Seemingly devoid of content, Shirazeh Houshiary’s ‘white on white’ painting ‘Unknowing’ contains a moral parable. Of course, ‘Unknowing’ isn’t a blank white surface. Like most apparently monochrome paintings, this work tests the acuity of perception and detail appears on closer inspection.
Shirazeh Houshiary was born in Iran but at 18 moved to Great Britain to study art in London. Now working as a sculptor as well as a painter, she incorporates elements of her Islamic cultural back-ground. She has, for example, used materials such as clay, straw or copper sheet which she associates with her Middle Eastern heritage and included passages or words by 13th-century Sufi poet and mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi into her painting. ‘Unknowing’ is covered with thousands of tiny Arabic characters inscribed in graphite over the surface of the work.
Houshiary’s methods are integral to her personal vision. She is a dedicated and rigorous crafts-person who employs many old-fashioned techniques and materials. Her disciplined approach, relish in surfaces, joy in detail and innate sensuality compete with an ascetic, almost puritan sense of design. In this work Houshiary prepared her canvas with gesso, a traditional gypsum-based primer, to give the canvas a hard but absorbent surface. To achieve the immaculate, eggshell-like finish, she repeatedly sanded back and reapplied layers of gesso.
This disciplined approach culminates with the laborious application of representations of Arabic characters onto the porous, chalky surface of the painting, over and over to fill the canvas. The repetition in the act of writing and of reading the characters is lulling, reassuring and hypnotic, akin to mantras, chanting, ritual dance or the use of rhythmic sounds as a means of achieving transcendence. Within the field of text there is form: an almost subliminal horizon divides the work into celestial and terrestrial sectors, faintly green below, and the palest pink above. Houshiary uses whiteness for its symbolic identification with purity and light and she uses text as a form of illumination, giving Islamic calligraphic traditions a contemporary perspective. Houshiary uses her painting to provoke meditation on things beyond the material, things beyond knowing.
As it slows the eye and asks for patient inspection before offering revelation, ‘Unknowing’ provides a moral parable for the viewer in that the search for enlightenment is rewarded.
© Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006
Aquacryl and graphite on canvas
190.0 x 190.0 cm
Signature & date
Signed and dated verso, black fibre-tipped pen "Shirazeh Houshiary ... 2002".
© Shirazeh Houshiary
Shown in 3 exhibitions
THE BEAUTY OF DISTANCE: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age: 17th Biennale of Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia, 12 May 2010–01 Aug 2010
Beyond Words: Calligraphic Traditions of Asia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 27 Aug 2016–30 Apr 2017
Some mysterious process, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 01 Jun 2020–13 Sep 2020
Referenced in 1 publication
Michael Desmond, Contemporary: Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection, 'Abstraction', pg.16-59, Sydney, 2006, 36, 36-37 (colour illus.). illustration on pg.37 is a detail