View of “Setareh Shahbazi,” 2010.

View of “Setareh Shahbazi,” 2010.

Setareh Shahbazi

98Weeks Project Space

View of “Setareh Shahbazi,” 2010.

Toying as they did with notions of time, space, depth, distance, and displacement, the works that made up Setareh Shahbazi’s first solo exhibition in Beirut could more accurately be considered a single installation functioning as a spatial intervention. The 98Weeks Project Space, run by the cousins Marwa and Mirene Arsanios, is essentially a hole-in-the-wall, a tiny storefront in the neighborhood of Mar Mikhael, with a bathroom and a set of stairs leading to a study area furnished with shelves, makeshift tables, and mismatched chairs.

Although Shahbazi was once aligned with one of Lebanon’s leading galleries, Sfeir-Semler, she says that at this point in her career she prefers to realize new work in more ephemeral, less institutional spaces, where more playful experimentation is possible. She also lives upstairs from 98Weeks, and that helped turn “I’m Glad That Things Have Changed” into a performance of the labor that goes into making such a show. For days before the opening, one could catch sight of her painting walls, hanging images, arranging objects, or hopping on and off the elevator with a tray of coffee cups and a macchinetta in hand. To stress the significance of seeing an artist at work may sound romantic or sentimental, but it makes sense in this instance, as the work in “I’m Glad That Things Have Changed” displayed the different seams and stages of Shahbazi’s creative process.

For nearly a decade, the artist has perfected an idiosyncratic form of digital painting, using a mouse and the most basic tools in Photoshop to transform old scanned photographs into sleek, highly graphic compositions. By the time the final images are printed, nothing of the original photographs remains except the basic shapes of certain objects and figures. The completed pieces resemble Pop art, industrial design, or pages from a stylized children’s coloring book. They are flat, colorful, and smooth, with a vocabulary of visual elements—including rocks, trees, flowers, birds, a lion, a plastic chair, a woman with an elaborate headdress, an infant, a pair of young girls in nineteenth-century dress, public sculptures, and architectural icons from Beirut’s modernist era—repeated from work to work like the codes of an invented language.

On occasion, Shahbazi has turned her images into large, theatrically arranged cutouts. But until now the overall atmosphere of her work has always been slick, seamless, and cool. In striking contrast, “I’m Glad That Things Have Changed” featured digitally manipulated hybrid images layered onto the grounds of still-visible photographs, cutouts combined with cables and illuminated lightbulbs, a ship’s buoy made of rope, and a small glass vase on the floor filled with flowers—a gift at the opening that the artist left there, feeling it went well with the installation. The photographs used as a base for paintings and cutouts were culled from boxes of family photographs that Shahbazi retrieved from Iran when her parents moved back there after twenty-five years in Germany. So walking into “I’m Glad Things Have Changed” was like entering a memory or a dream that had been artfully recomposed to account for the distance between then and now, sleep and wakefulness.

Shahbazi once described her relationship to photography as abusive. Here, she seemed rather tender and warm toward the medium. The aged pink cast of the embellished photographs and the spatial configuration of the objects on view, dramatizing the height of the ceiling with two walls of deep marine blue, made palpable the slippage between what is faithfully remembered and what is freely imagined.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie