Riad Miah: Moving Pigments

Riad Miah, Untitled Spaces,, 2019, acrylic on Dura-lar and oil on canvas over panel, 49 1/4″ x 90 1/2″, photo courtesy of the artist

Riad Miah‘s vivid abstract paintings and bold installations reflect his deep ongoing preoccupation with representation of materiality, time, and light. Riad Miah shares with Art Spiel some thoughts on his own trajectory as a painter. He describes how his painting process has evolved, and elaborates on some projects, including his upcoming exhibition “Magical Spaces, Familiar Places” at Kean College Gallery.

AS: Tell me a bit about your background and what brought you to art.

Riad Miah: I’ve always had a passion for creating and an idea of what art might be about since I was a child. Becoming an artist was a case of nature and nurture. I was born in Trinidad, and my family, looking for a better life, immigrated to the United States in 1979 when I was eight years old. We settled in south Park Slope, Brooklyn. When I was growing up from about eight or nine years old, I recognized I enjoyed drawing. It was encouraged by my elementary school teachers and my family. My 5th-grade teacher supported me by letting me know of a city-wide competition. For the Brooklyn Bridge 100th Anniversary celebration, a bank sponsored an art contest for public elementary school students to make a drawing or painting of the Brooklyn Bridge. If selected, you would be featured in the newspaper, receive some money, and the work would remain in the bank for some time. I entered, and I won! It was the first instance of being praised for something I truly enjoyed doing. 

My interest in looking at works of art came soon after. When my older sister started college at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) as a Graphic Design major, I remember she took me to the Frick Collection. The first work that made a deep impression on me was Rembrandt’s, “Self-Portrait” from 1658. I recall this feeling he was staring at me as I walked with my sister through the space. I was fascinated by how this flat surface of a painting could be following my every move. I thought: how is that possible, how was the artist able to create this haunting effect in a painting? 

While my sister studied at SVA, she would often give me drawing pads and pencils. When I ran out of materials, I would often take hers, which inevitably got her irritated. At the same time, I was also discovering the type of music I enjoyed. I became fascinated by Angus Young of AC/DC. I copied images of him from magazines and filled drawing pads after drawing pads of him performing. After making several drawings, I’d show them to her. She would critique them, saying things such as “very good expression in the eyes” and “you could do better rendering this part of the face.”

By the time it was my turn to go to college, I had decided I wanted to go to SVA too. During my Foundation year, I studied Painting with Farrell Brickhouse. I remembered him saying something that affected me greatly about life’s choices and the decision I make should be for myself and not for my parents. I let my parents know I wanted to switch majors and study Fine Arts instead. My mom and dad gave in and let me pursue what I desired. 

At SVA, I studied with some remarkable artists, including Leigh Behnke, Mary Heilmann, Jack Whitten, Martha Diamond, Roni Horn, Alice Aycock. However, the three who were the most influential and contributed to a value of importance were Farrell Brickhouse, Jake Berthot, and Don Eddy. I did not formally register for a class with Jake Berthot because I couldn’t; he was teaching in the MFA program. Instead, we met every week over a year and had lunch together, talking about art and painting. I was formally registered to study with Farrell Brickhouse and Don Eddy during different years. Don Eddy provided me with one of the essential skillsets you can give to a student: how to look, analyze, and think critically about your work. Don later became a mentor, and we’ve remained in contact with one another as friends. 

I continued my formal education at The Ohio State University (MFA) before completing it at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and HISK (post-graduate research program, Europe).

AS: You exhibited recently “Waves of Light – Entwined Through the Tendrils of Time,” an immersive installation at Wave Hill. In the text for this project, you describe the installation as representing “light and atmosphere over a calendar year as observed at the Gardens at Wave Hill.” What is the genesis and process of this project?

Riad Miah: My paintings, how they’re made, what they look like, develop through thin veils of color and small marks or splotches. A finished painting consists of several layers of color which are seen simultaneously as one hue. The importance of light and color are at the core of the work. 

I’ve been visiting Wave Hill for several years. I first started bringing students to visit as a place where they could go to, to get out of the city without leaving the five boroughs. I’ve always enjoyed the light on the grounds at various times of the year. As the season and light change over as year, the place looks different every time, but it is the same. 

I’ve also had a fascination with the color blue in the natural world, and I like to call it, the intangible color. We see blue in the sky and the water, but we cannot handle it. To me, the color blue represents light. After I completed a sizeable multi-panel work a few years ago, I wanted to make a significant work in blue that would be monochromatic. The project at Wave Hill afforded me the possibility to do so. 

Riad Miah, Waves of Light, Entwined Through the Tendrils of Time, 2019, oil and acrylic on Dura-Lar, installation, photo courtesy of Stefan Hagen

AS: In that lucid text, which I recommend reading, you elaborate on your approach to “time.” It seems like a central element in your work overall. Can you further elaborate on how your perception of time is represented throughout your paintings as well?

Riad Miah: Every time I work on a painting, a decision is made towards its completion. Because I’m working in translucent layers, evidence of my choices is recorded and remains present. Possibilities are made and they become a record of a specific activity. The painted surface and layers are the crystallization of my thought process. The dispersed mark(s) represents a small pocket of time that has been recorded on the surface. The surface changes. Once dispersion begins, there is evidence and record of the movement of pigment.

The Dural-Lar panels are painted on both sides to describe and show compressed time. Each side represents a different speed in the process; one is fast; the other is slow. On one side, a single gesture serves to represent a quicker pace, an instance. The other side has a more gradual method (slower) to the mark-making process. I wanted to describe time and space and see what it looks like together. We live our lives in the moment, giving attention to what is needed going about our daily life. It amuses me to know we do so, while the Earth rotates at 1000 miles per hour. I wanted to describe this notion by compressing two types of speeds into one.

The gestures were then cut out from their substrate as a way to isolate individual moments. The parts reassembled back together. They are segmented and sequenced in ways we view the days and weeks of a calendar. Blue-gray represents January, as the color gets more intense then darker, it denotes the movement of time and light through the calendar year. Time is a continuum; however, in the life cycle, we compartmentalize it in hours, days, months, and years. Like the constructed calendar, my work is divided by moments. Gradation of the color blue represents the change in light. 

Because of the luminousness of the surface, the viewer can see a snapshot of time in which decisions are recorded with every layer. You can see back in time in a compressed space. I suppose it’s like Rembrandt’s eyes that were painted over three centuries ago, looking back at you when you move through the space in the present. 

Riad Miah, Untitled WOP No 16, 2018, oil on paper, 16″ x 12″, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: It seems that painting is your main discipline. What was the difference in approaching an installation exhibition vs. a painting exhibition?

Riad Miah: I think a painting exhibition reflects works that were created with an idea or with particular concerns. A display at a gallery, for me, is a revealing of research and that process. The paintings are various iteration of where the exploration has taken me. In retrospect, “Waves of Light” felt closer to what the experience is like to be making a painting or drawing from direct observation. The architecture of the space and light were measured and adjusted. There was a significant amount of time I spent looking at the grounds of Wave Hill. I wanted to see if I had created an accurate representation of that place. Areas of the installation were worked on and re-worked for close likeness. 

AS: Let’s take a closer look at your paintings. In the essay “Ordered Chaos on the Picture Plane,” curator Eileen Jeng writes that your painting is methodical like LeWitt, Reed, and Winters.” What is your response, and can you elaborate on your painting process?

Riad Miah: Sol LeWitt, David Reed, and Terry Winters are among my heroes. It was an honor to have my work compared to theirs in the context of the “Splotch” exhibition. Like LeWitt, each painting usually starts with some system. I would draw a geometric configuration or a formation of collapsed platonic and Archimedean polyhedral. Where two lines intersected would be the area I would put a mark down as an indication. That system would dictate decisions in the earliest phases of the paintings. I would then get to a point where the painting needed to become something else. I have an affinity for color, like David Reed’s own use of color, which he seems to use in a very coded manner. His colors are influenced by film and elements in art history. The use of color can be rooted in specific content. I cannot say 100% where my color sensibility comes from, although I do have an affection for Caribbean hues, acidic colors, sometimes garish. I prefer colors that are transitional, the tertiary colors.

My colors are in the state of change and becoming, or an indication of becoming something else. Liken to my disbursed marks, which are a manifestation of material and process; they transform and resemble single-cell ameba and autotrophs in the natural world. I think this is where Winters may play a role. The first time I saw Winters’s work was at the survey show the Whitney Museum had in ’92. The paintings left an impression on me. I loved the forms he painted; they looked like one could find them in the natural world. The paintings had such a physical presence that they are ultimately about the materiality of paint. 

Riad Miah, PD III Factor Mural (after Fibonacci), 2012, oil on canvas over gatorboard, 9′ x 20 Installation at Simon Gallery, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: Looking at your body of work starting from your earlier “The Fauna Series” (2004-06), through your recent work, it seems to me that the series “Nothing Happens in Heaven” is a sort of turning point, from ‘figurative‘ to predominantly ’abstract’. These are loaded terms. What is your take on that in context of your own explorations and if you care to elaborate, within art historical context? 

Riad Miah: You are correct, the terms ‘figurative’ and ‘abstract’ are loaded but only within the context categorizing, cataloging. Within an evolution of the studio practice, work is based on where one has to go with the work. As you stated, “Nothing Happens in Heaven” was a turning for me and that is correct to some degree. There is an entire body of work that I took off my website that actually takes place in-between “Nothing” and the “abstract” work. It consisted of a series of paintings and drawing made in black and white. The subject was of the dead, mutilated bodies, violently murdered. They were executed in a very photorealistic manner, and they were very large, life-size. I was interested in attraction and repulsion. The systematic methods used in making the images invited the viewer to look at them up- close, but the imagery was so horrific, one could not stare at them for too long. In the first abstract paintings I made after that series, my source images were taken from microscopic images of cancer cells, and other disease-related cells. I chose that subject as a resource because I wanted to keep the issue of the “dead” images connected to previous work. And in truth, the dispersed pigment is actually the decaying or breaking apart of the matter. 

What happened in the studio was I became more interested in what was going on with materials. 

I decided to get rid of the representational element in the work. I became more interested in what was possible with the transformation of the materials. I became more interested in ‘pushing paint around.’ I made decisions on the surface of the canvas and didn’t want to be wedded to the image. Some great figurative paintings are being shown and made at the moment. There are a lot of figurative painters that are breathing new life into their work that makes it very spectacular. Some artists are using imagery to address personal narratives and metaphors to discuss their own process, which is breathtaking. For me, the image is how I make the painting. But I also like that the body of work has its own narrative. 

Art history has shown us some artists have been able to move between the two realms throughout a lifetime or within a short period. I think as an artist, you have to always remain true to where the work wants to lead you. If you decide to make one thing over another because of fashion or style, I think integrity is compromised. Regardless of what the market may dictate and what is popular, every painter ends up in the studio and make a choice about what their own work needs. 

Riad Miah, The Fauna Series IV, 2004, oil on canvas, 35″ x 74″, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: Looking at your recent work, I see “Swimming” (2018) which I read as seascape, and then you have several “untitled.” What is your approach to the associative narrative elements in your work? 

Riad Miah: It goes back to the issue with color being rooted in a specific place. In “Swimming,” the process and application led the way of the image looking like an aquarium or tank. There is depth to the space that is perceived. The top and bottom edges of the painting explicitly reveal the process and materials. The overall layering of colors contradicts the material component of the top and bottom edges. The narrative is tension and contradiction, similar to the buoyancy that is felt when floating in water. However, when I was making the painting I was not thinking about swimming, I was trying to create and make sense of the visual space and what it can become.

Color and composition are in some ways rooted in the content. In my most recent work, I am using comic book cells as a starting point. I think the gesture and my splotch marks are various characters in a story. I believe color, composition, abstract shapes, forms, and gestures are implicit in that they do refer to specific moments or conditions that are based in the world we participate in, sometime conscious and cognoscente and other time not.

Riad Miah, Swimming, 2018, oil, resin on canvas over panel, 40″ x 30″, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: In your early work, drawing seems to play a major role. What is your approach to drawing and has its role shifted in your work?   

Riad Miah: Working on paper has been very important to my studio practice. Earlier, when I was making “The Fauna Series” and “Nothing Happens in Heaven” series, the drawings were different ways of exploring similar ideas of the imagery with a different medium. As I continued making abstract works, the same held true. There was a shift in the works on paper when I started a series called “The Pronoun”. At this point, the drawings or works on paper were executed to work out compositional and color elements for the paintings. The works on paper can exist autonomously, but they may be studied for later works, or preferred aspects may become larger parts of paintings.

AS: What can you tell me about your body of work for the upcoming exhibition, “Magical Spaces, Familiar Places” at Kean College Gallery, curated by Anna Shukeylo? 

Riad Miah: Two years ago, I began making some small paintings that were irregular in shape. Geometric configurations I was drawing on the surfaces of the paintings were making their way out to the edges of the canvases. I stopped working on them because I could not figure out where I wanted to go with the work, and I could not quite figure out what they were about. As I was working on “Waves of Light,” questions and doubts I had with the irregular shaped and notched canvases seemed to become clear to me. In some ways, the two new works in “Magical Spaces” exhibition are closer to what I was doing in “The Fauna Series.” The “Fauna Series” consisted of a series of collaged fragments that were assembled together to depict an artifice.

I was being very literal with thinking about the canvas space. I chose devoid empty spaces to paint as a metaphor for the surface of the canvas and then filled it (by collaging) objects that constituted a sense of home. The idea was to describe the artificiality of the prescribed domestic space. In the new paintings I’m doing a similar thing. I’m describing space in a literal manner through formal means of shape, color, pattern, and materials. I think abstract painting is in a place that is very exciting. The paintings are a melding of different points of reference within art, both historic and recent. They are also about my own concerns with the plane or space of the canvas and objectness of the paintings, yet at the same time I am also looking at my own trajectory as a painter. Who knows, maybe in a few I will include or arrive back at painting representational images again. 

Riad Miah