Last week a friend told me about someone who had no visual memory. It felt like one of those moments when you realize that an experience you find normal is not one that everyone else experiences. It reminded me that my navigation of the world is subjective, and also, especially this year, quite insular. There is a term for the inability to visualize objects: aphantasia. On the opposite end of the spectrum are people, like myself and my friend, with hyperphantasia: the ability to visualize things extremely clearly in the mind’s eye.
When I close my eyes, my mind’s eye can perfectly see Hasani Sahlehe’s work. Since first visiting his show, I Can’t Wait to See You at Resort on October 31, I have returned to it mentally, inhabiting my own memory and reentering the gallery to experience his work. I Can’t Wait To See You is a soft, measured, radical expression of visual poetry. It is meditative and spiritual and firm.
I have some experience with another neurological phenomenon called synesthesia, which I can best explain as brain wires being crossed. Some synesthetes can see music, some can taste sounds. I can smell certain shades of color. I considered experiencing Sahlehe’s work as a synesthetic and activating event. I suspected that some pieces in the show got their names from songs, and their contents sang out like choruses for me.
The paintings in I Can’t Wait To See You feel gracious, important, and intentional. Sahlehe applies paint in a way that seems spontaneously controlled: Acrylics appear airbrushed, blue like tropical sea spray against a sand-colored canvas. Looking at I Can’t Wait To See You feels like listening to Solange’s When I Get Home, Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda, and Pharoah Sanders’ “Harvest Time.” Like those artists, Sahlehe gives his work both time and space and allows the viewer the opportunity to engage and be transformed by it.
October 31, when I saw Sahlehe’s show, was chaotic for me. I was running late to the opening, it might have been raining. It was a full moon. Mercury was retrograde, and it was Halloween. I remember my own brain and body buzzing with activity, and then the moment I crossed the threshold into Resort, all of that dissolved. I allowed myself to migrate across the gallery, back and forth between paintings, taking pictures, getting closer, and moving farther away. I imagined music emanating from each work.
The show occupies the main gallery space inside Resort, with a symphony of hues adorning the white walls. The smallest paintings as well as the biggest ones all hold within them tremendous amounts of emotion and authenticity. Undoubtedly apparent in these works is Sahlehe’s mastery of color and application.
This was Sahlehe’s Baltimore debut and I look forward to his next show here. I Can’t Wait to See You felt like a dream, the paintings like a vehicle for a transformative experience. If you allow them to, and if you listen, the paintings will talk to you. They’ll remind you of how it felt when you kissed the person you love, how lonely this year has been, how good it feels to swim in the ocean. They’ll encourage you to examine yourself. They remind you of the blues, they remind you of jazz, they remind you of soul.
When I left the show, lyrics and remnants of color followed me home. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. When I closed my eyes, the painting “Our House” stayed with me: a block of suspended red acrylic paint hangs from a wooden white bar, just 13 x 9 inches. I imagined the creation as an exuberant journey, Sahlehe’s process embodied in this small piece that hangs opposite paintings triple its size.
“Our House” held its place and stood its ground, its message firm within this show. I was familiar with the artist’s more traditional applications of paint, but the method he used for this one—applying layers of crimson acrylic and allowing them to dry into a solid form—was surprising. The artist’s method and manipulation of material forced me to reconsider my definition of “painting.” Because it does not hang flat against the wall like the other pieces in the show, it invites the viewer to become intimately acquainted with the brilliant pigment and the evolution of the painting process.
“Sweep Over My Soul” immediately captured my attention and still resonates with me. Paint in various shades of yellow, orange, blue, and green luxuriates in thick layers, heavily relying upon the top half of the painting. The application of paint seems to mirror the movement of a storm, the eye of a hurricane of emotion encased by the piece’s four corners. A singular wash of purple anchors the bottom of the work, a punctuation mark on the flowing amorphousness as well as the more definite forms that are present throughout I Can’t Wait To See You.
Alex Ebstein and Seth Adelsberger, co-directors of Resort, first became familiar with Sahlehe’s work earlier this year when the artist was in Baltimore visiting family. “We started looking at his work and previous exhibitions, and were eager to meet him,” Ebstein and Adelsberger said. “We met up at the BMA in the first week of March, the second to last time we were there before everything closed, and talked about art and our program and the shows that Hasani had upcoming… Hasani’s work is great. It fit our exhibition program, is aesthetically pleasing and very well made. It was also meaningful to us that Hasani has a connection to the area, having grown up between Catonsville and the Virgin Islands.”
I asked Ebstein and Adelsberger what their favorite work from the show was, and their response succinctly describes the sublime achievement of Sahlehe’s work. “The works are all arresting in their own way,” they said. “‘Sweep Over My Soul,’ a larger work on canvas, has a composition that hugs a central, raw canvas void. It is elegant in a photograph, but in person, the center is even more activated with gloss acrylic gel that shines and offers another painterly surface. Similarly, ‘I’m So Glad I Found You,’ which appears in an image to be a single plane of washy blue and small yellow squares, actually consists of a larger shaped canvas, and two tiny stretched square canvases that rest in the top corners.”
The best way to learn more about the artists that Resort exhibits is to email them at email@example.com. Ebstein and Adelsberger can provide a PDF listing of a range of available works currently in their inventory. “Although we don’t formally represent artists, we stay in contact with artists we have worked with and frequently ask them to send us images of new work,” Ebstein says. “We have a webshop of affordable works that gets updated periodically on our site.”
Teri Henderson: What is your artistic practice in a few words? How would you describe yourself as an artist?
Hasani Sahlehe: I would describe my practice as exploratory introspection. In terms of the formal qualities, I would say that it believes in the power of color and material. The most recent work has a more extensive exploration of paint as a medium and a practice compared to my previous bodies of work.
In the past, you have done performance art. Do you consider performance a part of your practice still?
It very well could be. I don’t really write anything off. I have a deep admiration for creativity, but I love everything that people put into this world through their creative expressions. That was a long way of saying, yeah, I could do a performance again, or I could not.
Well, I appreciate that. I know people that would be like, “no, never again.” I think it’s important that people know that it’s part of your practice. When I saw I Can’t Wait To See You, there was a particular painting that intrigued me, it was red and it was stacks of something…
It was just suspended acrylic paint.
Yeah. That work blew my mind. I recognized that it was still a painting, just in a different form.
I’m glad you get that too. Obviously we have no control over this year, but I’m hopeful for the future when people can see my work in person again [so they understand] the nuance.
It was a completely different experience from viewing them online, seeing them and being able to be close to them. I developed a greater appreciation of your work from being able to be in the room with it. Where are you from originally and where are you based now?
I was born in Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands. I was raised there most of my life. Right now I am living in Augusta, Georgia. I’m a teaching artist at the Morris Museum here in town.
What you get is these pieces that refer to nature in some ways, whether it be the color or the composition. But they also refer to nature in the way that the paint is placed onto the substrate.
I Can’t Wait to See You was your first show in Maryland. How did it come into fruition?
I’ll tell you my point of view. I grew up mostly in the Virgin Islands, but I spent some time in Catonsville growing up, so I have a lot of family in Catonsville and in Baltimore in general. I was planning to visit them last February—that was the first time we were sort of hearing rumblings of COVID. I was preparing to go to Baltimore and I was looking for some art spaces and you and I had somehow connected through Instagram. I asked you about some spaces in town and you recommended Resort as one of the spaces. And I spoke with some of my colleagues here in Georgia and they also put the stamp on Resort as one of the spaces that I should check out.
We [Resort’s co-directors and I] had dinner at the BMA and talked for a while and then sorta kept in contact here and there. And then sometime in the summer, Alex reached out—I assume she had spent more time with my work—and she offered me the show.
I’m so happy it happened and I’m happy that it wasn’t just a virtual exhibition. I’m happy you were able to fully install the show and that people could see it in real life. The titles of your work are always fascinating to me. How do you choose them?
A lot of the pieces from I Can’t Wait to See You have been lyrics or song titles. Other than that, I’m not sure how I can describe the process of titling a piece, but more frequently than the past they’ve been named from song titles and lyrics.
Do you write poetry or do you consider yourself a poet?
I don’t write poetry. I really, really, deeply love music. I think that many musicians consider themselves poets, so maybe in that form I take in poetry. If there’s some sort of poetic element to my work, I think it is just from the amount of time I spend in relationship to music.
What’s your favorite song of all time? If you had to pick one.
I’m going to cheat a little bit and pick a music video. I’m going to pick “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” The full-length one.
Yes, yes, yes! I just watched it recently. It’s perfect.
When that came out, that was really important for me as well, just seeing someone accomplish something like that.
Kanye influences so much of my work and my growing up. Shout out to Kanye. What is I Can’t Wait to See You about?
First off, the work that I’ve made in the latter half of this year has been—in some ways, I think the outside perspective would see it as a departure. But I see it more as an embrace because a lot of the things that I’m doing now I’ve always done, but I just haven’t placed it as high in the hierarchy of things.
The first solo show I had this year was if you don’t mind the mud at Westobou Gallery and that work was conceptually exploring the inherent power of nature. I was also using the power of color to talk about this. There was a deeper reliance on color, but again, a deeper reliance on paint as well, previously.
I’ve always made paintings where you would find charcoal in the paintings or I would have more found objects in the paintings. But everything that I’ve made over the last couple of months has just been straight-up painting and sort of traditional substrates as well—watercolor paper, canvas, et cetera—but it’s really explored the ways that paint relates to these various substrates and the ways that paint can be applied.
I’ll be featured in the 2021 Atlanta Biennial, and that exhibition was curated by Jordan Amirkhani. During our conversations over the summer, she was talking about the “body of paint,” and she just summed it up for me. It was something I was thinking about, but I just couldn’t find the words to put it in. The way I interpreted that was the way that paint can exist in the world. I sort of use the “body of paint” to speak about our body metaphorically.
We were talking previously about the piece called “Our House” and it’s suspended acrylic paint. This is just a solid, flat mass of paint that has dried, and has gone through a process and is suspended, as opposed to being soaked into the canvas like some of the other pieces are, or applied through airbrush where it’s applied through the air and is compressed through a machine. What you get is these pieces that refer to nature in some ways, whether it be the color or the composition. But they also refer to nature in the way that the paint is placed onto the substrate.
Do you have a favorite color that you use in your work?
I like yellow a lot. But I think of color in a physical way. I think of it as paint. Sometimes I like a glossy yellow and sometimes I like a really thick, muddy yellow.
Are there any common themes or symbols in your work that keep showing up?
I would say nature is the most common point of reference that you’ll see in my work. This work, this is a bit more sparse and airy. I would say previous work was a bit more vivacious and relied on [pictures], words, or gestures. Some of the images I’ve dealt with in the past have included fruits and flora.
Who are the people that inspire your practice? They don’t necessarily have to be artists.
I’ll start off artistically and say, I really like Cody Tumblin, he’s based in Chicago, I like Shara Hughes. Some of the more classic examples have been Ellsworth Kelly and Stanley Whitney.
In terms of outside of my practice, I’ve really been inspired by people who have been consistent and who are constantly exploring throughout their lifetime. My favorite artists are people who are willing to change, to explore new ideas. He may seem like the most common example, but I love Picasso for that very reason. He was willing to do whatever he wanted to do.
But recently I’ve really enjoyed Alice Coltrane. And I’ve also gone on a recent tangent of watching lifetime achievement ceremonies for actors who had been acting for like 50 years. It’s just been about people who have been perfecting their craft over a long time.
What do you want 2021 to look like for you?
I have a good momentum going in terms of how I feel about making work. And I just want to carry that over into the next year.
How have you been holding up during quarantine during this past year, these past months?
I’ve been working. I’ve been occupied. I’ve been at home, but a lot of the past eight months have been me and my studio. Spotify does the end-of-year wrap-up playlist, and all of my top songs were just my studio playlist. And I was like, “Oh, I’ve just been painting all year.”
My artistic practice is really a gift to me. There’s just a lot of things in life that I’m able to access because of it. And in some ways I see that as another gift. It’s not been so simple for everyone. Some people don’t like being at home or might have a hard home situation. But for me, it’s been a gift. And yes, we aren’t all able to connect as much as we are used to, but I’ve been able to just be in my studio.