There are two excellent exhibits currently at Hemphill in Washington DC. Although they are clearly intended as two solo exhibits, and are in separate spaces in the Gallery, one might wonder why these two artists, whose work seems such a contrast, would be shown at the same time. Hedieh Javanshir Ilchi’s richly colored abstract landscapes in acrylic and watercolor seem the absolute opposite of Rose’s apparently minimalist encaustics, but there are connections. The lyrical title of Ilchi’s show, Listen to the night as it makes itself hollow, and the poetry of the titles of each of her paintings enhance their equally poetic imagery. All painted in the past few months, they speak to each other in a voice that is tender, but aching with longing. Similarly, Rose’s 19 Paintings, all made between March 2020 and January 2021, were each inspired by a word that the artist woke up with in the middle of the night, as he explains in a video interview made in connection with this show. In the same video, Rose also explains how he had retreated to his studio at a Delaware beach, where this process, for him highly emotive and expressive, was to create “a dialogue” among the works in the group, thus revealing “a story” about his process and the meaning of his work. While not narrative, they do succeed in this kind of conceptual storytelling conveyed in a very different voice than that of Ilchi’s.
Ilchi was born and raised in Teheran, Iran. Although she was never trained in the art of Persian ornamental illumination, called Tazhib, she connected to it and has been including the ornamental patterning in her work for some time now. For Ilchi, who came to this area in 1999, the labor intensive work of painting this ornamentation is both a meditative process and a way to signal her double identity as Iranian and American and her strong feelings about continuing the traditions of her Persian heritage. However, these latter are expressed without overcoming the art in her work, something that is increasingly an issue in much “identity art” being made today.
Her process is something that seems an evocation of both sides of that identity. The pouring technique, the results of which the artist does not control, is clearly associated with American and European abstraction, while the very slowly painted overlays of Tazhib decorative patterns—a process that requires the transferring of the patterns in pencil and then, using a very slender brush, giving them shape and color—evokes the traditions and processes of the past. Each painting takes many hours to complete, and the works in this exhibit have added plant forms that at times make the worlds they appear to represent look like they are under the sea and, at others, in a fairytale forest with a starlit sky. I asked the artist if she agreed that in these paintings she felt as though she were invoking the spirit of Scheherazade, the story-telling Persian princess of 1001 Nights. She replied, “we’ve been living a lot in our heads this year.” These paintings are meant to release the imagination of the viewer. Given time, they can bring us back in memory to childhood dreams or distill a scene from an animated film or a special book that remains with us over the years.
Trying to research something more about the Tazhib tradition, I learned that the name refers to gold ornamentation, and that these patterns were originally used exclusively for manuscripts of the Quran and other sacred texts. When they were applied, they were reserved for the borders surrounding the texts. Originating in the 12th and 13th centuries, all of the patterns are based in sacred geometry, something that also formed the basis of the decoration of stained glass windows in Europe at this time. Certain of the types were more abstract, while others specified different shapes such as clouds, or flowers. Often in Ilchi’s paintings, at least in this extraordinary group, we see the ornament moving toward the edges, as if framing the central image. While this may not have been a conscious intent, the result is to make each image something that the viewer wants to penetrate, like entering the ancient text of a story that lives on in this artist created world. We can see this effect in the small panel titled You had withdrawn your beauty, softly, where the dense floral patterning edges the sea green and blue world within.
Another beautiful example of this effect, and probably the painting with the most developed landscape forms is And inside stretched such an emptiness. Here, poured colors are enhanced with texture and produced with powdered pigment, including metallic colors that provide a coppery shine to some areas. Deep in the perspective space, a sky is visible and one dot of gold stands out like a moon. I felt myself getting carried away with the magic of this image, but I’m sure the artist would approve.
Hedieh Javanshir Ilchi, And inside stretched such an emptiness, acrylic and watercolor on panel, 30” x 24”, 2021. Photo courtesy of Hemphill Artworks.
Walking into the next gallery, Robin Rose’s encaustic paintings conjure a more subtle response. Understanding that they are together a visual poem based on a string of words occurring by chance over a specific length of time made the experience more intriguing. The first work, Breath, a bright blue on two panels that fades toward the outer edges, suggests a gentle movement in and out and does almost seem to breathe.
The 19 paintings are all unexpectedly flat for encaustic and with certain exceptions, very smooth, all with a light reflecting sheen on the surface. They are all painted on modestly sized linen laid on aluminum Hexcel (or honeycomb) panels. The aluminum structure of the panels, which are only about a half inch thick, is visible from the sides. I found this surprising, as its industrial feeling seemed in conflict with the poetic intent of the work. In any case, a few of the other paintings in the group stand out as especially expressive and visually compelling.
Among the works with a controlled texture, Ponder features slowly curved layers that move up the surface like gentle waves, finding a passage of a brighter white near the top. In Swarm, the artist made a knotted top layer in deep reds that creates a sense of movement toward the center where they seem to conglomerate.
My favorite, however, is Vigil that may seem like lines of some digital monitoring. It reminded me of lines of cuneiform writing—among the very oldest forms of writing in the world that preserves poetry written five thousand years ago.
Hedieh Javanshir Ilchi, Listen to the night as it makes itself hollow and Robin Rose, 19 Paintings, Hemphill, 434 K Street NW, Washington DC 20001. Through May 28, 2021. Gallery open by appointment. 202-234-5601; firstname.lastname@example.org
Rotating Banner: Hedieh Javanshir Ilchi, Our life, which has slipped into us, acrylic and watercolor on panel, 30” x 24”, 2021. Photo courtesy of Hemphill Artworks.
 Fatemeh Kateb, “Spiritual Art: A Study of Illuminated Drawings”, Journal of History Culture and Art Research, 6(6), 2017, pp. 221-232. https://dx.doi.org/10.7596/taksad.v6i6.1207