into something entirely outside of a news-feed.
TOPMOST IMAGE: Installation view, KMAC Triennial. Work by Philis Alvic in the foreground.
“People love narratives. They love winning stories. They think it’s a love story, this Iraqi girl, this American man. But it’s not that easy or glamorous or romantic.” – Vian Sora
Vian Sora, “End Of Hostilities”, 2019, Mixed media finished with oil on board, 120 x 1200 in., Collection of KMAC Museum
Prologue: End of Hostilities
The first thing the eye sees is the tiny rivulets of blue, the happy hue of a robin’s egg or a bright morning sky, undulating dots and dashes that wind around the other pools of color: swathes of violet and lilac here, lakes of deepest green over there. Forms and shapes possess an organic fluidity, as if millions of tiny water molecules were swirling in frenzied motion within the mass of a large wave slowly rolling across the canvas.
There is a grittiness, too: dark bodies of black and grey, fragments of skulls and fractured bone hidden in the corner, half-buried under layers of pigment. Oxidized shades of crimson manifest like blood in all its violent expressions: splattered, bleeding and pooling. Even in the painting’s lighter areas, hundreds of hairline fissures materialize like the capillaries of human tissue or the cracked surface of desiccated land.
The work is undeniably chaotic, struggling to contain the exploded forms of color and texture and memory in a surge of energy and heat. And yet it also holds a persistent beauty, lines of elegance and grace that cut through the debris and roughness in lucid and reassuring curves. What is left is both a hope and a hollowness: streets clear of foreign tanks, skies absent of fighter jets, the silent stillness of a bombed-out city, this vast and sudden absence, this aching emptiness.
End of Hostilities was first shown in Sora’s solo show “Unbounded Domains” at Moremen Gallery in the spring of 2019 and then acquired by KMAC Museum through the support of a donor. It also served as the departure point for a new body of work Sora was creating for the museum’s premier Triennial (on view August 24 – December 1, 2019) when I visited her studio that July and August.
Sora’s work serves not only as a record of horrific acts of violence and the lives they destroy, but also as a way of making sense of war, of beginning to fill the void it leaves in its wake. In the aftermath of terror and destruction, she sorts through the smoldering rubble, searching for some small fragment of beauty that will tell her: All is not lost.
Vian Sora,”Peasant”, 2009, Mixed media on canvas, 45 x 37 in., Private collection
Part I: A New Language
When Sora came to the United States a decade ago, she brought with her a painting style and technique she first developed as a young artist in her native Iraq. She would begin by sculpting wet material onto her canvases, often in the intricate patterns of ancient Islamic ornament, and then build up multiple layers of paint in colors that offered the hazy illusion of sunlight seen through sandstorms. Only then would she add figures: translucent apparitions of veiled women, the primitive outlines of horses and birds. In the process of layering, Sora chose what to paint over and what to reveal, allowing her to hide forms in the canvas. “Most of my life in Iraq was very secretive,” she says. “I think most females are like that. And that technique was my little thing, my secret.”
Sora had many paintings in this early style in her 2016 solo show at 1619 Flux, where KMAC curator Joey Yates first took notice of her work. “I recognized her skill and her aesthetic in that work,” Yates recalls, “but what I was really drawn to was a couple of newer abstract pieces that seemed unique to me. They had a very distinct visual language I hadn’t seen other people engage.”
The paintings Yates saw were the first in a new approach Sora had been exploring in which she banished the figurative forms, abandoned the bas-relief foundation and traded the palette of khaki and desert and dust for a piercing intensity of blues and yellows and greens. Black made its appearance, too: sometimes as plumes of smoke drifting in front of the technicolor chaos, sometimes shooting across the canvas like gunpowder, other times lurking in the background as a subtle shadow presence. Abstract forms were unknowable as friend or foe: a broad palm leaf could reveal itself as a human lung upon second glance, the dripping tendrils of vines could morph into disembodied veins. Sora had stumbled upon a psychological trompe l’oeil, creating an uneasy tension between exultation and terror through this deft exploitation of form and color.
Two years before the show, Sora had undergone a major operation. She was given general anesthesia, organs were removed from her body, and when she recovered she began painting in a completely new way. “I woke up with a wholly different visual language,” she says. “I used different colors, I changed my technique. And that helped me make sense of my existence, using these colors that were foreign to me in a manner that doesn’t exist in real life, to create a world that somehow is in my head.”
Sora has continued to work within this new aesthetic in the years following its introduction at the 1619 Flux exhibit, and she still has much to explore. “Even within this abstract language, she moves quickly,” Yates observes. “She’s not going back to the canvas with the same ideas. With the newer work, she’s making more vertical pieces and changing up the framing. She’s picking different colors. She’s thinking about different subjects. She’s able to maintain that identifiable abstract language as the same time she’s becoming really adept and nimble at working within it.”
Sora’s paintings begin with a barrage of fast-drying pigments
In Sora’s studio, the canvas starts down on the floor, subject to a blitzkrieg of fast-drying acrylics and pigments and inks, applied using whatever is within arm’s reach: brushes, sponges, paper, nylons, spray bottles. There is an earthly physicality to this work as Sora moves around the canvas, using arms and hands to manipulate the color, sometimes prostrating herself on the floor, face to canvas, using her breath to move the pigment in an extravagantly life-giving gesture.
“The beginning is very chaotic, the end is very controlling,” she says. “And the control is that tension between me and this thing called painting that is telling me, in some indirect language, that I need to go and work a little bit here to build those shapes. This is me finding the relationships and the bodies and the narrative that leads you through.”
Even as Sora moves into the controlled part of the process, using a narrow brush of oil paint to carve out figures and forms, memory and meaning, one senses that she is still more midwife to the work than its master, not acting on the painting as much as she is allowing it to come into being. As she paints, her attempts to describe what’s happening between her and the canvas acquire a mystical, almost Tantric, vocabulary: she is doing what the painting is asking for, she says, following the lines to see where they take her, investigating forms that have the unsettling persistence of reoccurring dreams, led by some intuition she doesn’t always fully understand.
“I always start with an intention and an idea,” she says. “But the encounters that happen through the life of creating the work, you would not be honest to yourself and your path if you stick to the initial idea. You have to let everything that happens to you happen to the painting. It’s a long process. Some paintings take almost a year to finish because they have that much to give.”
Yates readily observes these encounters in her work: “All the issues she may deal with – war and trauma and PTSD and violence and death – she finds order within that chaos. And that chaos changes, right? Sometimes it’s connected to her family, sometimes it’s connected to larger issues of trauma and migration, but those things always feed into her personal experience, and she’s translating them into that expressive abstract language.”
“The bodies are still there,” he says. “She’s burying them in the landscapes.”
Part II: Scenes From A New Country
“I love the duality of grotesque and beautiful. That’s what interests me,” Sora says. “The two things that have affected me most, visually, are amazing scenes of natural beauty – these landscapes that I’m obsessed with – and scenes from car bombs in Baghdad.”
Vian Sora, “Citizen”, 2019, Oil on canvas, 48 x 48 in., Shown in “Unbounded Domains” at Moremen Gallery in April 2019
Ten years ago, when Sora began the process of gaining U.S. citizenship, she was restricted from leaving the country, cut off from the places that excited her – cities like Istanbul, Sao Paolo and Berlin that were teeming with the exotic vibrancy she found so invigorating. So she went to the desert – to Moab and Sedona with their colorful layers of rock, their mesas and bridges and buttes, those ancient vistas sculpted by air and water and the weight of time.
“The Canyonlands are very intense,” Sora says. “That visual landscape, that kind of terrifying beauty, completely messed me up. It’s like a scene from an archaic war zone, like the scene of an explosion. The way the light creates illusions on all these layers of rock. It feels like you could fall and break into hundreds of pieces. That sense of emptiness makes me want to go fill it with something.”
At the time, Sora and her husband were living in an elegant apartment overlooking a century-old park in Louisville, Kentucky. But because they were renters, she was afraid to attempt anything that might mar this borrowed home. She felt constricted: “I don’t like what I painted there because for me to work in a space it can’t be white and clean and perfect. I have to destroy the place to feel free enough that I can paint.”
A drafting table in Sora’s studio
Three years later, Sora was granted a citizenship that made her both subject to U.S. laws and free to leave its borders. She and her husband bought a house on a quiet suburban street, where Sora now has a light-filled studio with windows that look out onto a verdant garden with a small koi pond that her cat, Lilu, watches intently. Inside, linoleum tiles catch paint in splatters, drips and spills; a wooden drafting table gazes upward to the windows; a battered, armless office chair slumps abandoned in the middle of the room. Drawings and sketches scatter the floor, torn fragments from older sketchbooks pile up comfortably on the sofa as Sora apologizes for a mess that doesn’t actually exist.
“It’s kind of embarrassing, but I cannot work in an organized environment,” she tells me. “I once tried to force my space to look like one of those perfect Vogue magazine studios. I got color-coded drawers and organized everything, separated the acrylics, the pigments, the oils, the oil sticks, the whole thing. And then without even realizing what I was doing, within a day everything was mixed, everything was destroyed. But I think it’s part of the process. The chaotic start and then the control.”
Sora is in her studio sixteen hours a day if her schedule allows, often working well into the night, sometimes waking from a dream and descending to the studio to feed it to the canvas. In many ways, she is doing the work of every artist, translating personal experience into a unique visual expression, putting memory into form and turning feeling into color. But Sora works in an emotional alchemy as well, taking what is secret and dark and buried, all that is grotesque and awful and horrific, and transmuting it into something light-filled, as beautifully ordered and knowable and free as the natural universe.
“I’m trying to make sense of these visuals that are coming out indirectly,” she tells me. “Most of this recent work, I feel, is an internal landscape. An internal landscape of a woman who lived through wars and physical discomfort, who was in accidents and witnessed family members die. And these grotesque, awful situations, I can turn them into something meaningful and powerful.”
Vian Sora, “Echo And Narcissus”, 2018, Mixed media on canvas, 84 x 60 in., Collection of Speed Art Museum
Sora wants her paintings to start a conversation about the effect of displacement and migration, about the effect of war on the human soul. And while this may cast her as a political artist in some minds, the great accomplishment of Sora’s work is, in fact, that it transcends the political. In choosing to find the beautiful in the grotesque, the order in the chaos, the tiny buds of green amid the rubble of destruction, Sora is affirming a world of pleasure and delight and spirit and wonder – those very things that remind us of what it is to be human.
We are, in Sora’s words, “all of us, starving for connection with something. With each other.” And in her search to recapture what she’s lost – the smells of her grandmother’s garden, the warmth of her childhood summers, the textures of her homeland – Sora is able to find that universal human desire for love and belonging and connection, carving out a space that’s free from the political and full of those personal, intimate encounters that make a life rich with meaning.
“There is a certain smell and a temperature associated with my childhood and I’m always trying to replicate that,” she says. “It left such a gap in my soul not to have that anymore when I left Iraq. Maybe that’s why I use all these warm colors. For me, the scariest thing is not to have memories.”
Part III: Ancient History
Vian grew up in Baghdad, in a house where artists were always coming and going. She spent a lot of time in her grandmother’s garden, playing amongst rose bushes and pomegranate trees. In the summers, her family went to museums and archaeological sites along the Mediterranean. She loved art and math because they were the only things that made sense to her. She made drawings every day.
Then there was a war. The students had to go back to school even though there was no gas or electricity and smoke everywhere. One day, Vian was walking to school and a member of the Iraqi Intelligence Service ran a red light and hit her with his car. She flew six meters into the air and landed on her leg. It shattered. She had seven surgeries and walked on crutches for three years. Every day, she painted and drew.
She began showing her art in local galleries. Then she studied computer science and took a job with Mercedes-Benz. She was very good at it and all her colleagues loved her. Vian hated it and quit within a year so she could be an artist. Her boss with the very thick German accent said, Come with me. It was late and everyone else had gone home. She followed him back to his office where he opened a closet door and gestured inside. My wife, Maria, she was so miserable here in Baghdad. She thought she would take painting classes. All these expensive supplies. You should have them. Go be an artist.
Vian had her first solo show in Baghdad when she was 24. Her friends from Mercedes-Benz came and bought all her paintings. Foreign workers came to the galleries each day after they finished looking for weapons of mass destruction. Then her uncle was killed. Her father disappeared. The Iraqi government told the family he had been killed. Then he showed up one day. He had been tortured and imprisoned. The whole time this was going on, Vian painted and drew every day.
She took a job at the AP. She started as an assistant, but quickly learned all the jobs because her co-workers kept getting killed. Mostly she reported on car bombs. She and her crew would go to the bomb scene and interview people at the sidewalk cafe that now had bodies and body parts and organs everywhere. Vian would go back to the office and edit the footage and file the report saying how many people had died. She did this for three years. At night she would go to her studio and paint.
Then one day she and her colleagues were returning from a bomb site and they were bombed. Half the people in her crew died. The AP flew her to London and gave her a job and treated her like a hero. It was springtime and the city was sunny and beautiful. Vian wanted to kill herself. She met an American man who collected her art. She said, Look, I am really not the person you want to be with in a relationship with right now. But she was very smart and very beautiful so he ignored her. They lived in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates and then they moved to the United States. Vian had shows in Ankara and Istanbul and Kuwait City and Dubai.
She painted every day.
Epilogue: Last Sound
Vian Sora, “Last Sound”, 2018, Mixed media on canvas, 60 x 85 in
Late July, high summer. Uncomfortably humid, the sun intensely bright. The birds are silent, the trees are motionless in the breezeless air. Animals hide in shaded corners. Inside the artist’s studio, it is cool and quiet. The cat sits on the floor and watches the koi fish; the writer sits on the sofa and watches a painting that’s in the process of becoming Last Sound. The artist stands before a canvas taller and larger than herself, looking for meaning. Her dark hair is swept into a gracefully messy bun, her smooth olive skin smudged with pigment. She holds a broken piece of porcelain – it was the closest palette within reach – with a vivid blue oil paint and murmurs to herself, or perhaps to the canvas, as she contemplates the forms taking shape.
It’s a conversation she’s been having, in some way, every day since she was a child and first put line to paper, that primal impulse to find meaning and give it expression. In a world where wars can be started by men in underground chambers, where a judge can decide the fate of an asylum-seeker, where entire lives can be blown apart in an instant by a 19-year-old boy with a suicide wish, art – the act of creating – offers its refuge of order and elegance, its unknowable grace. “How important is beauty to you?” the writer asks, and the artist holds her gaze on the canvas as she responds:
UnderMain would like to thank The Great Meadows Foundation for support of our 2019 programming, which will include twelve in-depth studio visits of Kentucky artists. See our other publications related to this project:
The Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation whose mission is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world.