Contributed by Sharon Butler / As I walk through the dimly lit space behind an elegantly nostalgic bespoke clothing store on the Lower East Side, I feel as if I’ve landed in Desperately Seeking Susan, the iconic film starring Madonna that captured New York creative life of the 1980s. On the other side of a worn red curtain looms Riad Miah’s bright, busy studio. Confronting me is a plethora of colorful canvases, covered with writhing shapes, floating freely on irregular canvases. They make an impression, summoning Elizabeth Murray’s work as they also distinguish themselves with innovative effects. Some of the shapes are painted on the back of shiny DuraLux that has been attached to the edges, as if they were escaping or perhaps growing from the primary painting. Miah is enthralled with the variety of surfaces and paints available to him, mixing thick paint with thin, shiny with flat, combining all and sundry to create lively abstract entities that rise and wriggle next to one another but rarely overlap or make contact.
There is a wide range of sources and inspirations for the shapes in Miah’s work. They recall punctuation, clouds, paisleys, and even visual tropes from famous paintings, notably Matisse’s. Miah turns and multiplies the French modernist’s figures and dancers to create flat, patterned compositions that, in an unexpected twist, sometimes reclaim the fabrics, costumes, and carpets that Matisse also depicted in his work. At first Matisse used these as background decoration, but eventually he began to look to them for radical approaches to composition that eschewed linear perspective and explored idiosyncratic harmonies of color and line. Miah too adopts the flatness of fabric patterns while ignoring their geometric underpinnings, lending his work a loopy, carefree instability.
His approach is not, however, glancing or unserious. One of Miah’s recurrent shapes is a large hand-drawn circle with puffy edges that looks a bit like one of the weather emojis on an iPhone keyboard. The shape appears in the foreground and the background, sometimes as an opaque blob, other times in outline. For Miah, the shape functions more broadly and enigmatically, representing a thought bubble – more pointedly, the abstract activity and output of thinking. He is after something more considered than just a beautiful painting.
His personal history is an important factor in his offbeat aesthetic. When he was eight, his family moved from Trinidad to New York City, where he still lives and works. His bright, vivid colors hark back to his early Caribbean experience. The shaped canvases can be seen as fragments – not so much of larger images as of the city itself, where views of the moody sky are invariably framed by the geometries of surrounding skyscrapers. Closer to the ground, Miah as a child was inspired by graffiti artists for whom tagging was a dangerous obsession that risked life and liberty. His freewheeling, curvy paint handling conjures the subway art that was ubiquitous in pre-gentrification NYC and is still abundant on bridges and in the tunnels.
Like Mary Heilmann, one of his mentors in art school, Miah is drawn to challenging, even eccentric compositional approaches. He begins with pasted-paper and gouache studies to determine canvas formats, color, and internal shapes, some of which might be based on accidental floor spatter. But once his brushes hit the constructed canvases, he moves intuitively, working loosely from the sketches and color studies, improvising along the way. He has a lively mind that moves from shape to shape, canvas to canvas, and it’s easy to imagine him reveling in images and riffing on them down the line. His process allows for both careful plotting and accidental surprises, and always for asking what the endeavor of painting really means – a question that has challenged many a painter since the 1970s. While he is certainly methodical, his approach is fundamentally searching and open-ended. Finishing a painting, he says, is overrated.
“Riad Miah: My Eyes Just Heard My Brain,” New York Artists Equity Association Inc.
245 Broome Street, New York, NY. March 9 through April 2, 2023.
About the author: Sharon Butler originally wrote this essay for a booklet that accompanies the exhibition.