Arash Chehelnabi – Artist Profile


Arts writer Sydney

Visual Poet of the Absurd

Juxtaposing enigmatic, yet strangely familiar forms, Arash Chehelnabi’s paintings provoke the viewer to use their own imagination to find meaning.

By Arts Writer, Victoria Hynes

Visually and conceptually compelling, Chehelnabi’s deceptively simple paintings subconsciously play with the mind. Executed in a raw, almost childlike style, his practice involves a surrealist method of combining disparate motifs within the composition in order to unsettle or perplex the observer. Against the black walls of Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre’s exhibition space, his luminous paintings pop with colour. Upon canvases painted in flat cerulean blue, tangerine orange or a white lime wash, everyday objects hover and float.

A sparse, ghostly tree ascends from the middle of the ocean, surrounded by shimmering waves. Circular, balloon-like shapes float on the sea below a sunset horizon. A small peaked mountain range is contained within a blue cube. The images are peculiar, absurd, and surprising, challenging the audience’s perceptions of reality.

The painter equates art to visual poetry, where the creative magic transpires from the combination of images instead of words. He explains:

“It’s surrealism, basically. But where surrealism was looking to try to activate someone’s psyche, my focus is more about using that process to point to something beyond what you see: to highlight that process in the mind that stitches together images, words, or ideas, in order to come to an understanding of what you think it might mean.”

Born in Iran, Arash Chehelnabi migrated to Australia with his family as a small child. He came late to art school, applying to the National Art School in Sydney in 2016, after feeling dissatisfied with his twenty-year-long career as a graphic designer. As an art student, his practice flourished. During his studies, he was awarded the Basil and Muriel Hooper Scholarship in 2017 by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Derivan Award for Excellence in painting twice, in 2018 and 2019, and received the William Fletcher Foundation Tertiary Grant in 2018. In 2020, shortly after graduation, he was awarded a residency at the Nancy Fairfax Artist in Residence Studio, which led to this solo show, his first public gallery exhibition.

Despite having lived in metropolises all his life, imagery of the sea and water has dominated his compositions in recent years. Arriving at Tweed Heads in northern New South Wales for his artist residency, Chehelnabi had no conception of what his new body of work would entail; just that he wanted to challenge himself, and put himself out of his comfort zone as a painter. For this urban dweller, living in a regional area was an entirely new experience. He found that, subliminally, the environment started to affect what he painted. Having never seen himself as a landscape painter, soon trees and other natural forms started to appear in his artworks.

Nevertheless, the artist ultimately believes that his paintings have no intrinsic meaning. He declares:

“I think meaning and art don’t go together, because paintings, for me, are supposed to open up, and not close. If a painting has a meaning, it closes you off. In my opinion, you should approach a work of art like you approach a song. You don’t have to know what it means to enjoy it.”

In surmising his practice, Arash Chehelnabi simply cites the American artist Lawrence Weiner:

“Art should not tell you anything. It should show you something.”

This Our Machine
8 March – 31 July 2022
Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre,
New South Wales

Victoria Hynes is a Sydney-based arts writer and editor.