Mahsan Ghazianzad has some stories to tell—but she’s not really a narrative painter. Her approach is something like one that a poet might use. One of her favorite lines, by the ancient Greek poet Simonides, is, “Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting with the gift of speech.”
During an ideal studio session, which lasts all night, she dances, listens to music and paints with acrylics on large canvases rolled out on the floor. She’ll process fragments of her history, layering them into compositions that don’t convey specific people or things but definitely conjure a mood and a range of sensibilities. Once the works are in public view, the idea is for viewers to apply their own readings. The finished pieces are, for Ghazianzad, largely remnants of the process of having thought things though.
Ghazianzad grew up in Tehran, Iran, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in art and painted views from rooftops. Surveillance by the government was a given when she was a teenager, she said, and free speech was not. Rooftoops were the only places she and her friends felt they could talk without being spied on.
She emigrated to Vancuover “eight or nine years ago,” then to Toronto, then to Sacramento, where some members of her family already lived. A couple of years ago, she came to Reno to pursue a master’s degree in art from the University of Nevada, Reno. There, she began painting images of paper airplanes.
“I was thinking about going through migration, going from one place to another place,” she said. She thought of the planes as vehicles for carrying messages. Thinking back on what the messages might have said, she thought of her own story and quickly transitioned into the type of big-picture questions that anyone might ask.
In Tehran, Ghazianzad said, she used to think, “Why should I leave because of those really closed-minded people? The life that they’re offering me is not the real one. I want to see the real one.” That thought, she said, transitioned into something more like, “What kind of truth are you looking for? If you’re talking about the value of our life, what kind of a value are we looking for?” The paper airplanes, she said, might contain “love letters never delivered.”
Eventually she decided that even those planes were too specific of a referent and began painting large canvases with distinctly somber, concrete-colored hues. Some paintings contain paint drips, shreds of poetry in Farsi, palette-knife marks and rough surface textures. While these are the kinds of details that a painter might use to make a work look spontaneous, these pieces come off as carefully labored over and thoroughly aesthetically resolved. And while they look, at first, like non-representational abstractions, they are actually pictures of crumpled papers, a more generalized version of the paper planes.
“The paper airplanes were originally based on physical movement,” she said. She wanted to convey a more expansive idea of movement, one that includes transitions the mind and the heart might make.
Thinking through the big truth/beauty/mind/heart questions even further, Ghazianzad said that she always reaches this thought—“Love each other. That’s the most important thing”—one that’s as conceptually expansive and as neatly distilled as her paintings.