I rejoined Glasgow Print Studio in June. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for years. As I howked my portfolio-case up the stairs to the workshop, I caught a brief glimpse of the exhibition on show in the Gallery: quiet, restrained, controlled, monochrome, it packed a punch.
Upstairs, I began a new ‘Glasgow edition’ of This is the Land, We have Our Inheritance, linocut images I originally made in 2017 in Ukraine, at the Yermilov Art Centre. Near Freedom Square, in the centre of Kharkiv, the Yermilov was bombed in the early days of Russia’s illegal invasion. But this has not stopped its inspiring curator, Natalia Ivanova, from continuing to programme exciting exhibitions and events. Right now Ivanova is planning an arts residency called Future Game, co-curated with a venue in the midst of the Ukrainian countryside, aiming for the ‘decentralisation of culture’.
Back in 2017, I worked on an ancient Ukrainian printing press that looked like it had seen many a political regime come and go. Now, working in the June heat, in 2023, I was using Glasgow Print Studio’s oldest press. Cast in Edinburgh around 1830, surmounted by an iron eagle and crescent moons, she echoed the qualities of her Kharkiv sister: robust, idiosyncratic, strong.
Afterwards, leaving my prints to air on the drying racks, I spent time looking around the Glasgow Print Studio Gallery.
The Weight of Air and Memory is the first major solo exhibition in the UK by Seher Shah. Born in Karachi, with degrees in Fine Arts and in Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design, Shah lives and works in Barcelona and has had a long working relationship with the Print Studio in Glasgow.
The first work to greet you is a complex visual poem. A puzzle, a word-game, a map of the mind, it can be read in many different iterations. In a serifed font, certain words are in capitals, certain words are bold, certain words are repeated. A few words are crossedout, seeming, simultaneously, to emphasise, to delete, and also to link the words in phrases: no-man’s land and divide a home.
To the far left-hand side, from top to bottom, ‘CITY’ is repeated nine times in a column. To the right, from top to bottom, a vertical row of words begins with ‘PRIVACY’ and ends in ‘PARTITIONS’. Three words are in Arabic; my Syrian friend tells me it is either Urdu or Persian. Translated, the words mean ‘canary’, ‘robin, and ‘edges’.
Nature and culture jostle. ‘Birds’, ‘generosity’, ‘flowers’, ‘hospitals’. Words disintegrate into randomness and coalesce again into patterns, repeated, echoed, remembered. Birds fly over the borders. Borders are deleted. Only ‘CITY’ remains fixed, like a pillar. Beautifully curated in the Print Studio’s airy space, Shah’s prints are grouped together, emphasising themes, building like a piece of music.
A series of woodcut monoprints on black and white graph paper – Hewn (Cut), Hewn (Corner), Hewn (Held) – are made of simple geometric shapes. Black and white contrapuntal, it is almost impossible to tell whether you are looking at ‘black on white’ or ‘white on black’, the space of absence as weighty as the space of its opposite.
Variations in Grey, (see top), graphite dust, charcoal and ink on paper, is smudged and hazy, a charcoal line through snow, charcoal dust smearing and smooring the surroundings. In old Gaelic rituals in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland ‘smooring the hearth’ meant damping down the fire at night so it could be safely left alight all night. Variations in Grey is a series of images like hieroglyphics, marks of Arabic script, chords, bird song, barbed wire in the distance, birds on a wire, border-posts in memory, recollection of the skin or the hair of a loved-one, a conference of birds. Tiny, scuffed bird-prints scrape through snow. Somehow, in their simplicity, all the traces are tragic.
Between the political and the personal, Shah says of her work, ‘States of absence are explored on paper through fragility and material weight. The fractured histories within a Gandharan sculpture collection in a Chandigarh museum in India are positioned alongside a series of graphite dust drawings. A series of variations on the incomplete line fall between architectural abstraction and music notation, but communicate neither language in their entirety.’
The architectural spaces of Shah’s work are lonely, ethereal, fragmented and fragmentary. You sense that this is a city of the mind, transient, fleeting, provisional but sticky. Perspectives flick forward and backward within the picture space, you’re not sure what you are looking at, which avenues of memory you’re turning down or wondering across. And yet despite their impossibility, the spaces seem truculently real.
Surfaces evoke concrete in their apparent density and weight, in the ways that they are scratched and scraped and pushed against. For all the prints’ supposed delicacy, they are tough.
Reminiscent of a monochrome Gunta Stözl or Paul Klee, with echoes of the Bauhaus, in the series, Studies from a Sculpture Garden, it seems that we are looking at artworks over an extended period of time. It is the memory of the shadows cast by the works, rather than the works themselves, that is what remains.
In Argument from Silence (White Lines), a polymer photogravure, the representation of a carved stone block with a pillar and sculptural figures is set at the bottom centre of the picture space. A small carved figure presents an offering in devotion to another figure who seems to be haloed and yet is without a face. The print is predominantly dark but two thin white vertical lines rise upwards from the sides of the stone block towards – and beyond – the paper’s edge.
In the series Ruined Score the abstract language of western musical notation becomes most clear and yet now, the memory of broken instruments and bodies breaks through. Curved lines suggest the crooks of knees, the slope of a fleshy back, the edge of a violin, a cello.
Duly fed now, in mind and body, the ink on my own edition of prints still hot off the press, I howked my portfolio back into the June sunshine and walked out into the city.
With thanks to Kate Robinson for this review.