LOUISVILLE, KY — What You Shout Into the Woods Echoes Back, the title of a new show by Vian Sora, is the translation of a German proverb that means something like “What goes around comes around.” In a word, karma. Together, the 20 paintings on view feel heavy with the accumulation of history: karmic cycles of violence, pestilence, and death. (Sora, who was born in Baghdad, remained in the city through multiple wars, including the 2003 United States invasion, before emigrating.) And yet, the work also sings with the equally abiding presence of growth, rebirth, and new life.
Sora layers her canvases in spray paint and acrylic, in various pigments and using a variety of brushes, sponges, and tools, to create her largely abstract works. Over this cacophony of color, she adds an opaque application of paint in a single color (sometimes two) to carve out shapes, foregrounding the base layer. More recently, her work has veered into the figurative, with forms resembling disembodied limbs, heads, animals, plants, and organs emerging from the abstraction.
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Three paintings near the gallery entrance evoke a desert landscape, at once both modern and ancient. A palette of dark brown, black, ochre, and gray generates textures that resemble fossilized bone, animal pelts, wood grain, and gaseous clouds; light blue and azure brushwork create blocky, rounded forms and suggestions of a clear desert sky. The press release states that the work in the show was informed by Sora’s 2021 Berlin residency as well as paintings like Picasso’s 1923 “The Pipes of Pan”; indeed, the figures in “Outerworld I” and “Outerworld II” (both 2022) recall Picasso’s idyllic Mediterranean scene from classical antiquity. Sora is attuned to the aesthetic casualties of war: the ancient art and artifacts that are lost or destroyed, not just in Iraq, but in Berlin and, more recently, Kyiv, as well as countless other cities. History repeats, losses accumulate.
Three large works occupy a more nebulous terrain, with sections of black, blue, white, and gold that call to mind swirling masses of interstellar dust. But it’s unclear whether the scenes that are constructed out of this cosmic confusion are visions of the post-apocalyptic world or a paradise lost. In “Rhapsody” (2022), at least three figures are struggling to emerge from the primordial chaos — a hand, a foot, and, in the upper left of the canvas, a human figure with arms raised, doused in an ecstatic shout of metallic gold paint. To the right, another body seems to be doubled over, drips of pink and red spilling from its head and chest. This capacity to reside in joy and terror in equal measure gives the paintings their unsettling power, a brutal acknowledgement that creation coexists with destruction.
The bodies in “Traverses” (2022) are more defined, yet the relationships among them are more ambiguous. Two are in a sea or river (searching for bodies or for food?), while another sits on the water’s banks with upraised arms (in welcome or surrender?). In the foreground, a seated figure contemplates what might be a butterfly; a dead blackbird lies on the ground behind her. A small, leaf-like object hovers in the sky above her — a blazing comet or simply an orange-plumed bird? The press release offers another possibility: while in Berlin, Sora frequented Fritz Schloß Park, where a Trümmerfrauen memorial commemorates the German women who cleared their cities of rubble in the aftermath of World War II. Perhaps Sora has transported these laborers to her native city of Baghdad, to the banks of the Tigris River, as they participate in this act of communal rebuilding.
In an adjacent corridor, seven smaller works compose a pleasing gradient of softer blues, purples, and pinks. Two in particular struck me: “Pink Field Study” and “Moabit Study” (both 2021), the most abstracted of the group, feature areas of black and kelly green set amid gorgeous swaths of peach, purple, violet, and lavender. With minimal painterly intervention over the base layer, the works feel relaxed and open, as if Sora is allowing herself brief moments of pure aesthetic pleasure. Arching, dry-brushed strokes of dark purple are visible in both, gestures that resist the taut mark making of her other pieces. “Moabit Study,” especially, feels like a work that is unfolding, that is still in the process of becoming. By relinquishing some control, Sora attains a measure of hope: if nothing is settled and determined, any outcome is still possible — certainly a most welcome idea in these most uncertain times.
Vian Sora: What You Shout Into the Woods Echoes Back continues at Moremen Gallery (710 West Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky) through April 2. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.