Shaan Syed. Courtesy of Vardaxoglou Gallery, London
Shaan Syed. Courtesy of Vardaxoglou Gallery, London
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Review

Shaan Syed: ‘Extended Family’

4 out of 5 stars
Eddy Frankel
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Time Out says

It’s a bit of a stretch to think of painting as a kind of archaeology, especially if you’re doing it backwards, covering instead of uncovering. But somehow, in Shaan Syed’s small show of just four abstract paintings, it makes sense.

These big canvases function as a sort of cultural dig, a scraping away of the artist’s own personal identity. Half-Pakistani, half-English, raised in Canada, Syed is made up of a lot of clashing elements, conflicting signifiers and traits that he uses his art to make sense of. 

He takes the visual language of American abstraction (Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Jasper Johns, etc) and smashes it into non-Western symbolism. Two works here depict the spiral minaret of the Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq, but rendered as flat blocks, layered in steps; historic symbol becomes visual tool, a divider of the plane. In other works, four circles nod to dried cow dung used for building and warmth in rural India, thick lines hint at fetishised Berber carpets. It’s abstraction with very un-abstract meanings and intentions.

Every work is relentlessly overpainted. Flashes of green and yellow poke out of the beige smear of the dung work, pink and purple peer out from behind the washes of green in one of the minaret pieces. Ideas are written and rewritten, twisted and appropriated, cultural codes are hidden and uncovered. 

Syed is an excavator who works by covering everything over in new layers of paint and meaning. And somehow that makes sense. 

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