Maysha Mohamedi | The Possibility Of Infinity

Via Issue 192, Gettin' Around

Written by

Claudia Ross

Photographed by

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Photography By Megan Cerminaro © Maysha Mohamedi.

In one of Maysha Mohamedi’s newest paintings, “Back to the Tuna Scheme” (2024), Rorschach-like blots of bright reds and yellows traverse a large canvas panel, striated by lines that resemble those found on heart monitor screens or exit polling graphs. Mohamedi’s paintings mingle the spiritual with the scientific, pairing detailed, abstract forms with pencil-drawn lines. A former neuroscientist, Mohamedi turns the iconographies of contemporary life into emotional, gestural compositions through a process that she calls “The Maysha Mohamedi Game.” Near the end of March, during a visit to Mohamedi’s downtown LA studio, I learned to play it.

At least, I learned what playing it might require. Like Fight Club, the only concrete rule of the Maysha Mohamedi Game is not to overtly—or immediately— discuss its terms. Throughout our conversation, Mohamedi told me not to put certain quotes in this article, only to quickly revise her decision after deeming her responses satisfactory. This process, like much of Mohamedi’s practice, feels rooted in the artist’s background. Her words, carefully chosen, act as a kind of hypothesis, a verbal test of language’s ability to describe the artist’s relationship to her work, or her work itself. It is only after they are said—when the experiment is complete—that Mohamedi can deem their relative success or failure.

Mohamedi’s experiments begin with a predetermined color palette, often derived from mid-century cookbooks or, in a few cases, an illustrated children’s Farsi-English dictionary (Mohamedi is Iranian-American, and her parents’ first language is Farsi). “I’ve collected this kind of stuff for 15 years,” she says. “And I never really did anything with them. I just loved the colors, probably because they are the colors of my childhood.” Mohamedi realized the colorful, hand-drawn illustrations could serve as a valuable artistic resource after laboring over palettes of her own. “My favorite part of painting is actually touching the canvas,” she says. “And I was starting to get irritated because it takes so long to invent a color palette, and I thought, I’m not interested in this. I just want to play on the surface.”

But play requires parameters: there should be enough restriction to ensure a sense of safety, but not too much, as that would restrict a player’s inventive spirit. Mohamedi’s rules maintain a similarly delicate balance. After she selects an image or illustration from one of the many source materials at her disposal, she distills selected tones into “a formula,” as she calls it, mixing colors to precisely match the ones she initially felt drawn to. These formulas fill pages of large sketchbooks, dotted with precise mixtures of paint that near-perfectly replicate their originals. “I used to be a scientist,” she says, “and this is a laboratory notebook, in a way.” In a lab, a scientist must record the minutiae of their processes, a behavior that translates well into Mohamedi’s practice. “I conduct experiments every day,” she says, referring to her paintings. “You have to have this scientific method.”

In her studio, I look through the formulas and images that inspired Mohamedi’s newest paintings, ones that will be shown in a solo exhibition, entitled Mute Counsel, at a Pace Gallery pop-up space in Berlin this spring. The palettes, by the time they mutate through Mohamedi’s hand, are no longer recognizable from their initial preparatory work. The sketchbook page for “Emerald’s Third Try” (2024) features a ripped page from a Family Circle cookbook publication; in its illustration, a lush, green tablecloth drapes around an ornate—and very 1950s American—dinner spread, complete with a candy bowl and tiered appetizer display. Alongside the image are paint splotches matched against their original tones, with brief notes that describe the acrylic mixtures used to produce each replica. But even these instructions feel more like loose suggestions than strict guidelines, especially when encountering their results directly. The fragmented, propulsive shapes that compose “Emerald’s Third Try” look like shattered pieces of glass, as though the idyllic dinner scene has been broken and reassembled into something completely new.

Another necessary element of the “game,” Mohamedi says, is “a story or experience that has a strong emotional valence,” one that eventually serves to propel the artist toward her canvases. The painting “Emerald’s Third Try” originated in an experience Mohamedi had at a cruise ship buffet, where a fellow diner special-ordered a dish that turned out to be “the most disgusting pasta slop.” Disappointed, the guest, named Emerald, revealed her impulse behind the order: she “had eaten this so-called delicious dish on a Hawaiian cruise three years ago” Mohamedi recounts, “and has tried to recreate it three times since.” It’s an odd story, but also a beautiful one, a miniature scenario of the rigorous, banal methods—Emerald gave the chef the exact recipe—one might pursue to replicate an ideal aesthetic experience. The story, understandably, rang a bell for Mohamedi.

Maysha Mohamedi. “My Angels Flew Miles To Reach Me” (2024). Oil On Canvas 83” × 73”. © Maysha Mohamedi. Courtesy Pace Gallery.

Between this preparatory work and a painting is something more ineffable—though nonetheless planned by Mohamedi herself. “When I have those two things in place,” she says of her color palettes and emotional, narrative inspirations, “it’s like a biometric mechanism that allows me to go into the trance of making the painting.” Her phrase encapsulates the fusion of near-religious faith and scientific rigor that blend together to, in her words, “launch me into the painting.” Once there, all bets are off. “When I make these paintings,” she says, “I’m so locked into the moment of my body touching the canvas. This interaction between me and the surface requires one hundred percent. I have to subscribe completely to the act of making the painting.” The process she describes feels surprisingly similar to that of a scientist conducting a chemistry experiment, orchestrating the collision of two different substances until a moment of transformation—a chemical reaction—results in a new product. 

If art and science are often cleaved from each other into disparate camps, they find, at the very least, a through line in Mohamedi—though it didn’t feel possible for her to unify the disciplines initially. “I always liked the really big, grand questions,” she says. Her doctoral area of focus—before she dropped out to take painting classes at San Francisco’s California College of the Arts—was, predictably, “the visual system.” Eventually, though, Mohamedi felt that the concerns of neuroscience couldn’t completely account for the actual feelings that accompany visual perception. “We could spend forever defining the data behind what this experience is and it would never actually capture this—the essence of us talking right now,” she tells me. Even though Mohamedi is quick to acknowledge the effects of her laboratory training on her painting practice, the rift between art and science seemed to manifest in their differing approaches to registering visual experience, in data or in painting. Where one restricts its researchers, another keeps their inquiries open—or so she thought.

The divergent fields have eventually found an odd meeting ground in Mohamedi’s practice— despite her initial intentions. “I really didn’t feel like there was a future for me [in neuroscience], because I was so interested in the bigger questions,” she says. “In science, you have to pick a teeny, tiny question, pursue it, and contribute to the greater goal.” Ironically, Mohamedi has found herself in a similar position almost 20 years later. The artist consistently refers to her creative practice as an “inquiry,” one invested in “the inputs and outputs of perception.” It is an investigation that, with time, has grown “narrower,” the exact problem she encountered in her doctoral program.

Its results, though, differed from what Mohamedi expected. “I thought that the narrower I got in my inquiry, the more limits would be put on what I could say,” she says. “And that would lead to clarity. But the exact opposite is true.” The continuation of her practice has led not to further boundaries, but a renewed sense of freedom. “When you’re in that moment with the painting,” she says, “You feel the possibility of infinity, of the infinite actions you can take.” Questions surrounding consciousness and perception continue to guide Mohamedi, from her early pursuit of neuroscience to her current creative practice. “It’s an existential inquiry,” she says.

Recently, Mohamedi has begun a new pursuit: writing. Mohamedi worked with an editor last year to condense and revise a manuscript composed of diary entries she wrote during her twenties. It doesn’t come as a surprise that Mohamedi might find yet another path, especially one through language. The titles of her paintings are uniquely poetic: “Back to the Tuna Scheme” and “Grow Me Up in the Fire of Affliction,” a title for an earlier work adapted from a Bible verse, suggest that Mohamedi’s writing might not be unlike her painting. Their tonal registers have a singular rhythm, subtly unspooling evocative narratives that remain just beyond comprehension. Though Mohamedi tells me that this writing project, for now, is shelved, I find it difficult to believe that this isn’t just another hypothesis, waiting to be disproven. 

Maysha Mohamedi. “Emerald’s Third Try” (2024). Oil On Canvas 83” × 73”. © Maysha Mohamedi. Courtesy Pace Gallery.

Written by Claudia Ross

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Flaunt Magazine, Issue 192, Gettin' Around, Maysha Mohamedi