“Even when crippled by arthritis, Titian
kept on painting Virgins in that luminous light,
as if he’d just heard about them.”
“You have to keep on the edge of something,
all the time, or the picture dies.”
—Willem de Kooning
Commitment to their vocation and conviction of its worth move the best painters to work nearly every day, regardless of life’s upheavals. The physical act of delving into painting’s materiality, and the mental immersion in visual composition channel deep and raw emotional undercurrents. Sometimes painting’s alchemy may even sublimate existential suffering into a nobler substance.
Mally Khorasantchi has been a contemplative painter and artistic meditator on life’s contradictions throughout a creative life now in its seventh decade. Recent medical interventions and her subsequent recovery created new physical limitations, forcing her beyond her comfort zone. At the same time, the past two years have been for her a period of fearless blossoming, driven by abundant artistic energy.
Mally Khorasantchi’s Early Life and Artistic Influences
Khorasantchi was born Mally Anita Josefine Breuer in 1948 and grew up in postwar Düsseldorf, Germany. For the past thirty years, she has been living in Naples, Florida, where she has found her pensive, stoic German disposition opening to embrace American optimism, with Southwest Florida’s perennially green landscape and serene seascape as her source of inspiration.
Since 2002, when she decided to pursue a career as a painter full time, she has shown her work in several museums and galleries, mostly in Florida and New York. Highlighting her recent paintings, with a particular focus on her compelling works of 2020–21, her first major solo museum exhibition “Mally Khorasantchi: Limitations” is opening at the Osthaus Museum in Hagen, Germany on February 4, 2022. It also showcases eight works from her early career, including seven pieces from her “Deutschland Family” series (2008–2010). In these brooding, expressive pieces painted in oil on enlarged family photographs dating to 1945–61, she reflects on her upbringing and family in postwar Germany. Like many of the artist’s early paintings, these demonstrate the influence of Anselm Kiefer’s powerful, monumental works.
Khorasantchi’s artistic interest in nature and expressive style in oil and collages were established over a decade ago. While rendering nature—both wild and manmade—as her primary subject matter, she tackles the conflicting organic and artificial forces manifested in order and chaos, light and shadow, and the cycle of life and death. Her ultimate interest lies in discovering and expressing balance, harmony, beauty, and hope while grappling with the turmoil and chaos she finds in the external world—and perhaps equally, in her conscious and subconscious mind.
Her paintings marry stylized and representational imagery taken from nature with abstract patterns and shapes. She also incorporates collages of photographs she takes of natural surroundings as well as of found images cut from magazines.
Robert Rauschenberg, who had his studio in Captiva Island, Florida for nearly 40 years until his death in 2008, is no doubt a source of inspiration for Khorasantchi’s deployment of collage technique. Some of the recurring motifs in her artwork include entangled mangrove tree roots, tropical vegetations and foliage, seed pods, beehives, and hexagons among others. Along with these organically untamed elements, the artist employs fragmented images taken from manicured gardens and flowers to reference the affluent middle-class environment she inhabits. Such leitmotifs can be observed on various scales in most of the works she has created in the past decade.
Khorasantchi’s Recent Works Showcase a Breaking of Barriers
What marks Khorasantchi’s pieces from the past few years, such as the “Metamorphoses” and “Limitations” series—respectively from 2020 and 2021—is their compelling visual engagement with intense and conflicting emotions and bodily traumas. Many of her works prior to 2018 often obscured such intense emotional undercurrents, although they had been prominent in her earlier paintings dating back to 2005-8, as in the darker palette of “The Fight Goes On” (2008).
Committing herself to immersive work on a single series for a duration of time, she created “Faked News” in 2017 as she had done “Roots of Feeling” in 2015-16, in which unresolved, emotional undertones could be detected, yet remained just beneath the surface. Contributing to such an effect was her growing preference for muted, softer pastel tones and bright palettes, which, not incidentally, evoke Florida’s sunny, subtropical climate. As seen in a polyptych titled “Me Too” (2018), referencing the #MeToo movement, however, Khorasantchi sporadically burst out with bold colors and strong compositional energies of an artist who is breaking through subconscious barriers and finding her authentic voice.
The years 2020 and 2021 have been difficult for everyone, and have witnessed seismic changes and breakthroughs for Khorasantchi, too. After several postponements, in August of 2020, she went through spinal fusion surgery. Due to the stress caused by that arduous surgery and recovery, she started to experience atrial fibrillation and had another medical intervention in February 2021. Khorasantchi’s paintings of 2020–21 are products of this critical period marked not only by a series of significant personal events but also by an accompanying introspection regarding life and mortality.
Rather than succumbing to fear before the unknowable, the artist continued to paint, as though chronicling her passage, mining her thoughts and experiences as the source for her expressive freedom. Witnessing her personal journey close-up as a friend and art curator, I could not help but feel deeply moved; she devoted herself to creating art as though her life’s energy derived from laborious hours spent working on her large canvases.
The diptych “Metamorphoses VIII”, the concluding piece of the “Metamorphoses” series completed in December 2020, poignantly sums up her physically and emotionally transformed life. The large tree trunks with red bark and the menacing and hypnotically verdant tropical foliage, as well as the jarringly bold vertical blue stripes, seem to elegiacally capture a brooding, introspective mind, eliciting a deep sense of sorrow.
While revealing continuity with her previous body of work, Khorasantchi’s abstract composition of “Metamorphoses VIII”, gloomy and striking in its use of color and line, powerfully articulates a fragile, aging bodily existence burdened with pain which colors her view of her natural surroundings. The work evokes a torrent of emotional undercurrents and existential questions—about the future, family, marriage, dreams and inevitable death, and even the unaddressed collective trauma of her post-war generation.
From “Metamorphoses” to “Limitations”: Khorasantchi’s Next Act
Khorasantchi’s Hagen exhibition’s title, “Limitations”, comes from the eponymous series of seven paintings made in 2021 and, in her signature style, marrying representation and abstraction in oil and collage. In this series, more than before, collage images of fragmented domestic interiors cut from magazines, such as bedrooms and living rooms, as well as liminal spaces like stairs, windows, and doors, appear in her compositions like the habitations of fairytale creatures in the wilds imagined by the Brothers Grimm.
The artist simultaneously reveals and conceals her physical limitations and her experience of interiors as refuge and confinement. The series, in which both nature and domestic interiors predominate, represents and chronicles Khorasantchi’s new-found interiority in which she slowly embraces, and comes to terms with physical limitations imposed upon her. It movingly captures her sense of mourning, seclusion, and pride, as well as the serenity she finds in nature.
I find it noteworthy that at the end of this crucial year-long period of internal probing and physical adjustment, Khorasantchi created a stunning, monumental diptych, poetically titled “And the Figs Started the Conversation.” The imagery of bifurcated tree trunks and branches, made up of printed and collaged photographs of dead palm tree bark and painted with oil pigments and oil sticks, conjures up ancient trees blooming again after a long dormancy. The work’s muted tones simultaneously suggest a wintry season, within which a warm spring already sleeps.
Cotton-white abstract flowers (or leaves), seemingly in full bloom, as well as ripe figs cut as if awaiting guests, evoke a deep sense of renewed hope, faith, and conviction about what is yet to come. It is a remarkably moving work, especially when we understand the septuagenarian artist’s recent struggles and her indomitable zeal for artistic growth. Khorasantchi’s timely exhibition at the Osthaus Museum will, I hope, be a harbinger of growing recognition for an artist who is forcefully marching onward into her next act, and whose artistic energy goes beyond beauty and the decorative impulse to reveal new dimensions.