To paint well requires a near impossible combination of vulnerability and confidence. On one hand, most interesting paintings are records of experiments, mistakes and a process of figuring something out; whether that something is contained within the work, or part of the world outside of it. Conversely, making that figuring-out process public, bringing into the world a physical object that undeniably originates from you, must require a great deal of fortitude. Visiting Talk to me, Sabrina Shah’s solo exhibition at indigo+madder, it is the confidence that strikes me first. I am surrounded by a multi-species, multimedia cast of characters, their faces rendered with a lightness of touch that suggests the hand of an unbothered, intuitive creator. Some I recognise from television or books, some I don’t. Some are painted, some are collaged. Some look out at me half-smiling, some are more interested in what’s on their own canvas.
Food features in many of the works but, aside from the dog who gladly munches on its own tail in Detached, nobody is eating. Eye of the tiger, a large work that sits alone at the end of the room, is an image of three people, two cats and a tiger, varying in realism from a single line of
paint to a stuck-on photograph, hovering longingly over a table laden with cakes and unidentifiable plates of food. Elsewhere, in Jaws, an almost-faceless child holds up to their mouth a miniature version of the famous shark, who opens his own mouth to reveal its sharp
teeth and red interior; here, I’m not sure who might take a bite out of who. Shah’s subjects are surrounded by delicious treats that none of them appear to know what to do with. It’s tragic: sitting down to a meal together – breaking bread – a normally ubiquitous and comforting activity,
just isn’t working out for them. I get the sense that they are struggling with more than simply getting their forks into their mouths.
Outside of the exhibition, the most ostensibly easy features of living life can at times be challenging for all of us. The days are long, and contain all kinds of opportunities for obstacles to unexpectedly present themselves. Eating a meal is a good example of a simple activity that can easily become soaked in awkwardness and difficulty by all of the psychological dynamics that threaten to emerge (the exhibition’s text lists some: “digestibility and desire, nourishment and control, gameplay and powerplay”). Maybe Shah’s stunted dinner table routines are the way
into a more vulnerable side of her project where she works through these difficulties, using her characters to figure out how and why they arise. I wonder if her subjects are aware of their position here. It doesn’t look much like many of them are talking to each other, but the paintings
themselves do sometimes speak, in a simple language made up of lofty words that suggest a well lived life. In Human Beans a dinosaur lurches away from a dish containing the words “human being”, and one of the cakes in Eye of the tiger is iced with “happy end”. These words
seem to point towards the simple, happy lives that might await us if we could only better navigate our stifled interactions with the world.
That is too dramatic a conclusion. And though some of the paintings do feel that way, the world that Shah has created in this exhibition is not a pit of despair. Pain management, a small work on paper, depicts a smiling alligator and a frowning shape that looks something like a bucket.
They are surrounded by painted words: “pain”, “resurrection”, “hot”, “cold”. The first thing I saw in Shah’s paintings was confidence, and I see it here again. Not just in her mark making, the way that she can make a relatable face from a small handful of swipes of her brush, but also in
her commitment to publically figuring out life’s difficulties with her paintings and inviting the viewer to do the same.
Sabrina Shah, Talk to me, indigo+madder – April 22nd indigoplusmadder.com