Panteha Abareshi specializes in cutthroat portraits that pair the rawness of ecstatic creation with the realness of first-hand experience. As a young woman of Jamaican and Iranian descent, it seems only natural that she paints other women who look like her. But according to Abareshi, there’s much more at stake than the physical appearance of her subjects.
“I draw women of color only,” she has said of her effort to bring greater visibility to women who are so often left out of, or invisible, in the art world (not to mention under- and misrepresented everywhere else, too). But there are no smiling models or perfect angels in any of the paintings on view at The Girl Who Loves Roses, a show of Abareshi’s work at the new downtown gallery Larrie, NYC (“It’s a women’s space,” founder Emily Spitale told me). Instead, the women you meet are brooding, suffering, and embattled. Often they are splattered in blood, wearing a vacant expression, and seemingly staring at a target point that hovers right between your eyebrows.
At first, these images can be hard to square with things like overcoming white supremacy and smashing the patriarchy, which seem like the natural end game for greater visibility. That is, until you take into account that Abareshi’s women are still standing.
Even her painting of a woman impaled by long-stemmed roses shows a subject who is bold, almost Christ-like in her resolve. At the same time that Abareshi is invoking Christian iconography, she’s jabbing at it too– swapping out the crown of thorns for nature’s very own thorn necklace, subbing in circular braids as a realer halo. It’s clear that these women are messy, complicated figures, who are free enough to show their war wounds and imperfections without fear of reprisal. Now, think about the grace and stature that Abareshi imbues in them, and suddenly it seems like it’s possible to be both powerful and exposed, strong and vulnerable, tenacious and realistic, all at the same time. As Abareshi explained, “I am hoping to convey that there is no definition for what exactly the female form is.”
All I can say is, that’s real.
So, it’s really kind of a strange moment when you find out that Panteha Abareshi is just 17 years old.
This exhibition dedicated to her “life and work” arrived in tandem with the release of a new short film about Abareshi, the first in a three-part series, Under Her Skin , on view at The Front. The curators of all this, sisters and artists Kelsey and Rémy Bennett, emphasized that this was a “collaborative effort” that went down while Abareshi was staying with them as an artist-in-residence (Abareshi lives in Tuscon, Arizona with her father and is just about to graduate high school). It was also a follow-up project to Lifeforce, the sci-fi inspired, post-gender theory-based exhibition that Rémy and Kelsey put together last year, which included work by Abareshi. Her paintings stood out from the crowd, and even then Abareshi’s age became a point of contention when one artist backed out of the show. Rémy was incensed last year when she recalled the incident. “And it was like, fuck that— almost everything we care about is the opposite of that. The whole thing is about carrying that energy you had when you were 17 years old and never letting that die.”
Admittedly, Abareshi’s age is far from the most interesting thing about her, but even Kelsey admitted that it’s “shocking she’s so young.” And yes, it’s impressive to see a 17-year-old who’s capable of both making compelling work and discussing it in such a measured, intelligent way (watch the film above and you’ll see). But there’s something else at play here too– in a way, the combination of Abareshi’s background and artistic mission feels like a harbinger of the future. “That’s the feeling I got,” Rémy agreed. “That if that’s the way our society went– multicultural, honest, aspiring to knowledge…” She trailed off, but you get the idea.
Still, the sisters were more than reluctant to obsess over Abareshi’s age. “Everyone wants to identify her as a ‘teen,'” Rémy said. “And it’s like– god, that was the whole thing with Lifeforce, it was all about transcending identity, and not just gender but age too. It’s not just ‘this teenager,’ it’s like, ‘No she’s a brilliant fucking human being.’”
Still, it’s fascinating to watch Abareshi oh-so casually leap right over barriers that seemed insurmountable not too long ago, before Tumblr and Snapchat gave teenagers opportunities to be themselves (or at least try on selves), but also to reaffirm one another’s experience, and partake in some good ol’ fashioned commiserating and collective suffering.
“Her work is very violent and anarchic, and when we were young, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, this shit was scribbled out of notebooks,” Rémy recalled. “It was insular, there was almost a sense of shame attached to this form of expression. If it was violent, it was weird, and set off things like Satanic Panic, Ricky Kasso, all that stuff. Columbine, those kids– all of those kids– had this artistic streak.”
Kelsey chimed in: “The issue is shame, when shame is attached to these feelings that are such natural feelings, especially in adolescence. If you deal with them, without approaching them with a sense of shame, you can grow through them.”
According to her artist statement, Abareshi is also concerned with the issue of shame, though another facet of it altogether. She writes that her art is a “a visual representation of my struggles with mental illness,” something that she has experienced personally and wants to help destigmatize. However, that seems to be somewhat subtextual in the work itself, and is something that you might lift from the portraits if you took a moment to take each character’s situation seriously (as you should). Instead, Roses places greater emphasis on physical illness, something that Abareshi also has experience with– at 8 years old she was diagnosed with sickle cell disease (SCD), a blood disorder that has widespread consequences for the body. “When we first started working with her, we had no idea she was sick,” Rémy said. “We didn’t learn that until much later.”
At the show, you’re inundated with medical imagery right away– from surgical trays to colorful patterns that take on protozoan forms, and an IV stand jutting out from behind a mound of colorful velvet sheets in seafoamy hospital green, goldenrod, and maroon.
Abareshi takes an unwavering approach to illness– blood, guts, and all– which immediately reminded me of Frida Kahlo’s tough-as-nails, blindfolds-be-damned spirit and her paintings that reveal a sometimes nightmarish, but forever searching vision of her lifelong struggle with pain. But countless surgeries and endless stints of bedrest stemming from a spinal injury were fodder for work that, even years after Kahlo’s death, carries the intensity of her life.
Like Kahlo, Abareshi focuses on a three-way bind of illness in the form of physical, social, and psychological experience. But Abareshi has the added benefit of a wicked sense of humor– and this is where her punk side starts to show. As someone who’s dealt with chronic illness most of her life, she understands the ins and outs of modern medicine, and is well acquainted with the massive gap between treatment and emotional wellness. Sick people are often banished to a sort of wasteland where meaningful human contact is actually quite minimal and comfort is deeply inadequate– just think about the last time you were either giving or receiving well-intentioned, but painfully misguided reassurances to someone with a serious illness. Let’s be real– unless you’re a therapist or a comedian, you probably delivered some witheringly inadequate niceties, but maybe worse are the people who say nothing at all.
Instead of painting a cross-clutching sweater jockey with a knife to her mouth– understandably a tempting fate for people who suggest that, instead of feeling sick and sorry for yourself, perhaps you should read a Bible passage– Abareshi created mini sculptures that seem to atomize her frustration into quiet, private reminders to laugh at these nonsense people. Don’t miss the pill-shaped worry beads dangling from double helix chains. You’ll find them near the front window, spilling out of Rx bottles. They’re inscribed with get-well messages and carry implicit not-so-sweet fuck-yous, like “‘Chronic’ is a myth.” There’s even a bitty Holy Bible inscribed with the words “Through Christ I am healed” in ornate gold-leaf lettering. Anyone who’s spent time holed up in a hospital can appreciate Abareshi’s rosaries for the un-charmed.
You might think that trinkets and one-offs like this would distract from Abareshi’s oeuvre, but I guess if you’re actually using the word “oeuvre” you’re beyond help anyway. The mini-sculptures and the short film on view at Roses only help reinforce, over and over again, Abareshi’s own determined will–that she refuses to be defined by her illness, her age, skin color, gender, ethnicity, or anything else. On the other hand, less-than-amazing realities are not fate set in stone– Abareshi’s illness, for example, is not a crutch at all. Acknowledging pain and physical suffering is an act of resistance in itself. On the other hand her work itself emphasizes that the pressure to leave certain things unsaid, especially the really painful and dark stuff, acts as a sort of gag-order on taboo which only helps reinforces systems of oppression. (And to that, Abareshi says, “Treat Yourself to a Vasectomy.”)
Lately, Abareshi’s women seem to have overcome and survived the violence of her earlier work, as Rémy observed: “The blood and the violence, they have evolved to this spiritual place, where they can kind of transcend that.” At the gallery, these two separate thrusts are split between two walls. From the right wall circling around to the left, you’ll see a clear progression that is less aesthetic than it is spiritual. “It’s this cool place, they’re goddesses, like ‘I’m above all this shit,'” Rémy explained.
Abareshi’s new work reinforces the idea that letting out all that hot-blooded fierceness can lead to a sort of wise and contented state of self-actualization. “She invites you to identify with these really strong women,” Kelsey said. “And I feel like it really does empower the viewer.”
On Thursday April 13, Larrie, NYC will host a screening of “The Girl Who Loves Roses” at 7:30 pm, and a discussion with the artist at 8 pm.