Coming in the wake of Iran Modern at the Asia Society, a show that showcased many Iranian modern masters, Portraits: Reflections by Emerging Iranian Artists, curated by Roya Khadjavi Heidari and Massoud Nader at Rogue Space, New York, presented more than twenty mostly unknown artists who were born, raised, and educated in Iran. Yet the show was distinguished by the way in which a range of figurative painters upended traditional portraiture, which became symbolic of a larger assertion of individuality and freedom.
By repudiating the classical norm of full frontal representation that was meant to capture the essence of the subject, the profiled, back facing, overturned, and headless figures spoke for a populace of unacknowledged, ignored, and subdued individuals. Without being weighed down by nostalgia for the past, or paralyzed by the weary present, the works from a country suppressed and isolated for thirty years after the revolution of 1979 boldly expressed the need for artistic identity that is deeply personal.
Self taught artist Reza Azimian’s image of a young man’s forlorn face in his oil painting, Portrait of A Man, 2007, was disturbing. The subject’s despondent eyes turned away from the onlooker, coupled with the patchy brushstrokes on his grey face evoked deep felt despair. Despair was writ large in Nasser Bakshi’s hyperrealistic depiction of women long excluded from the cadres of social and political power in a patriarchal society. Paintings of female figures made to appear like old torn photographs were effectively confined in Bakshi’s wooden boxes that showcased their seclusion and long suffering lives. In The Waiting, 2010, a pregnant woman facing sideways stood silently as actual wires attached to her head were grouped in vases below. And in Return, 2010, the back of a woman’s head was crowded with protruding pins akin to a pincushion. Surreal and terrifying, Bakshi’s works were emblematic of the endemic problem of women perceived as perpetrators of evil and unacknowledged objects of desire. Their suppression in the paintings was contrasted with the artist’s protest series in Portraits of Generations, 2010. Here an array of portraits of people of all ages and genders faced a back wall to form a conjoined voice of defiance and disobedience.
Bahar Behbahani’s incendiary photograph Proceeding, 2007, mounted on aluminum, took Bakshi’s hyperrealism to a different level. An image of a woman suspended upside down before a burning pyre was reminiscent of people burned at the stake during the Middle Ages. Known for her conceptual videos that referenced memory and loss, Behbahani’s sepia toned photograph dramatized the ritual of exorcising the past through her Joan of Arc like figure. The artist’s tortured, unknown heroine bolstered women’s struggle for power and inclusion in Iranian society.
The fight for inclusion and acceptance was the theme of Hossein Edaltkhah’s My Life, My Body, My Bio, 2009, series. Large, headless, sinewy figures, their upper bodies smudged with paint, and one clad in delicate netted pantyhose and red drag queen shoes, represented the artist’s homosexual community which is central to his life. Elaborate Iranian iconography, in place of the genitalia, comprised of Safavid floral designs, and the image of a lion that referenced Iran’s imperial past, concealed as much as it revealed the significance of a way of life that is taboo in Iran. Similarly, Farsad Labbauf, who is based in New York, echoed Edaltkhah’s sentiment in Trinity III, 2002. Grid like figurations of naked men in sexual embrace emphasized his need for sexual liberty.
Memory and resurrection imbued Nagmeh Ghassemlou’s moving photographic Navab Series, 2011. Ghost like figures straight out of x-ray machines inhabited the skeletal remains of a demolished home. Yet the Navab series reflected nostalgia as much as the resilience to continue living and carry on a legacy. The idea of legacy and progeny ran deep in Babak Bidarain’s portraits of two young children in Boy in Passion Play, 2013, and Coming of Age, 2013, who looked the viewer in the eye. Albeit their strange paint smeared faces, the boy’s curious expression and the girl’s spunkier one provided ample inspiration for a better future.
Infused to look ahead, the exhibition displayed paintings that conjointly voiced personal and public, intimate and societal concerns that were interjected in all the works. The Iranian artists demonstrated formal and conceptual skills that appealed at both a universal and cultural level. What distinguished the portraits was that images of mostly generic figures captured the emotional traits of a community at large. The idea of exhibiting contemporary Iranian art around a new genre of portraiture was critical to showcasing art that contributes to the global annals of history.
Portraits: Reflections By Emerging Iranian Artists
On view: Sept 17 – 29