Contributed by Mary Sargent / Renée Khatami, whose recent work is on view in “Behind the Pale,” a solo show at Prince Street Gallery, has developed an intensely methodical art-making process and produced a luminous body of work that seems to transcend the frustrations and anxieties of contemporary life. She starts her paintings with large sheets of thick, textured paper. Using a variety of brushes, she applies thin layers of ink, gouache, acrylics, and water based metallic paints. The thin layers, pastel palette, and shimmering metallic pigments give the pieces a subtle phosphorescence. After the paint dries, she uses a paper cutter to render the sheets into shaped fragments, which she then arranges and layers on canvas or wood with transparent medium. In an act of creative destruction, she scores the surfaces with straight-edge blades and applies more paint, focusing on the ingrained ridges to make thin lines that contrast with the bulkier paper fragments. Soft color gently unifies Khatami’s marks – by turns considered, intuitive, and accidental – into a harmonious collaged agglomeration. Her pieces exude the joy of making and offer the viewer a complex yet palpably pleasurable visual experience.
Khatami’s work evolved from her early experiences of growing up in New York City as the child of aesthetically inclined parents. Her father, an Iranian immigrant, worked at the American Museum of Natural History, and her mother studied Chinese painting. Khatami spent time at the museum, fascinated by the dioramas and the collections of bird eggs. Their elegant shapes, craquelure, pastel colors, and luminosity made a deep impression. During summers, the family traveled to Europe and Asiatic Russia, where she visited numerous museums. It seemed natural for her to pursue art as a vocation, and she became a book designer specializing in art books.
Although Khatami hasn’t designed books for many years, the methods she learned in the design studio have stayed with her and informed her work. She began her first career just before the advent of personal computers, designing and assembling artist books using traditional paste-up methods: cutting galleys of text into column lengths, wrapping small bits of type around images, and adhering components using an electronic waxer. While hot, the wax turned the sheets of type into translucent fragments that were burnished into column layouts. Razor blades, cutters, tracing paper, and Rubylith mylar were the tools of her trade.
Khatami uses close analogues to these tools in her current practice, reflecting an organic career path that has involved more continuity than departure. Like her work as a designer, Khatami’s work elides personal narrative content. In her studio, however, the story of the object’s making is paramount. Through painting, cutting, and arranging fragments, other associations may emerge. Her work perhaps conjures cross sections of geological strata, in which fragments of different shapes and colors float together until the aggregate hardens and settles into a lively new pattern. Ultimately, focusing on Khatami’s glimmering multilayered surfaces, the viewer begins to rise above the challenges of everyday life.
“Renée Khatami:Behind the Pale,” Prince Street Gallery, 547 West 27th Street, 5th floor, Suite 504, New York, NY. Through February 25, 2023.