Iranian-American Painter’s exhibition at SECCA provides visual revelations while highlighting hidden messages and nefarious political agendas
|“Shooting the Edge,” 2017, Acrylic on Canvas, 213 x 274 cm, by Taha Heydari. Heydari’s work, in an exhibition titled “Subliminal,” can be seen at SECCA. Image courtesy the artist and Winston-Salem.|
In his visually engaging, thematically charged exhibition at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary art, Iranian-American artist Taha Heydari ingeniously turns the traditional medium of painting into a critical lens on timely issues with international implications.
Instead of taking his visual cues from unmediated “real life,” Heydari bases his paintings on digital imagery, usually in varied states of pixilation and degradation, as witnessed in video broadcasts subjected to interference or a weak signal. In some cases he throws in traditional Islamic design motifs, computer-generated patterns, linear screen grids and painterly brushstrokes.
The results of this varied mix are distinctive paintings whose visual distortions, scrambled images and other enigmatic qualities metaphorically underscore cautionary, underlying messages about political repression, covert operations and other authoritarian modes of socio-political control.
The show’s title, “Subliminal,” alludes to visual and/or auditory stimuli that recipients perceive without being consciously aware of them — “Hidden Persuaders,” as journalist Vance Packard called them 60 years ago in his popular book of that title. Corporations and governments use subliminal tactics fairly often in mass-media efforts to manipulate the expectations and desires of consumers, voters and political subjects.
Heydari simultaneously employs and implicitly criticizes these tactics in this show’s 20 paintings, half of which were specially commissioned for this show by SECCA’s former curator Cora Fisher, who organized it. Heydari’s clear aim, aside from making visually compelling art, is to heighten viewers’ abilities to recognize and resist such corporate and political manipulation.
Born and raised in Iran, Heydari has lived in the United States since 2014, and his experiences of two very different cultures give him a special perspective on these issues. He earned an undergraduate degree in painting at the Art University of Tehran and a master’s degree in painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art before settling in Baltimore.
Recent and ongoing debates in this country about media bias, audience manipulation and “fake news” have rendered Heydari’s work particularly relevant for its thematic content. Aside from that discussion, these are aesthetically compelling paintings.
Several of them employ familiar visual devices to engage and capture viewers’ attention. A prime example is “Shooting the Edge,” installed so it’s the first painting seen on entering the Potter Gallery, which houses the show. Like a frame from a movie or a screen shot from a video gunplay game, the foreground imagery puts the viewer in the position of an unknown shooter whose monumentally scaled handgun points at an indistinct target in the left background.
The rest of this 7-by-9-foot canvas is dense with markings and shapes in predominant shades of gray and blue, hinting at other images that nonetheless remain unidentifiable. It’s as if the overall scene were digitally “breaking up” and partially superimposed on or peeling away from another substructural scene or multiple scenic layers. Beautiful in its own right, it also hints at the imperative to look beyond and/or below surface appearances in order to fully perceive and understand.
A slightly smaller painting, “RDS-220,” adopts the viewpoint of a moviegoer seated or standing near the rear of a theater with rows of occupied and unoccupied seats. Illuminated in fiery shades of red and yellow, the seats and audience members face a screen so blindingly bright that it and the immediately surrounding space are completely whited out like the celestial backdrop of a nuclear explosion.
The title of this work refers to a hydrogen bomb of unprecedented destructive power, detonated in a test by the former Soviet Union in 1961. Once again, the painting exerts its own aesthetic power while the imagery offers a metaphorical critique of cinematic propaganda that promotes warfare and weapons production.
More straightforward in their imagery and their messages are Heydari’s “The Coffins” and “The National Security Advisor.” The former depicts rows of white-shrouded coffins that appear to be advancing on an assembly line — a starkly minimal anti-war image if there ever was one — and the latter is a portrait of Henry Kissinger, who was the Secretary of State and National Security Adviser to presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford between 1969 and 1977.
Tinted bluish gray and overlaid by a tight linear screen grid like a pixilated TV image, this image of Kissinger’s face appears to have been lifted directly from a tightly framed close-up in one of his many televised interviews. Kissinger’s reputation for negotiating an end to the Vietnam War and improving U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and China is seriously stained by his support for a right-wing military takeover of Chile and a Pakistani government that conducted genocide in Bangladesh. His responsibilities in those atrocities and his role in creating the “national security state” are no doubt what Heydari had in mind when he made this painting, and what he hopes viewers will consider when they see it. Viewers too young to remember those events will have no trouble accessing background information on the internet.
A more obliquely nuanced variation on the anti-war message Heydari conveys in “The Coffins,” previously described, is poignantly encapsulated in “Cronus.” In this painting he references the ancient Greek god of time, and specifically a Peter Paul Rubens painting that depicts Saturn — often equated with Cronus — devouring his own children. Against a black ground imprinted with a computer code, the contours of a silhouetted military drone outline an image of a naked infant ceremoniously held up, presumably in the moments before being eaten, or as a lifeless corpse killed by a drone-guided bomb.
In conclusion it seems fitting to mention “The End,” a more loosely painted variation on the stock cinematic image of cowboys riding off into the sunset. In Heydari’s treatment of this iconic scenario, the cowboys and the landscape look insubstantial, like sculpted shapes melting from excessive heat such as might be released in a nuclear blast or from extreme consequences of global warming — an apocalyptic future that he implies might not be far off.
|“RDS-220,” Acrylic on Canvas, 184 x 168 cm, by Taha Heydari, are on view at SECCA. Image courtesy the artist and Winston-Salem.|
|“Cronus,” 2017 Acrylic on Canvas 152 x 152 cm, by Taha Heydari, is on display at SECCA. Image courtesy the artist and Winston-Salem.|
|“The End,” by Taha Heydari, is on view at SECCA. Image courtesy the artist and Winston-Salem Journal.|