Seher Shah

18 Dec – 06 Feb 2014

Seher Shah calls on her dual training in art and architecture to fold and splinter space in ways only imaginable two-dimensionally. Her work is characterized by precise black and white imagery that suggests impossible interactions among fragments of modernist structures combined with historical decorative forms and topographic imagery. Shah creates complex and multifaceted vistas exploring architectural forms, such as the cube, spaces from traditional courtyards, and mid-twentieth century Brutalist monuments. The elegant and unpredictable juxtaposition of these forms evokes processes of identification in imagination and memory, both personal and collective. 

Shah’s digital drawings, such as Geometric Landscapes and the Spectacle of Force (2009) explore historical images of the 1903 colonial Durbar in Delhi, a ceremonial display of pomp and military power arranged for the coronation of the British monarch, Edward VII. The imagery combines the transformation of archival photographs of colonial pageantry in early twentieth-century India with references to contemporary modernist monuments and American imperialism. 

More recently, the artist has turned her attention to utopian modernist attempts to perfect human life and rationalize social interaction. She takes Le Corbusier’s 1951 Unité d'Habitation as a starting point for a series of projection exercises, superimposing outlined fragments of the Unité façade against each other at impossible angles. Le Corbusier’s iconic design is a symbol of modernist attempts to instill beauty and order upon diverse populations, as well as the failure to implement that vision due to bureaucratic impasses and economic austerities, resulting in the regimentation of everyday life in the notorious postwar housing megastructures it inspired around the world. Layer by layer, Shah dismantles, liberates and integrates its forms into a new ‘new vision’ that breaks open the familiar structure for re-examination.

Monumental drawings like Object Relic (Unité d’Habitation) (2011) dismantle the modernist legacy. They collapse public and private, modern and traditional, futurism and nostalgia into a singular visual language that critically reflects the capitalist and techno-rationalist tendencies to homogenize culture. The drawings recall the specific legacy of the recent modernist past in postwar housing, conveying not only the exuberant optimism of those plans but also the profoundly ambivalent retro-futurism of their return to contemporary interest, as the contemporary ruins of Enlightenment aspirations. Imposing black geometric forms with razor-sharp edges simultaneously support and disrupt the three-dimensionality of the Unité structures, transforming them from emblems of brutalist rigidity into decorative elements, in a sort of return of the repressed. The small flags that loop around the compositions provide a dreamlike sense of lightness that belies the concrete solidity of the actual building. They recall prayer flags, and suggest the personal additions that may alleviate the starkness of the modernist façade, but ultimately fail to counter the inhuman transcendence of its gridded forms.

The compositions of the smaller Unit Object (Bent) (2011) encounter jagged lines suggesting a violent impact, comic-book style, registering not only the destruction of failed housing blocks like Pruit Igoe (the monumental development in St Louis that was demolished in 1972), but also the contemporary shock of 9/11 and, by implication, its violent aftermath, the reimposition of brute force by hegemonic powers throughout the postcolonial diaspora.

 

Karen Kurczynski, Vitamin D2, New Perspectives in Drawing (Phaidon, 2013)