Pop Culture Artist Shahbazi Asks Why Not?
by Gina Pollack


Colored dice are scattered across a raised platform against a background of jumbled letters. A woman’s torso emerges, leaning forward underneath two brightly colored parrots that sit, suspended on a tree branch.

This scene isn’t a dream, nor is it a traditional art exhibit. It is the large-scale installation piece, the central attraction of Setareh Shahbazi’s first US solo exhibition, presented by Santa Barbara’s Contemporary Arts Forum (CAF) until May 11th.

Shahbazi, the Iranian-born, Berlin-based artist, draws inspiration from images in the many magazines, newspapers, advertisements, and billboards that surround her on a daily basis. Consequently, her two and three-dimensional collages flood the viewer with pop culture references, all with a unique twist, rendering them undecipherable.

The show, entitled Why Not Bazar transforms these seemingly familiar images into surreal explorations of our consumer-driven world, challenging viewers to make connections between that disperse objects that are strategically placed around the gallery space.

The thought-provoking arrangement of the pieces is due in part to the skill of Regine Basha, renowned contemporary art curator and critic, who breaks up the traditional gallery space, allowing the viewer to meander around the installations and step into side rooms to get a closer look.

The pieces range from panels of upright comic book figures, to flat ink-jet prints of digitally created architectural scenes. Words and images come together throughout the exhibition, creating a dream-like environment of pastel colors and intriguing geometrical landscapes.

Shahbazi’s cultural identity plays a large role in the creation of her work. The artist moved from Tehran to Berlin in 1985, where she studied Scenography and Media Arts. She has since shown her work in locations as diverse as Lebanon, Beirut, and Paris.

This transnational element is elusively present in Shahbazi’s work; it has elements that highlight the East/West dichotomy, alluding to the commonalities between Western Europe and the Middle East.

Shahbazi’s show is complemented by a separate installation piece, Michalene Thomas’ What’s Love Got To Do With It?, which re-creates a 1970s-esque, living room scene, complete with shag carpeting, wood-paneled walls, and a magic eight ball. The piece highlights the role of African American women in intimate household settings, using acrylic paint, enamel, and rhinestone.

Inspired by the artists cultural identity and her memories of growing up with her mother, the piece features dated patterns in the blankets, wall coverings, and furniture upholstery, which combine to create a window into the domestic life of another era. Particularly interesting are the images of African American women that line the walls of the installation, many of them reproduced silhouettes reminiscent of Andy Warhol. Most notable is a large portrait on the far wall of the installation, which captures the provocative stare of a women sitting on the couch of a similar living room, who looks out confidently, as if to confront the viewer.

With free admission and a convenient location at the top of the downtown’s Paseo Nuevo, CAF is a desirable destination for anyone looking to soak up some of Santa Barbara’s burgeoning arts scene. And with a current exhibition that is striking and thought-provoking, art enthusiasts and curious observers alike need only ask themselves one question: Why not?