6 January - 13 February 2021
Unit London

A Small Spark vs a Great Forest

Jason Seife

In 2018, Jason Seife’s solo exhibition Nucleus took place at the Sharjah Art Museum in the United Arab Emirates. Since then, Seife has been building towards A Small Spark vs a Great Forest. After undertaking a personal and artistic journey through Iran, Syria and Turkey, Seife will present his first solo exhibition with Unit London.

At the heart of A Small Spark vs a Great Forest is an understanding of the collective nature of humanity: in Seife’s mind we are all trees in the same forest.

Whether from North or South, East or West we are, in essence, cut from the same cloth. This kind of ubiquitous humanity has been emphasised by the Coronavirus pandemic. Covid-19 has no concern for the borders that humankind have drawn; it spreads indiscriminately, irrespective of race, nationality, gender or religion, one more wildfire in our burning world. Jason Seife looks to take this renewed appreciation and understanding of cultural equality and explore it by connecting with his Middle-Eastern heritage. By studying the skills of craftsmen from different cultures and adapting these aesthetics, Seife is striving to find a way of making these processes relevant to new generations. Embedded in this process is the desire to absolve people from the anxiety associated with an uncertain identity; just as the pandemic was a great leveler, so too is art.

'Seeing three years of work come together in this show makes it one of the most personal bodies of work...
'Seeing three years of work come together in this show makes it one of the most personal bodies of work...

'Seeing three years of work come together in this show makes it one of the most personal bodies of work I’ve made.'

Seife’s process is tripartite: travelling from hand to machine, and then back to hand. He begins by sketching an ‘outline design’ inspired by carpet makers in the Middle-East, these often include byzantine arabesques and the intricate intertwining of floral shapes.

This hand-drawn foundation is then rendered in 3D using computer software that manipulates colour and light, producing a reference image that has a sense of relief. This software also allows for the introduction of negative space in the reference image, conveying a poignant sense of decay. Seife then zooms in on certain sections of this digital work - certain segments of his forest - and begins to meticulously hand paint these areas without the aid of any technology.

This physical-digital-physical process not only allows Seife to induce a more affecting visual experience in the viewer, it also stresses the notion that craftsmanship in art is given power by the physical expression of an artist’s actions. Although these ideas are evolving and there are numerous contemporary artists that have never picked up a brush, A Small Spark vs a Great Forest is a testament to the past ideals of both the artistic process, and the effect it can have on anybody in the world.

Art Historian and Curator, Vali Mahlouji, on Jason Seife:

"Intentionally abstract, Jason Seife’s current show at Unit London has an intriguing title, A Small Spark vs a Great Forest. The body of works showcases the artist’s first use of concrete - his own signature mortar mix - as his surface for paint. The artist creates a formula for his own kind of mortar, which he prepares, mixes, pours and manipulates to create his own paint surface in some of the works instead of the traditional canvas. The wet viscous mortar becomes less forgiving, rigid and unyielding as it sets which the artist considers as integral to the process. Its porosity absorbs the first layers of applied paint which enhances a particular matt quality to the finished paint surface. Once the paint has dried, it is not possible to utilise that porosity – the accumulation of paint and overpainting blocks and seals the surface texture. That quality is further exploited where Seife accentuates and experiments with various painterly surfaces.

The self-made mortar lends a subtext to the work. It references building and dwelling materials utilised in various cities from Damascus to Sharjah, where Seife studied various forms of urban demolition and decay. Urban fabrics and traces of histories are systematically destroyed, erased or altered, as a result of the paradoxical marriage of forces. There are the devastating waves of conflict whose indiscriminate hostilities scar the human and material landscapes. The detritus left behind in their destructive wake linger as monuments to violence. And there are the grand tides of urban development projects, posturing as benignant inevitabilities of progress, which aggressively erase urban fabrics and memories alike. In the context of Damascus, where Jason Seife has family roots, concrete or mortar slabs are bitterly and painfully reminiscent of the specific human and material destruction that has devastated Syria.

The appropriation of concrete as material here may speak to the temporality of cities, the breakdown of architecture, the crumbling of defences, and the very fragility of our human existence in succumbing to military or political conflict, violence, fragmentation and annihilation. At the same time, it may directly reference the establishment of military bunkers, bases, shelters and military defences built up. Either way, the mortar seeks to make claim to actual and historical territorial space. In referencing a functional construction material, like concrete, Seife intends to draw attention to histories, memories, cultural biographies and human adventures embedded in the fabric of the material itself. In remembrance or in defiance, through trial and error, Seife creates his own formula for mortar as his base material through which he meditates on the process of irreparable loss.

While Seife owns his own surface, he intends to write new meaning onto the material and its socially contracted and assigned application. His process partially appropriates and emancipates the material from its former definition and original context, and alters its meaning and purpose by transforming it into a material and a surface for art. The artwork is at once also a fragmentary monument, preserved where it cannot be touched or affected, frozen, memorialised as a fragment of otherwise, lost history. The very alchemical and transformational process of creation, curing and creatively manipulating the malleable- while-wet mortar base is integral to Seife’s artistic drive and practice. In his own words, Seife claims, “The mortar allows me to create my own eroded artefact of history”."

Click here to read Vali Mahlouji's essay on Jason Seife in full.
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