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Possibilities, Paradoxes, and Our Moment of Painting

by Houman Harouni, Tehran Bureau

It's a good time for painting in Iran. In my visits, I make sure to go to the galleries in Tehran as often as I can. And I prefer to visit the ones that exhibit young artists most often, the galleries that are not geared for sales, but for the advancement of lesser-known painters. A great deal of energy is channeled into painting these days.

There are ways of measuring the impact of these artistic efforts. Some will measure them by their originality (whose measuring rod is almost exclusively not local), some by their relevance. And of course they will also be measured by the art market: how many paintings make it to international auctions, how much certain painters sell, at what prices, who is doing the buying. I am, however, more interested in what these channeled energies are expressing. For now, at least, I'm interested in what they reflect.

If there are more paintings being produced, it is partly because more paintings are being bought. It's a function of the growing stability of a wealthy class in North Tehran, willing to invest in the arts, and painting is the most investible art form. To that end, the inexplicably active art market in neighboring Dubai has also helped. There is also the relative reopening of Iran's actual and virtual borders: more artists can travel to the West, and, since the Internet, we do not have to wait for smuggled, expensive art books and catalogues to see the new trends. There are plenty of styles out there waiting to be applied to Iranian subjects, and there are plenty of painters willing to apply them.

None of these factors, however, can fully explain the creative force that runs through the young paintings I see in Iran. There is more to the picture than the market and international exposure -- it has, I think, something to do with what the painters see and with the possibilities of painting as a language.

In cities everywhere, public life is foremost a visual experience. The metropolis provides endless situations we can watch up close, situations that rise out of lives not so dissimilar to our own. Example: a fight between two taxi drivers, one old and one young. Example: a couple hiding in the darkest shadows of a coffee shop, speaking conspiratorially, haloed by the smoke from their cigarettes that catches the light they avoid.

But we cannot touch these compact dramas, we cannot interact with them. If we approach, they shiver and transform: The combative taxi drivers will stop their argument and attack you as a team. The couple in the coffee shop will stop their conversation and look you up and down like an anomaly.

Tehran is the same way, but its public experience is heightened because what you see often demands a conversation from you, because it houses contradictions: A middle-aged mother in the long black Islamic veil, the chador, and her colorfully dressed daughter who holds a guitar case -- the mother walking the daughter to her music lessons. In an old street, barely wide enough for a single car to pass, a five-story building has risen up, and a few meters away a second building is on the rise. A playground full of young married couples, none of whom have children.

In more extreme cases -- not rare -- the demand is more immediate: when a screaming young woman is being taken away by the police. The very image of women, particularly modern, working women, is a source of dissonance. Any law enforcement agency gives rise to contradictory feelings; so does any religious or educational institution.

The experiences require a conversation, but the vocabulary for this conversation is yet to be fleshed out. And then, what tone of voice would be appropriate? Emphatic, sympathetic, enraged? For many of us, in many situations, it is not even clear who we should be speaking with. Is it even our place to speak?

Painting uses the visual language of experience to begin a dialogue that cannot yet be verbalized. First, it assures the painter and the viewer that they are not alone in seeing the contradictions. Second, it infuses the images with feeling (something that is more difficult for photography to accomplish); it acknowledges that what we feel is not separate from what is occurring in society. Third, in the freedom of the canvas the painter creates new contradictions that, even if painful, hint at new possibilities.

There is no society that does not contain conflict. The question is to what extent are a people sensitive to these contradictions. Those Iranians who fight, complain, become depressed, drink too heavily, theorize, or organize -- they have become embroiled in social conflicts. Some see the conflicts more clearly, some merely experience them.

This is another reason why photography cannot serve the same function as painting. In a society where people are desensitized to contradictions, photography can highlight the existing conflicts. (I imagine a prosperous European society, past its major transitions, with the poor and immigrants sequestered in their own neighborhoods.) But in a society where people are bombarded by images that demand a conversation because history has sped up, the surface reality that photography captures can too easily approach the mundane. Whatever contradiction it might quote, chances are the viewers have already noticed in their daily lives. The successful photograph in today's Iran, rather, is one that can portray a consistency -- these being so rare, so abnormal.

The attention that the photograph pays to a scene is momentary (except in the case of posed photographs and collages), whereas painting implies sustained attention, struggle with the subject matter. As images turn into paintings, they present the subconscious of the painter and of the image, as well, which has inspired this sustained attention and effort.

Here, for example, the painting by Javad Modarresi (b. 1979). Part of a series, it's titled after a neighborhood in central Tehran. My brother still lives there. The building portrayed exemplifies the place perfectly. Everything here is intentional: the soot-covered walls, the broken windows, the water stains. It's a building from the period just before the Revolution...and already decrepit. To this scene the painter has drawn the lives of people who define its desolation. The bride and the groom, abandoned, considering the scene of their possible future. The store to the bottom left is a bookstore; according to the sign it is supposed to carry books on the law and political science. It is closed on a weekday, probably permanently (we know it's a weekday because the woman on the roof is wearing her work or school clothing and carrying a briefcase). Over the narrow entrance the painter has hung an out-of-place traffic sign: Danger Ahead! This is the type of danger that has brought the woman to the edge.

The central contradiction of the painting is embodied in the white plane. No photograph, of course, could have captured it. The plane is flying too close to the ground. The sky it navigates bends like a cup to contain its flight. There is no clear way to talk about what it represents. One should know something about the role that the possibility of emigration plays in the Iranian mind. One should know something about the paradox of its dream: the more you enter the social life of your country, the more you think about leaving it altogether. Emigration is precisely the type of ever-present contradiction that has yet to find its honest, eloquent dialogue. Any talk of emigration signals the end of another conversation: It comes up as the last resort, as a way out of confronting the problem, the hokey hope of the hopeless.

The first place where the dialogue disintegrates is between those who dream of emigrating and those who have done it -- the expats. Hokey hope is hard to dismantle, but even harder if you come to the conversation with a shield you have constructed after years of alienating and humiliating experiences, or with a vision of your own success that has nothing to do with the problems at hand. And it's not just between expats and nationals that communication about the issue fails. The conversation falls apart within the individual mind, because it concerns the nature of the problems we perceive in our own lives. Thus the plane in the painting could not help but be perfectly white, perfectly poised to leave the space of the canvas -- which it never will. A perfectly abstract airplane that did not rise from any runway and will never land at any airport.

It's a rich painting, and there is more to point out. The briefcase in the woman's hand, for example, intrigues and disturbs me. The painter is right to place her where he has: What will she do next? What will the new generation of working women do, perched to fly and with seemingly nowhere to go? To truly talk about it, we will need to reassess our own interests, as men and women, in traditions, in the new urbanized economics; we won't be able to do it with borrowed vocabulary or borrowed values, and we won't be able to do it in the isolation of our respective social enclaves. The conversation must be as local as this painting, set in the midst of its own depression. Unlike this painting, however, the conversation must be approached with the clear faith that another option is possible.

As a people, we Iranians have two choices in regard to our conflicts. Either we become desensitized to them, accept them as the natural order of things, cover them up with the smaller dramas of our private lives or television, and forget them -- in which case, Iranian painting will lose its imperative and become, finally, entirely decorative. Or we will manage to give clear voice to our problems and enter the long-awaited dialogue between our many groups and classes. In that case, literature and political thought, which are for now dormant, will attract the artistic energies of the young generation.

In either case, this moment of painting is short-lived. We should enter it while we can.

Houman Harouni has written for Iranian Studies, Connect, and Harvard Educational Review, among other publications. His "BÄ«stoon Chronicles" appear regularly on Tehran Bureau. He currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Painting: "Darvazeh Dowlat" (2010), by Javad Modarresi.

Via Tehran Bureau
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