For years, Shahzia Sikander, a 34-year-old Texan, has painted as inspiration. “I love big picture painting,” she said. “Big picture paintings speak a language. It’s slow and a sustained kind of conversation you can’t really explain with words.” She’s taken inspiration from everything from real-life subjects like cats and birds to paintings by her father. “I’m trained to work with the canvas myself, and as a creative, I work with what I want to see and where I want to go.” That includes depictions of life’s simplest elements.
Such as a butterfly. It was Sikander’s first day on a painting class at New York’s Intersect Design Centre. The instructor, a friend of hers, handed her a paper clip and a drawing. She’d use the paper clip to stamp the butterfly onto the paper with her chisel. The wings were then cut out with an Italian sfoglio, then re-ground and fixed with paraffin wax. “Using the paper clip instead of scissors just sort of made the insect beautiful and pure and healthy,” she said.
It was a serendipitous, unusual experience. Today, Sikander’s brushstrokes are serene. She calls the show she’s painting at this moment “Falling in Rain.” Using standard-size canvases in muted colors, the color red is a recurring motif. Sikander painted a strawberry and then used a cherry blossom as her poster boy. The rain washes away the paint, then it splashes across the canvas. “It’s supposed to look kind of messy,” she said. “Clean’s one word, clean is one way I can sound.”
Sikander asked the artist Yinka Shonibare to write on each page of a work, with instructions for how to frame the painting. The artist, a Nigerian-born British woman who is best known for her sharp takes on contemporary life and the art market, offered some old-school guidance.
“I had an old portfolio of his from before I really became aware of his work,” she said. “It was when I was working on my memoirs, where you can see I was so absorbed in the art world because my Dad always had us to galleries all the time. He had classic, sexy nudes on there that he would take on the bus.” When Shonibare emailed that he would be taking care of the lettering, Sikander didn’t think much of it. “I thought it was really good or I might not have ever worked with his name. So I wrote back and said, ‘Well, it’s good because I would really like to see his name in the final piece.’ ” She found out he loved the project and made the changes she had asked for.
This, Sikander said, is the kind of thing art can do: It channels the artist’s art history knowledge and adds an extra level of craft to her paintings. “I can take anything and make it better through time,” she said. “So being in New York is always helpful in that way.”
Of course, there are design shows that go back decades, and they always have their iconic moments. What will make Sikander’s show stand out? “That I kind of make a horse fly,” she said. “I do think that will be kind of a cute little one. And I think as always for me it will be material. So I think a lot of the physicality of it will be fun.”
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