Tuesday, 10 May 2016

In from the cold: Iran x Cuba – review

Playful seriousness abounds in this exhibition at New York’s Rogue Space gallery
Old furniture, recycled clothes, found objects, fiber stuffing (machine and hand-stitched), 222x116x118 cm. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and  the Guardian.
by Dan Geist for Tehran BureauThe Guardian

Holy Cow. The title of Allahyar Najafi’s painting captures the playful seriousness that abounds in IRAN X CUBA: Beyond the Headline. The show features work by 19 artists from two countries whose revolutions denied them the tender affections of a certain global hegemon for decades on end; now, as if love might actually trump hate in time, they have come together at New York’s Rogue Space gallery.

In Najafi’s piece, the titular bovine, sacred not only in Hinduism – the artist resided in India for several years – but in Iran’s own Zoroastrianism, weeps amid an array of other hallowed beasts. Through the ether swim a pod of Caspian seals, seemingly a personal totem for the artist, who now lives in Rasht, not far from the sea (one takes center stage in Pusa Caspica, after the animal’s Latin name). From a crook in the cow’s form stares a bald eagle, once-secular American iconography now as sanctified as the almighty dollar.

Like the two other paintings by Najafi on view, it’s a menagerie of both subject and media – thick oils encompass a flock of lenticular images, the multilayered graphics that appear to shift along with one’s viewing angle; the primary visual effect Najafi employs is stereoscopic (“two and a half dimensional,” in his nice description). Some lenticulars, of small human faces and abstract forms, peek out from the plastic sheet below the paint, while others may have been added later. There is much for the mind to play with in this work, both in meaning and in process.

 Allahyar Najafi, Pusa Caspica, 2015. Oil on lenticular print, 140x140 cm. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and  the Guardian.

Hoda Zarbaf’s Vaginal Rapture is decisively feminine art at its most pleasurably unabashed and emotionally unfiltered – no strained seriousness here. A cornucopia of vibrantly colored tuffets and one gamboling (pussy?) cat bursts exuberantly out of a wood-framed chair whose purple upholstery has gone all procreative. It’s a multiple orgasm, a multitudinous brood, a fecund rainbow.

Two smaller works by Zarbaf involving found and recycled textiles and well-used doll parts, one memorably titled The Mistress, Her Baby, and the Ejaculating Unicorn, deal with sex, pleasure, life making, and dream chasing in more intimate – and, indeed, more directly individual – yet no less vivid terms. The artist cheerily volunteered to an observer that, of course, all three pieces were too erotic to be exhibited in Tehran, where she will be showing later this year. Rather than bemoan the absurdity of such antediluvian censorship, she appeared happy to exploit it as an impetus to dive into different themes.

A visitor to IRAN X CUBA who expects to encounter a conversation between the works from these vastly different realms may find it difficult to hear. But on one fairly quiet wall, a dialogue does develop. Glass engravings by Alex Hernández of pre-revolutionary Havana aristo architecture are legible only by virtue of the shadows they cast on a backing surface. These are exquisitely precise articulations of a double ghosting: more than a half-century of repurposing obligated by embargo, and inevitable evanescence in a recapitalized future where such sites will either be exalted into next-gen Mar-a-Lagos or dance to the tune of the demolition ball.

By their side are a set of images of old, mostly brickwork Tehran residences by Sasan Abri, each a collage of nine Polaroids taken from different angles, variously distressed, and transferred to glass. Simultaneously rendering the images more permanent and more fragile, the nature of the transfer process resonates with the visual effect, in which the fracturing of the collage paradoxically emphasizes the beautiful, melancholic solidity of the well-built structures while the faded hues bespeak their tenuous hold in transformative times. Tehran “claws and tears its own historic flesh asunder to devour it in the name of progress,” writes Abri. “The battle cry of electric saws and the thunder of iron and concrete … draws ever closer.”

 Sasan Abri, Dormant Yellow Series, 2016. Polaroid photography, collage of 9 images, all transferred to glass, 24x24 cm. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and  the Guardian.

Canonization – or even supposed correspondence with the canonized – and age itself afford an aura of silence and remove to those older artworks that benefit from this sort of zone. (To those who might argue that a masterpiece necessarily generates such an aura all on its lonesome – the shade of poor Vincent demurs.) In this regard, certain creations too youthful to have accrued such benefits are not best served by the group-show setting, particularly by a room in which other works state their own worthy cases at much higher volume.

One would have wished for a more serene arena in which to dwell on the subtle still lifes of Myriam Quiel Tami. With a muted palette whose range and harmonies require careful attention to appreciate, she creates environments dense in both objects and psychological suggestion, yet light – in every sense – and breathing. In a world inundated by kitsch, many artists seek to ride the wave only to have their own visions and talents drowned; Quiel Tami’s is a different story. Both of her paintings here feature poseable action figures, in one case almost certainly from that omphalos of kitsch, the Star Wars merchandise collection. But the roles they play are in the service of a mental theater all her own, softly yet exactingly limned subjects among many others in a rich daydreamscape.

Myriam Quiel Tami, From the series Still Life, 2015. Oil on canvas, 90x120 cm. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist  and  the Guardian.

The largest single work in the exhibition is a map of the world in burnt matchstick ends, sewn painstakingly one by one into wood panels across a span over one meter in height and nearly three across. Entropy, by Maryam Khosrovani, is an ambitious work whose message of environmental degradation could hardly be more serious and whose craftsmanship is beyond impressive. Khosrovani is an expert graphic designer (she is responsible for the show’s catalogue, an exemplary marriage of grace and utility) who has only recently made art her central devotion. And Entropy, more a master class in design than artful, is thus comprehensible aesthetically as something she perhaps needed to get out of her system to allow her creative spirit free rein. She spoke with inspiring passion to a critic about her current art projects and of their varied elements as her all-important “toys” – one hopes and expects that the sense of play inherent in that term and the vital irresponsibility (and, to be sure, irresponsible vitality) it connotes will be evident in her solo show in her new hometown of Brooklyn this coming autumn.

Behrang Samadzadegan, Sol LeWitt by the Side of Utopia, 2016. Watercolor on cardboard, 85x105 cm. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and  the Guardian.

Other works that reward a lingering look include four large watercolors by Behrang Samadzadegan in which tree-sized fungi and a delicate but permanent rain of splattered paint droplets signal nature’s ineluctable counterpoise to human scenarios, often involving painfully pivotal events in modern Iranian history, depicted with humor wry and extra-dry. Two paintings in bright acrylics by Kamyar Kafaie treat modern urban life with more in-your-face comedy, as giant casts of small, but delicately distinguished people, animals, and fantastical others compete for space and consideration. In and around the madcap melee, political and social concerns are marked - from the infamous Tehran smog that commands the entire top fifth of the canvas titled Parkway to a resistant fist breaking up through the sidewalk below. Though everyone else in the scene is too preoccupied to pay it heed, it still hits home: clenched in anger, but raised in hope and pride.

IRAN X CUBA: Beyond the Headline is on view at New York’s Rogue Space through May 15

The Tehran Bureau is an independent media organisation, hosted by the Guardian. 

Via The Guardian

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