Essay by Media Farzin
Laleh Khorramian: “UNEARTH”
A certain emotional intensity has characterized Laleh Khorramian’s work for nearly two decades. Born in Tehran, raised in Orlando, Florida, and educated in Chicago and New York, her work draws on an eclectic set of references. Ancient mythology meets theatrical spectacle, and painterly techniques are reframed with digital technology. All are woven together in emotionally resonant, sensuous forms: collages teeming with visual detail, videos that bring pigment alive, prints flowing across silk and cotton, and installations immerse and engage.
Painting is the root of her craft, but the choice of medium can range widely. Her practice took an important turn in the early 2000s, with animated videos that magnified the landscapes that she had created though printmaking, painting, and drawing. The first of these, the 2004 Sophie and Goya, was an MFA project; the second, Chopperlady, was the centerpiece of her 2005 solo show of the same name at New York’s Salon 94 gallery. The videos became a cycle of works loosely based on the five elements, which have since been exhibited at Art Rio, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Moscow Biennale, and the Sundance Film Festival, among others.
But printmaking and drawing have been mainstays of her output, with large-scale collages developed around specific storylines. Her signature technique is monotype, in which unique prints are made from paint applied to a smooth surface. While pigment, paper, and thinner can be varied, the results—the characteristic striated fields of pigment—are mostly uncontrollable. But Khorramian relishes its possibilities, using the technique’s unpredictability to find Rorschach worlds of unexpected emotional force.
There is an ancient, epic quality to this work, something distinctly otherworldly. These painted images, Khorramian recently told me, have always felt to her like part of a larger story she only catches in glimpses. In a recent written statement, she describes her work as a manifestation, on paper, of the unseen. “Some of these images I grew up thinking I’d dreamed the night before, some were brought about by my own hands, and some were inserted into my waking life in the form of premonitions and visions.” Her work pursues these visions, “on paper, in wood, in oil, in silk, in captivity and the wild,” she writes. “I belong to a language that I don't know but live with, like a whispering child who only I can understand.”
For some artists, inspiration remains a private matter. But the power of Khorramian’s work lies in its ability to take viewers with her. Spend enough time with her landscapes and time slows down, and lines, colors, and shapes begin to unfurl their poetic possibilities. Her work teaches us new ways of seeing that are in fact very old ones, guiding us towards deeply material encounters with a world that is increasingly experienced via digital intermediaries. As with the Symbolists, the Dada, or the Surrealists, Khorramian’s work looks to the esoteric as a social and critical force: a place for a much-needed emboldening of the senses.
Her new work, gathered here in the two-part exhibition “UNEARTH,” turns to science fiction as muse. Storytelling has long been a part of her approach to artmaking, though in fragmentary form. Around 2010, the stories began to crystallize around the fictional planet of M-Golis—home to oversized mushrooms, vividly pink skies, and an exiled military scientist. The short video, Liuto Golis: A Planet of the Golis Galaxy, was an early preview of the planet’s upended landscapes, and was first exhibited alongside a series of related drawings at Ballroom Marfa in 2010.
The 2013 Communication Shrine was a sequel of sorts: a three-channel video installation whose central component,thevideoCorrespondence, captures a poetic intergalactic dialogue (“Report environment!” one speaker demands; “multiple horizons under eternal pink gaslight,” the other muses). The second speaker is the convict Lieutenant Swimm, “a biologic from a long way to go,” who has been sent to remediate the ruined planet. Swimm was also the protagonist of “M-Golis,” Khorramian’s solo show for the 2013 Art Basel Statements, which presented the video installation within a larger suite of works that included not only collage and sculpture, but also Swimm’s woven-jute ceremonial vest.
In the meanwhile, Khorramian had moved to upstate New York and begun painting on textile. What began as a small business—a one-time boutique and ongoing clothing line, Laloon Studios—became, by 2016, an umbrella for a variety of couture-artworks, as in her series of monumental kimonos. The textiles’ printed and painted designs are distinctly space-age, resembling planetary constellations, secret codes, or blueprints for mechanical assemblages. (These recent works on textile and paper were brought together in her 2016 solo show, “Saturns Neckless,” at Dubai’s Third Line Gallery.)
The kimonos were soon followed by light boxes, starting with the newest addition to the Golitian cosmology: the 2017 “Special Agents,” which are backlit, elongated works on paper, their paint accented with the glow of colored gels. An early stained-glass work was exhibited in 2017 at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, and both kimonos and light boxes were incorporated into a large public installation she created in 2018 for Basilica Hudson’s Soundscape festival.
The works gathered in “UNEARTH” are the most expansive telling of the story to date. The viewer is invited into the world of the Rola—a technologically-advanced people that left M-Golis for earth in the third millennium BCE—through a room size “portal.” We see their ceremonial wardrobes, which range from painted kimonos to tooled, gold-leaf-embellished leather works. There is a lightbox ensconced in a “pod,” which creates an intimate experience of its luminescent hues. (A subtitle-in-progress reads: “for the summoning of vibrations and in homage to solitude and sacred awareness. A box to sit in front of. A bright one that transmits color, like a psychic transportation device.”)
Print-collages are central to “UNEARTH,” including The Scrolls of the Rola (window pieces designed for natural light), and the slimmer light boxes, The Tablets of the Rola, envisioned as vessels for “transmissions of information.” The show abounds in portals, openings, and scatterings of dots—windows into the Rola’s unearthly spaces, and marks of Khorramian’s process of “unearthing” layers of the composition. The recent print-collages, Khorramian explains, are made through a mosaic-like process of “reductive layering”: the backgrounds, which are often covered in textured paint, are slowly blocked out through layers of collaged paper. “It’s mining by eliminating,” she explained to me, “it’s also how things deteriorate and fade away.”
The results are, as always, both familiar and strange. Castles shine under “the pink light of eternity,” a silver egg is an abstract sigil (or perhaps an intergalactic oil rig), there are undersea colonies, cosmic voyages, and ruined landscapes that feel simultaneously ancient and postindustrial. As always, their strongest quality is their ability transport us into spaces that are of the earth and yet unearthly: leading us into the inexplicable wildness of the imagination and revealing the otherworldly potential of materials and things.
Media Farzin is a New York-based art critic and historian, and sometime editor, curator, and artist. Her writings have appeared inArtforum, Frieze, Bidoun, TheBrooklyn Rail, Art-Agenda, and Modern Painters, among others. She teaches at the School of Visual Arts and the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, New York.