Ziarah Janssen’s palette of blues holds her energetic works for Not an Assignment together, featuring in every painting – sometimes as a quiet background, sometimes lacing in and out of a gradient of bright pinks and purples. In Ziarah’s work, the viewer can distinguish two styles. One is a devoted take on the woman as a subject: fluid as dancers, lovers or mother and daughter. These paintings are more figurative, starting as a sketch, and are characterized by smooth curvature. The other style is intuitive, freehanded abstractions: “I don’t know what I want but I’m looking for the moment it appears. Lots of paint, lots of feeling.”
Ziarah began painting during her third year at the dance academy, drawn out of a party and into an atelier by a family friend who told her, “I think you need to paint.” This night evolved into a resourceful practice where she bypassed the formality of a canvas to paint on materials thrifted from the sidewalk. Eight years later, her focus intensified by the corona and racism crises of 2020, she presents a series of works of acrylic on linen for Not an Assignment.
Physicality is at the center of Ziarah’s work, an oeuvre teeming with colour and the playful use of texture. The artist is multidisciplinary: a painter, an actress, formerly a dancer and a swimmer, and this dynamism is reflected in her works. There is a theatricality to the compositions, the figures arranged into fluid encounters, easing in and out of abstraction. The boundaries overflow: a work like Blue Water (2020) presents a single entity yet contains many faces, the eyes angled so that they at once regard each other and never lose sight of the viewer. The anatomy of her subjects provides the launch pad for the artist’s vision: the viewer can discern a human body and is treated to a spectacular explosion of shapes and bold colour. The geometry of one feature is evened out by the realism of another. The spiky triangles in Acceptance (2021), a re-imagined self-portrait, abstract the body, whereas the organic footprint ground it in reality. In Hugs Forever (2021), piling layers of blue and yellow disguise the figures in embrace. The delicately interlaced fingers of the hands exemplify Ziarah’s mastery of balance: throughout her works, she uniquely softens high contrast silhouettes into a harmonious whole.
This inclination towards harmony contributes to the sense of intimacy that pervades each painting. The artist explains the urgency of this closeness in her recent work: “Physical contact, eye contact – that’s what people have been missing.” It is drawn from the bond with her mother and sister, with whom she collaborates both conceptually and in the production of her work. Her mother, an autodidact who set creative freedom as the tone in Ziarah’s childhood home, sculpted the elaborate ceramic frames for Ziarah’s work. Her sister forms the other half of Sisters Janssen, the duo shared their first exhibition at the Sir Art Studio in Amsterdam in 2020.