4 min

‘While the light lives yet’

Shaan Syed hopes not to forget

DREAMS OF YOU. In his first solo show, Teen Dreams, Shaan Syed paints the faces of friends and colleagues from memory. "I think painting these portraits is a way of grounding myself," he says. "I think I am somehow validating my own existence." Other works are playful recollections of youth. Credit: Mark Bartkiw

Last summer, the image of an anonymous woman started cropping up on posters plastered on hoardings all over downtown Toronto.

Everybody was stymied as to who she was and why she deserved to have her face more “everywhere” than City TV cameras.

What made the project even more enigmatic was that the portrait was a simple drawing, not a big glossy glam shot, and nothing about the woman appeared to be extraordinary.

For those in the know, the woman was Marguerita and the artist was Shaan Syed.

Since that bit of inspired guerilla art-fare, Syed has tucked a few exhibitions under his belt. The accumulated buzz around this newcomer is topping Everest now that his first major solo show is about to open at SPIN Gallery.

Titled Teen Dreams, the show is a cornucopia of painting in which the artists’ friends and experiences have become his fruitful subject. The images are portraits, groups of boys, people in real and imaginary situations, and everyday objects like animals and cars.

In a recent visit to his studio at King and Parliament streets, I found Syed surrounded by hundreds of his works and dressed in paint splattered camouflage pants. He’s been working feverishly on a large canvas to get it ready for his show.

He leads me along a narrow path cleared between wet and drying works to a grid of small portraits he’s laid out on the floor. Each small square of oil on board presents a portrait of someone Syed knows. There’s something slightly off about them and you soon realize they’re all painted in the same way – from the chest up and against a blank white ground. They’re composed symetrically and face on, built from smudges of colour. The subjects are expressionless and you have to look hard to see the details of gesture and style that turn them into individuals.

“They’re painted from memory,” says Syed. “When you test your memory, you allow it to fail and this has allowed me to loosen up. Memory is a wonderful thing. We all know that it can play wonderful tricks on us.”

The tricks of Syed’s memory play tricks with our own. Just when we think we recognize a face it slips away and we question our ability to remember.

Conventionally, portraits are meant to tell us something about the individual – their social status, or age, for instance – and are usually created from observed detail. But Syed’s portraits are created from remembered detail and so as a group they are less about the people Syed chooses to paint than about a bigger idea with which the artist is toying.

“I think painting these portraits is a way of grounding myself and those around me. By recording those around me, I think I am somehow validating my own existence. To live, and not somehow be validated or recognized, is terrifying.”

I’m impressed by his energy and his focus. The Ottawa native, who studied at Concordia University, is an artist who can imagine a future and he’s fearless about getting there. Which is slightly ironic given that so much of his work is about the angst of growing older and letting go of the dreams a fertile boyhood can nurture.

At 25 (he turns 26 during the run of the show), Syed is part of a young generation of figurative painters drawing their influences from a panoply of sources. “There’s an old school of painters that take great pride in materials and the chemistry of paint and pigments,” explains Syed. “They are incredibly concerned with composition and the ‘workings’ of a painting.

“Then there’s a new school of painters that seem to be more influenced by design and illustration. I used to pride myself on being part of the old school yet I find myself more and more embracing elements of illustration.

“I guess I’m somewhere between the two.”

Syed’s series of large oil paintings combine portraits with surreal or dream-like images such as falling dogs and cats, elongated body parts and splintering tornadoes. Painted on horizonless pale or black backgrounds, they exist outside of time and place. The paintings take viewers in narrative directions but they’re abstract enough that their meanings remain elusive and open.

“I often draw inspiration from other people’s personal histories – every day stories or life-changing events,” he says. He takes outer observation and translates it through his inner eye, gesturing toward fictions that are open to interpretation.

“Lately I find myself associating my paintings more and more with music. I found myself listening to all these 1980s hits on cassettes that a tenant had left behind. There’s something characteristically dark and wondrous about the best songs of that time. They’re full of angst and selfish inward gazing.

“So many of the songs from that era speak of dreams and hopes and desires.”

While you may not hear “Sweet dreams are made of these….” when you look at one of Syed’s paintings, you will see weather motifs start to crop up, especially in “In A Big Country Dreams Stay With You.” In this work, faces fly upward in funnels of wind while dogs and cats rain down.

I ask the artist whether the tumultuous weather is meant as a metaphor for unpredictability in relationships, or life itself. “I honestly haven’t really figured this out yet. The imagery I work with is not premeditated and usually grows from a nonsensical mark that I start with on a prepared canvas. Imagery tends to emerge that I make sense of at a later date.

“However, I just finished reading Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces and in it she talks of weather patterns and their relation to biography and personal history. She talks about how we’ve mistaken weather as something transient, changeable and ephemeral but really, the marks that weather makes on the more tangible objects of nature are so incredibly permanent that they can be read for centuries and centuries. Nature remembers.”

And so, it seems, Shaan Syed’s works remember in the way nature does. Despite the vagaries of memory, his marks on canvas chart the indelible lines of connection between himself and the world around him.

“I want my work to have emotional impact on people. I’m really not interested in making intellectual statements. I want my paintings to be powerful enough to make you feel something deep in your gut.”

The opening reception for Teen Dreams is from 6pm to 10pm on Thu, Mar 8 at SPIN Gallery.

Teen Dreams.

Till Sun, Mar 31.

SPIN Gallery.

878 Queen St W.

(416) 530-7656.