In his first solo show with the gallery, Shaan Syed presents life-sized oil paintings alongside screen prints depicting hand-written text. In conjunction, the works compel a revaluation of the critical paradigms supporting Western abstraction. Texts listing things such as an offering at an East London caf, “Eggs Bacon Beans Chips Burger,” sound out from the same space as a wayward protest sign “Freedom to Starve” and the artist’s full Islamic birth name, “Shaan Tariq Hassan-Syed.” Seemingly disparate in content, these reflections merge in a similar fashion to the bold wipes of Syed’s paintings echoing across the gallery walls. Like Arabic poems about wine written on ancient drinking vessels, a literal reading of his calligraphy misleads upon cursory glance. Their meditative quality emerges in its repetition.
Negation and loss play an inherent role in the production of Syed’s paintings. As opposed to the additive construction of the multimonochromes of Ellsworth Kelly, which have been described in their approach as 1+1=1, Syed builds his works from a reductive construction that separates and isolates, rather than joining together. The use of filler has become a predominant component of Syed’s large-scale paintings. This collaboration began when Syed used the material to return a textured surface to a blank slate. Its fast-drying, colorless and utilitarian qualities won the artist over and have since found a greater presence in his practice. In this body of work, the surface area of the filler swells to take over the painting. The filling in and the covering over signify just as much as the impasto of the colors reveal.
In gestures that wipe away what we can only assume lies beneath the surface, Syed makes space for absence. The paintings manifest the Lacanian conception that loss and gain are intrinsically linked. Whether viewed as an opening up or as a barrier with the prickly edges of a defense mechanism, Syed’s monochromes reveal what we are either unwilling or unable to see. They ask the question how can one fill a hole that cannot be filled? And in the very asking, he finds a way of addressing this puzzle. Covering over, wiping away, filler becomes a source of generation, introducing more as it expands into the canvas space. We find that the loss of what may lie beneath becomes an experience of gain.
Shaan Syed (b. 1977, Toronto) lives and works in London. He has exhibited at Galerie Michael Janssen, Berlin; PlugIn ICA, Winnipeg; Brown, London. Group exhibitions include Jerwood Space, London; Bloomberg Space, London; La Salles de Bains, Lyon; S1 Artspace, Sheffield UK; Laurent Delaye, London. Syed is a recent recipient of Elephant Trust Grant UK, and the Pollock Krasner Foundation grant for painters. He will be included in the upcoming Thames and Hudson publication, “100 Painters of Tomorrow."