ABOVE: End of Hostilities (2019)
Throughout art history, the abject has often been used to describe the horrors of bodily waste: excrement, mucus, menstrual blood, the wound. As a term, it means to cast out or down, and as a theory, it can be simplified to refer to the other. Within the thick layers of color and texture of Vian Sora’s newest body of work in Unbounded Domains, the abject is forced to dwell in the boundaries of her paintings. Through bursts of canary yellows, streaked with waterfalls of blue, amongst the calming areas of pinks and within the grotesque reds and decaying scraped-off blacks, the abjection in Sora’s works grapples with calmer and more subdued areas of color creating a duality of light and dark. Similar to how the other must cling to the periphery of society, we meet the abject pushed to the borders of her compositions
Unbounded Domains presents a series of new works by Iraqi-born artist Vian Sora, largely completed in the past two years. Each of Sora’s paintings fights to contain numerous fluid masses of color that drag the eye across the canvas. Shapes collide and contort against each other as though aching to be the dominant layer. The result of these confrontations creates paintings that expose a duality of light and dark—gentle colors colliding with aggressive and hostile forms. This duality serves as the backbone of Sora’s work—both in its technical application as well as the concepts that fuel it. In the text accompanying Unbounded Domains, a focus on duality is the main descriptor of the exhibition. Life and death, gardens and warzones, fertility and decay, are all contrasting sentiments the Speed Art Museum’s contemporary art curator Miranda Lash uses to characterize the content of the paintings.
This dual nature creates a recurring theme throughout the exhibition: a focus on social abjection pitted against a lush, dreamlike, and hopeful outlook. Social abjection reinforces the power structures within society and is used to create a norm and give individuals a reason to fear going against it. Targeted populations are made to be considered waste in the public eye. Consider the history of redlining in Louisville, contemporary federal immigration bans, or restrictions on transgender individuals from serving in the military. These policies implemented by those in power all serve to punish, marginalize, and isolate individuals while also enacting public punishment on them, actions that are not without consequence. Four the fourth year in a row, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights activist group has noted a rise in hate groups in the United States. A trend they say is in part to blame on the rhetoric of President Trump and his administration.1 As Rosalind Krauss notes in her discussion on abjection in Informe without Conclusion, society’s most powerful tool is that of repulsion, not attraction.2
Vian Sora’s personal history has put her in a position to paint not just the dual nature of the state, but to illustrate the state’s reliance on and need for the abject. As an Iraqi-American immigrant, Sora has witnessed violence and trauma during her time living in Baghdad but has also had to assimilate to life in the United States, to balance cultures and bear witness to the rise of Islamophobia, racism, and hate groups. In Unbounded Domains, the various histories she has lived are captured and presented in the dual nature of the work—in the violence, the calm, the light, and the dark. She is able to capture the need of the state to not simply marginalize and exile the abject—but to contain it. To leave just enough that it remains a peripheral threat. Constantly upon the horizon, and always in view, serving as a reminder of our desire for normalcy and our desire to be free from the other.
In End of Hostilities (2019), the large diptych that greets you upon entering Moremen Gallery, broad areas of black and red-orange billow up like smoke from the bottom right corner of the painting. The red-orange paint climbs the right side of the canvas while simultaneously re-emerging in the left panel to frame hazy, foggy areas of pale blue and soft hues of pink and purple in the center. Through the thick areas of smoke and haze, a tubular green mass winds its way across the painting. Emerging and disappearing throughout the work, the snake-like form acts as a guide for the viewer’s eye to circle around the piece, while also presenting an area of rest from the turbulence of the work. Color, however, is not the defining characteristic of the painting. Within the layers of paint, various forms of texture present themselves as well—some in areas that appear to have been physically scraped, or removed with paint thinner to create washy and decaying sections of canvas. Other sections contain thick, three-dimensional lines that appear to rush across the surface. It is these combined elements that create the resulting aesthetic: aggression and violence that improbably harmonizes with cool areas of pacifistic color.
Similar characteristics are present in the majority of Sora’s compositions. Throughout Unbounded Domains, we see areas of light, calming hues pushed and pulled against more aggressive, grotesque areas. To provide narrative, a singular, often fluorescent color is chosen to serve as a focal point and guide. Painted in thin, vein-like form, like the golden yellow in Citizen (2019) or bright red in Enkidu (2019), the colors maneuver across the works leading the audience away from aggressive and dark areas toward areas of resolution. These qualities, however, remain absent in Rebel…Escape (2019)—an image that is perhaps the most violent of the new paintings in Unbounded Domains. Here the same deep forest green that offered solace in End of Hostilities serves as a background for a violent clash of bright reds and blacks. Pulling out of the carnage are opaque faces that stretch from the masses of red and black like apparitions, as areas of red pool toward the bottom of the piece. There is little room for relief in Rebel…Escape, instead, the entire piece seems to have been worked from a place of aggression. This results in an assaulting work that has refused to marginalize the abject but instead allowed it to cover the entirety of the canvas. An approach that offers a striking difference to Sora’s other compositions.
In Revolting Subjects, Lancaster University professor Imogen Tyler pulls from the theories of Georges Bataille and explores the role of social abjection and its relation to power, control, and the state. Summarized in the following, she states: “the disciplinary forces of sovereignty, its processes of inclusion and exclusion, produce waste populations: an excess that threatens from within, but which the system cannot fully expel as it requires this surplus both to constitute the boundaries of the state and to legitimize the prevailing order of power.”3
It follows then, that the abject is required within society for those who wish to remain in power. This is represented in Sora’s work as she captures and often marginalizes the abject within the confines of her canvas, swirling and controlling it with areas of fertility, light, and harmony. As within the domains of our cities and neighborhoods, the abject—the waste populations—are marginalized and kept in our peripheral view as a reminder of why we strive to assimilate. When we consider who society marginalizes and makes abject, however, it becomes apparent that the rise of the abject is a form of resistance. In other words, the rise and consumption of the abject represent the rise of the socially repressed and ultimately their journey to achieve equality.
Unbounded Domains is on display at Moremen Gallery through May 25, 2019.
Moremen Gallery is located at 710 W Main Street, Louisville, KY 40202 and is open Wednesdays through Saturdays, 1:00pm to 4:00pm, and by appointment.
- 1. Fadel, Leila, “U.S. Hate groups rose 30 Percent in Recent Years, Watchdog Group Reports”, npr, February 20, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/02/20/696217158/u-s-hate-groups-rose-sharply-in-recent-years-watchdog-group-reports
- 2. Krauss, Rosalind, “Informe without Conclusion”, in Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985, Second Edition, Edited by Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung, p. 119
- 3. Tyler, Imogen. (2013). Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain.p.20.
- Moremen Gallery
- Vian Sora
Jessica Oberdick, Contributor to Ruckus
Citizen (2019), oil on canvas
Enkidu (2019), acrylic on canvas.
Rebel...Escape (2019), mixed media finished with oil on canvas.
Venus over Baghdad (2019), oil on canvas