Pareesa Pourian is a painter based in Brooklyn, NY. Her practice is influenced by interests in poetry, mythology, personal experiences in landscapes, and a daily writing ritual. The works range from large scale abstract oil paintings on canvas to small intimate studies of pattern and form in gouache on paper. Her observations, memories, and personal mythologies are translated onto the canvas as abstracted forms and doodles. These dense patterns of repeated marks and layered symbols are woven into crowded compositions creating an overgrown, experiential, and multivalent environment for the viewer to enter. Pareesa and I met during Summer Forum, a discussion based residency in Kaneohe, HI in July 2017. I visit Pareesa in her studio in December, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou plays faintly in the background.
Picnic: I like to start each interview by asking what you’re working on now and what we’re surrounded by.
Pareesa: I was working on this painting last night (pictured below). The story of it meanders and evolves. I read something about origin stories which reminded me that when I was little I had this image of God as a cartoon tornado. I started thinking about wind, particles, and clouds as a kind of originator. I’ve been thinking about clouds a lot, after a chart reading by Grace Kredell where she suggested I try weather divination. I’ve been using it as a writing practice and it led me to thinking about how to make that tornado memory into a painting. I call it my God painting, but it’s more like a desire/desperation/death painting actually. That’s the tornado in my mind of what’s going on.
In your weather divination practice are the definitions self-assigned or are you using a dictionary of symbols?
Self-assigned. Divination in general is looking at signs in the world and deriving meaning from them. Historically it’s used to tell the future, but I’m using it to see and think and be in a creative space. If I get good at it and can tell the future that’d be awesome.
Has any other imagery or approaches in your work come from having your chart read?
Grace’s chart reading was really great for me creatively, she gave me a lot of images to work with. One of them is the myth of Persephone. Persephone is a character associated with my birthday which is between the winter solstice and the spring equinox – the turning point when the days start to get longer. She’s is the personification of vegetation that goes underground and comes back up.
Is there generally an underlying narrative in your paintings?
I paint abstractly and doodley, for example — this is a grass painting (pictured above). But it’s also fun having a narrative to plug into each one. With this painting I knew I wanted to use very light values of pinks that veered toward purple or orange and have those next to each other, creating that weird vibrating zone (pictured below). When I started thinking about Persephone, it turned into a narrative in my head. I was looking at the clouds and I saw something that made me think of an invisibility cloak, with a fine mesh. That’s represented in the triangular grid. Hades is associated with the invisibility helmet, I call this one “Persephone and Hades Invisibility Cloak Sex Bed.” Although that narrative obviously isn’t clear, but thinking about those elements while making the painting evokes certain feelings. It leads to certain decisions in the painting – a particular manner of touch, mark making. Compared to the grass painting, it has a very different feeling.
Is writing an essential part of your practice?
Many of my close friends are poets, and I’m taking a poetry workshop with a great poet and friend Filip Marinovich. The workshop is organized astrologically, we read poets born in whatever sign we’re currently in and talk about how the themes, symbols and myths of each sign meet the form of the poets. There is a fluidity and integration of myth with art-making in that approach that I appreciate. Recognizing the integration of it all… the readings from Summer Forum were also so much about how we can integrate and animate every aspect of the world, in order to break it open. That’s where I’m trying to put my head – how can I animate reality in ways that are new to me in order to break it open. All of that helps with the paintings.
The poetry workshop seems like a good muse for subject matter and inspiration.
It’s like having an alter ego to feel yourself out through. It’s a framework to enter different feelings or experiences. Ultimately, I think my paintings are more experiential, they’re not narrative paintings. It’s so much about how trippy looking at something is.
I am entranced by your overall cluttered, cluttered not being a bad word, and chaotic compositions. There is no place to rest the eye in these works, no focal point, it keeps the eye traveling across the surface and promotes curiosity. It suggests a choreography that your eye should follow. Do you think about that when you’re filling the canvas?
Yeah big time. That sensibility is strongly related to being in the Louisiana landscape. It was really this experience I had driving around in my car, since I had the frame of the windshield from which to view everything. There are giant oak trees that form canopies overhead and vines that grow up telephone poles, spindly Crepe Myrtles and Azalea bushes – all these beautiful dense patterns growing on top of each other, overlapping. I was constantly having that visual experience, of all these intricate patterns with no focal point. The floors of my parents’ house are covered in Persian rugs, which also gave me that feeling. I have memories of kind of tripping out in intricate mosques in Iran, the dazzling mosaics. The same with wallpaper. I have a general interest in the decorative and the ornamental, but in my paintings I want to turn it into something that has air and pockets. That’s part of the landscape too, there are all of these little pockets your eye can go into, or that you can literally go into. I used to hang out in Azalea bushes when I was little.
Coincidentally, I was talking about that yesterday. When I was growing up my friend had this stand of bamboo growing in her yard, and when you’re a kid you’re the only one that’s small enough to hang out in it. I remember hiding in there and not being able to see anything outside of it. It’s one of my strongest childhood memories.
I love that feeling, it’s like being in a nest. I don’t want to be a surveyor on top of a mountain, I want to be inside it.
While flowers are a recurring subject in your work, they are not representational but feel rather emotionally rendered. What draws you to flowers as a repeated form?
The flowers are drawn as a doodle, I was drawn to the combination of something “feminine” and “light,” in that it’s a doodle and it’s a flower — heavy air quotes on those words that are easily tossed around. You cover an entire field in them and it’s very intense, the shapes lend themselves to creating all of these pockets. It’s line, it’s form, and it’s enclosed. It was the perfect thing for me to work with visually and content-wise, I was also thinking of floral bedsheets and wallpaper. Hydrangeas have a very simple form, but as they age and rot there becomes endless variations of its shape, that fascinates me in a way that makes my skin crawl. To start with one thing and just change it a little bit, again and again and again, when it accumulates, it becomes totally overwhelming. These paintings are also large, so there is something necessary about the scale and the insistence. I’m referencing wallpaper and sheets, but at this point my painting has taken off from pattern because it denies that kind of consistency.
It’s great to see your work in person and be exposed to a breath of pieces from different times, for the readers — I first saw your work when you presented it in a presentation at Summer Forum last summer, and since then I’ve only viewed it on a screen. I was going to comment on how there was an absence of figure, but now that I’m here in the studio I can see your nude drawings.
There is an absence of the figure, that’s true. I am more interested in abstract painting, but maybe not forever. That series of drawings is called “nudes and weather.” They have an energy and humor, which is hard to have in abstract art. They’re kind of surreal. Nothing is off the table.
In these the body is treated more like a plane than a subject.
Yeah definitely, the heads and feet are cut off. It’s more about the way they stand in the rectangle, and a flat-footed emphasis on the body’s fun parts.
Was this interest in weather before your chart reading or after?
These are from way before. Funny, I didn’t draw that connection. The weather created the pattern and gave the bodies a place. Some are angels, one is a mermaid, they have clouds in them too.
It’s all coming full circle!
It always does! The thing about the Louisiana landscape too is that your body is always implicated because you feel the humidity on your clothing, there are bugs crawling on you, it’s a very embodied experience – as any landscape is – but it’s not some polite east coast chill in your bones, it’s a rude dirty intrusion in the swamps.
Where in Louisiana did you grow up?
And these photographs are they your photography? Are they reference material?
Yeah, they are. I sometimes take a disposable camera with me on a walk at night and use the flash. It brings out the patterns in nature in a very flat or mysterious way. Those are more related to these gouaches.
There is such a drastic change in scale and handling between the oil paintings and the gouache paintings.
There is a lot of pleasure in these, I could make a stack of these for the rest of my life. I use them as different ways to explore patterns and compositional devices. I’ll go to a museum and make all these notes of things I want to try. Many of these are from one really good day at the Art Institute of Chicago, ranging from batik to Japanese prints to an amazing Syrian Quran to Georgia O’Keeffe. The photographs lend forms to these gouaches as well, though abstracted. I’m not looking to make something literal.
Do you want the viewer to have their own reading?
It’s not so much a reading, I want things to lend themselves to multivalence I don’t want people to think I’m illustrating this moment that happened. It’s so much more about feeling, I want it to evoke that feeling you had as a kid going into the bamboo, the feeling you had underneath that invisibility cloak.
Are your titles important for interpreting the work?
The titles are important in that I like the way language too is a material that can be abstract The flower painting in the hall is called “Bedweather” it might point you in the direction that I was thinking of a bed sheet, but maybe it won’t, either way it evokes a feeling (pictured above).
Which I think can be said for looking at art and nature, you don’t need to know the latin name of the plant to enjoy it. You can analyze an artwork to death where it doesn’t make you feel anything, or you can turn off contextualizing it and just experience it.
For me, all visual ideas are from nature, nature is total sensuality — and painting tries to be.
Have you always worked in or leaned towards abstraction?
At one point I was interested in figures, but I’m not good at telling stories. I don’t want to think narratively, I enjoy looking at narrative things and reading narratives, but it’s not the way I like to construct things. Also the task of representing the figure carries way too much baggage. I am observing, and I make drawings from observation, but these paintings aren’t made from observation. However, I would like them to feel as if they were in some way, to have a distinct feeling of specificity. I’m not checked out and making a bunch of marks, I’m thinking about each one. Specificity is so important to me, I don’t want anything to feel generalized, maybe that’s why I’m drawn to the doodle too, how can you make a doodle seem so exacting? I like that challenge or contradiction.
These paintings are more like a memory of an observation, you go through these different levels of translation to get to this point. You’re conscious when you’re staring at a patch of grass, and that memory forms and becomes something else.
Any good painting has to become its own experience, when you’re reacting to what’s right in front of you. The idea of a memory of observation is how Chinese landscape was made, the artist would go out and experience landscape then come back and make the impression that was left. Letting the landscape act upon you and mix with everything else in your mind.
There is no real separation between the form and the background, it’s all one woven composition.
I’m into flatness and shallow spaces, I’m always collapsing the space, I don’t know why necessarily. There is something about modernism that I’m tied to. But also it’s just that I like my face up close to everything, that nest feeling.
The allusions to nature, deconstruction of form, bright unnatural hues and rhythmic compositions feel historically linked to Fauvism and Expressionism. I’m sure you have more contemporary influences. Who are some artists that you are influenced by?
You know, most of my influences are from Modernism. I just saw this show of Arshile Gorky’s late drawings and paintings, it was amazing. I love Florine Stettheimer and Hilma af Klint. Her work is on this universe scale while my works are on a particle scale. I also feel like I’m constantly wrestling with Matisse in my head. I always find his paintings ugly and disturbing even though they’re characterized as the opposite. I love Joan Mitchell, Alma Thomas, Per Kirkeby, Monet, Jutta Koether, Alan Shields, Dorothy Iannone…
We’ve talked a little bit about this outside of this interview, both your involvement in a neighborhood community garden or starting a feminist book club with friends. Do these social engagement practices comes into influence your work at all?
Being a good painter and a good human are not separate for me, and these social engagements influence everything about me, including art. But I don’t view reality literally nor in my images, so it would be hard to point at a clear illustration of that influence. There is some politically explicit art that I really admire and appreciate but my art making is more of a spiritual, experiential endeavor. I’m explicit about my politics in my attitude.
You can view more of Pareesa’s work on her website http://pareesapourian.com/ and in the upcoming exhibition PICNIC at Calico Gallery, June 1 – 22, 2018. Pareesa will be reading with Filip Marinovich at the Greetings Reading Series on Thursday, March 22, 8:30pm at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn.