So Close, So Far Away
An Artist and Her Unknown Homeland
How do you make new art after making art for more than 30 years? If you decide that the way forward is to go deeper into your past, how do you make art about the Middle Eastern land where your family comes from when you've only just visited Syria and Lebanon for the first time—right on the verge of the Arab Spring and its bloody ongoing aftermath? These are the questions that began from a history of ruin, Seattle artist Mary Ann Peters's new show of paintings, drawings, and prints.
The works range from large, atmospheric paintings on hard clayboard surfaces to small, gemlike transfer prints with layers of iridescent overpainting—and one piece made by charcoal dust thrown to create an explosion. The source materials (scenes and events from Syria and Lebanon) are often presented but obscured. A photograph of the earliest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon is transformed into a splotchy and sparkling print, like a starry-eyed historical fiction that on some level is aware of its illusion. A large painting looks like it was created by strong gusts of wind pushing the paint around—a wheel in the center of the painting is being blown apart, and a river of red paint gushes toward it. The real Roman-era waterwheels in Syria, no longer in use, are annually run with blood-red water to commemorate the 1982 mass killings by the current president's father; they've now become symbols for today's crackdown.
It feels like the artist almost wishes that the history of this place was part of her memory: so close she seems to it but so far away, too. You feel a sorrowful arm's-lengthness as you try to see past the surface tension between abstraction and representation. Her work is not usually this bright and forward in its coloring, and usually it is unreadable as imagery, rather appearing in whirls of patterns and calligraphy. The new pieces blend experience and inscrutability, especially in two smaller paintings toward the gallery's entrance: my father's father and what remains. One is a melee; the other is a sanctuary. They both come from Middle Eastern experiences that had to travel a long way to get here.