The Work of Raha Raissnia
I first met Raha when we were in graduate school at Pratt Institute and have followed her work ever since. She works across and within many mediums (film, collage, painting, etc.), each informing the other and crossing into the other, yet her work in drawing has always been central to her practice. Raha’s drawings fuse her interest in abstract structure and geometry with real world, physical images of degradation, through memory, aging, and even decay. In Raha’s drawings, when we see something whole, it quickly disintegrates into the space around it. In this way, her drawings are beautifully sad in their unrelenting instability.
Working mostly in charcoal and ink on paper, with an eraser, matte medium, and sand paper, Raha draws images and spaces, erases them, scratches them out, pushes them back, and redraws them again, continuing to push the paper she draws on to its physical limits. One can see the residue of her intensity – the eraser marks, shredded paper bits, etc. The paper itself, in Raha’s drawings, is like a skin onto which the passage of time leaves its marks. Her images dissolve into light and dark, as the realism of a figure begins to melt into an abstract, gridded geometry. This phenomenon –our seemingly accurate perception of something tangible or real, transformed through physical processes into a structure of light and dark is what makes Raha’s drawings so scintillating. We can feel the drawings, in the ways in which we feel a memory. Bits and pieces of recognizable imagery crystallize only for moments before they dissolve into the rich darks and lights of layered charcoal.
In ways, this is also a political way of drawing, in which the world (its architecture of light and shadow, and gridded positives and voids) is subsuming the human figures in Raha’s drawings. Light seems to be hiding its source, as if controlled by something more powerful, as the individual loses control and dissolves into the space around them. There’s a beauty in this giving up of control – we can be seduced by the tonal vitality of Raha’s surfaces, but upon closer inspection often see the semi-rendered remains of a figure on the ground, or the quiet emptiness of a street. This intense stillness is also what charges Raha’s performed works.
In Raha’s performances, she projects layered images and films (she works with found slides, films fragments, and photos of her drawings, working back into these constantly, collaging new images into old ones, drawing over other drawings, etc.) in real time, often in collaboration with an experimental musician or sound artist. Each visual slowly morphs into the next, as recognizable images disappear into tonal shapes and forms. We hear the film projector running, and Raha’s hands manipulating the slide projector. Otherwise, these are silent films, where we are able to glimpse how Raha internalizes the intensity of her environment. They are like fragments of a dream, or what you see while moving your head quickly past something, your eyes constantly trying to catch up, to adjust, to recognize. Time seems to slow down, and that’s when Raha’s works move into you.\
In the context of an art class, Raha’s works are intriguing in the ways she pushes the traditional medium of charcoal in new ways. She achieves rich darks and lights by layering her tones, and working in both additive and subtractive ways. In addition, Raha’s paper is not benign, but an active textural surface onto which spatial structure emerges.
I took my class by to see Raha’s incredible exhibition at the Drawing Center, organized by Amber Harper. My students making drawings themselves, were fascinated by the depth and intensity of Raha’s works. They knew well the materials she was using, but hadn’t ever seen drawings made in a way that was so rich, complex, disturbing, and beautiful.