A Defiant Beauty

Contemporary Iranian Art from the Permanent Collection at the Met” is on view until September 3, 2012 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

(L) Faces #10 Y.Z. Kami  (American, born Iran, Teheran 1956),1992 , Oil on canvas, H. 22, W. 14 inches (55.9 x 35.6 cm.), Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
(R) "Way In Way Out": Women of Allah Shirin Neshat  (Iranian, born 1957), 1994, Ink on photograph, H. 12, W. 9 inches (30.5 x 22.9 cm.), Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Given the media’s almost daily drumbeat reporting the ill will, distrust, and unveiled hostility defining today’s Iran, it seems not only implausible but foolhardy to believe that art – whether good or bad – can be created in such a benighted place. The coupling of art and Iran may be oxymoronic, but the current installation, Contemporary Iranian Art from the Permanent Collection, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, displaying seven works by six contemporary Iranian artists spanning three generations, puts a powerful lie to notions that nothing good or beautiful can come out of that deeply scarred land.

The Met has been collecting contemporary Iranian art since 1993, its earliest objects acquired by the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, and in 2011, the Department of Islamic Art began to collect in this area.

The artists – Monir  Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (born 1924), Afruz Amighi (b. 1974), Ali Benisadr (b. 1976), Y.Z. Kami (b. 1956), Shirin Neshat (b. 1957), and Parviz Tanavoli (b. 1937) – are living cross-sections of modern-day Iran, not only by age and gender (Farmanfarmaian, Amighi, and Neshat are women), but most significantly by their socio-political messages and their chosen artistic media to communicate their respective visions. While all are natives of Tehran, four of the six make their home in the United States or Canada, and the remaining two continue to work in Iran. Within their essential diversity, each artist addresses the larger issues of identity, gender, religion and politics, evoking at the same time nostalgia and pride in a rich artistic and cultural heritage.

The academically-trained Benisadr’s dazzlingly colorful oil on linen Interrogation of 2010 is the artist’s interpretation of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, through which he lived as a child before leaving his country for the U.S. In this unrelentingly apocalyptic work, whose style evokes that of Hieronymus Bosch and the gestural works of de Kooning, as well as cinema, pop culture, and graphic novels, the canvas field detonates before our eyes in a tangle of abstract brushwork. We are thrust into a chaos-ridden landscape, where conflict is not only visual but nearly audible; a place where, as the exhibition label details, “myth and fact coalesce.”

The playful and literally shimmering Flight of the Dolphin (2010) of Monir Farmanfarmaian is a tour-de-force of reverse-glass painting inclusive of mirror mosaic and glue and plaster mounted on wood. A friend of Warhol, Pollock, and Frank Stella, Farmanfarmaian here combines the artistry of traditional reverse-glass painting and mirror mosaic work with the principles of Islamic geometry and minimalism. The power and grace of a dolphin’s leap and resulting water rippling is stunningly suggested by the layering of hundreds of mirror fragments creating a kaleidoscopic evocation of a sublime moment in the natural world.

The delicate and intricate Islamic lattice screen, known as a jaali, is transformed into a dynamically symbolic object in the hands of Amighi. Made of woven polyethylene (the same material used to construct refugee tents) and hand cut with a stencil burner, Still Garden (2011) recalls the iconic Islamic window form that both conceals and reveals an interior space. A closer viewing, however, of Garden picks out vegetal and geometric forms, such as shackled birds, bouquets of flowers, and crowns and serpents, creatures and objects found in the Persian epic poem “The Shahnama.” Garden, albeit “still,” is made to move by the slightest breeze, enlivening, as it were, the very symbols embedded in its fabric, a subtle suggestion of this region’s current politics that also moves by the will of its people. Termed a “tantalizing and ethereal shadow-play,” Amighi’s work is a brilliant fusion of a traditional architectural form with literary references, put to the service of socio-political commentary.

Kami’s two works bearing the title Faces (numbers 10 and 53, executed in 1992 and 1993, respectively), look to both antiquity and modernism in their manner of creation, and in their statement about the power and meaning of the human face itself. The expressionless and unidentified faces in these works, painted in a manner reminiscent of the funerary portraits of third to first century B.C. El Fayyum, Egypt, gaze out at the viewer as if questioning who we are and what our life purpose might be. The direct style adopted by the artist is suggestive of his background in philosophy and Sufism, disciplines that seek to explore the essence of the human soul. Yet striking as well are the portraits stark realism, underscoring the “visceral quality” of the human face when uninfluenced by the visual distraction of the body and its clothing or adornments.

Women in veils make us uncomfortable, and women in veils toting guns make us want to take to our beds and pull the covers over our heads. Neshat’s uncompromising Way In, Way Out from the series Women of Allah (1994) is an ink on black and white photograph she created after a trip to Iran, following years of exile after the Islamic revolution. Its documentary look that leaps out of the page of today’s newspaper grabs the viewer by anything it can grab, forcing us to look, to acknowledge, to comprehend. The figure of a kneeling woman, her hands in a gesture of prayer and her veil bearing the handwritten verse, in Arabic, “I give a hand so I can be held,” inspires admiration and contemplation as would a religious icon; the take-no-prisoners gun placed beside her repels and frightens us. Like Iran itself, this beautiful and defiant image stirs within us ambiguous and clashing emotions.

Finally, Tanavoli’s Poet Turning Into a Heech is another work where traditional Persian folk art forms are meshed with contemporary sculptural form to produce a powerful three-dimensional work.  A founder of the Saqqakhana School intersecting contemporary practices with age-old Persian folk work, Tanavoli began “heech” (the Persian word for “nothing”) sculptures in the early 1960s. Over time, however, he would reject Saqqakhana for its lost purity and increased commercialization, and incorporated the poetry of Rumi into his work, conveying the fundamental belief that God creates everything from nothing. Made of brushed bronze into which lines of poetry have been carved, Poet Turning Into a Heech, is unquestionably the show’s central (and centrally placed) work, representing one who creates words becoming non-speech. Like the other works in this show, the minimal, pared down silhouette of this piece makes a clear esthetic statement, its reaching back to past traditions and beliefs notwithstanding.

Since the events of September 11, 2001, many art institutions have made efforts to bring Islamic art and artists to the Western world’s attention. The results of those efforts, as would be expected, have run the gamut from excellent to dismal, and exhibition size can at times serve as an impediment, rather than an opening, to better understanding. The Met could have overwhelmed its visitors by hauling out more of its collection of contemporary Islamic art. Rather, it kept it small – very small – by limiting the show to one gallery, a visitor can easily negotiate in about 30 to 45 minutes, and still come away with a broadened sensibility about contemporary Iranian art.  It’s not about size, but about wise choices.

That said, this show of Iranian art tells us what we need to know about what is happening artistically in a country that seems only interested in pursuing non-artistic activities that provoke the West. Or that its women have no voice or talents other than child-bearing. What we will know in seeing this exhibit is that even in a dark place, art can shed a very bright light.

Thanks for reading A Defiant Beauty

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