Portraits Beyond Self

Partou on the beach“Like a poem, a painting is a festival, a holiday……………” with these words Iranian born artist Partou Zia reveals the mood and direction which inform her work. Partou was born in Tehran in 1958, arriving in Europe in 1970. She was the first recipient of the prestigious Tate St Ives Studios Prize and her residency resulted in an acclaimed exhibition there in 2003, “Entering the Visionary Zone”. During her time in Cornwall she became a much respected and loved figure in the local community, and readily absorbed the rugged, raw beauty of the local landscape, incorporating it into her work with subtlety and pathos. A promising future was sadly cut short by her premature death from cancer in 2008. Artfirst’s current show of Partou’s late works is not a memorial, but rather a memoir, a celebration even, in keeping with Partou’s own affirmative love of life and nature, even at the worst moments of her illness and consistent with the tenor of the drawings and paintings on view.

Partou Zia,  "In Accord II" 2007It was evident to me that there are elements of visionary artists such as Chagall and Van Gogh in Partou’s pictures, for example in “In The Beginning” 2008, where she depicts herself against a blue sky embroidered with stars, the brilliance of the blue and the naïve charm of the star spangled firmament recalling Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (see main image above). Partou paints herself simply clad in a plain grey dress, the tools of her trade – brushes, notebooks and pencils stacked neatly to one side, and with a pair of meekly folded, disembodied hands floating in the starry space. Gallery Director Clare Cooper told me that Partou was very interested in the work of William Blake, a visionary voice who is outside any normal category and who like her, combined writing poetry with making visual art. This duality of creative endeavour reflects Partou’s sense of being both in and outside herself and surely prompted the double image of “In Accord II”. The twin image is corporeal and ethereal simultaneously, set free by the ambiguously indicated trees or columns of smoke which wreathe vertically upwards, and anchored by two pairs of slippers placed beside of the figures, according to the Persian tradition of abandoning outside footwear at the door.

Partou Zia,  "Flowering Rod" 2006, 153 x 183In the wistful “Flowering Rod” 2006, Partou stands aside, she even appears to advance into the viewer’s space, from a landscape which is dreamy and whimsical. The painting is bisected diagonally into two distinct fields, the blue summer sky in lively contrast to a leafy tree covered in vivid blossoms. But the bizarrely upturned tree does not root the subject but suggests a disjunction of mood towards something more sombre. Favourite motifs which feature in these softly coloured pictures include books, usually open, and a light switch, which appears plugged into the sky itself in “Fenced Horizons” (see below). In this painting, intriguing contradictions between the sleeping couple are contained in the emphatic, harsh ochre of the open book which Partou appears to be reading, and the lightly sketched background, the oversized weighty bowl and the rickety bed side table on which it rests precariously, and the fence itself – does it protect or constrict?

Partou Zia,  "My Flag" 2006, 153 x 183 cmPartou’s work has been compared to the masters of the early Italian Renaissance, particularly Mantegna and the Bellinis. I think that this is true if you consider “My Flag” 2006. The figure of Partou, grasping a bright red banner which seems to quiver in the breeze, adopts a hieratic pose a she steps forward with confidence, reminiscent of the iconic risen Christ as He ascends from the earthly tomb into the heavenly sphere.



Partou Zia,   "Fenced Horizons" 2005 150 x 170 cmIn her writings, Partou speaks eloquently about her art, as in “a painting is a pause that celebrates and makes a place for Remembrance”. Her painterly style is based on understated colouration, linear delicacy, textured use of oils and the combination of motifs which simultaneously invite and deny the viewer easy access to the subject. She explores the private versus public persona which is the artist’s identity. These paintings are introspective but most definitely not introverted. They tell a poignant story and have a composure and quiet strength which is essentially feminine. They should surprise and reward the visitor who retreats from the frenzied bustle of Oxford Street to the nearby Artfirst Gallery. Do go!

“Partou Zia: Portraits Beyond Self” runs until 23 February 2013.

Partou Zia,   "Shadow Writing" 2005Artfirst is an established, internationally recognised gallery, which operated from premises in Cork Street for 15 years, moving to what Clare describes as an “edgier base” in Fitzrovia two years ago. It is home to a growing list of well received house artists from the UK, USA and South Africa.  Artfirst Projects is dedicated to emerging artists and the current Compendium show is helping to support homeless charity “Shelter”. Artfirst is located at 21, Eastcastle Street, London W1W 8DD, telephone 0207 734 0386. For further information please go to www.artfirst.co.uk or email info@artfirst.co.uk.