at Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Reviewed by Nancy Kay Turner
“Lovers find secret places inside this violent world where they make transactions with beauty.”
–Rumi, 13thcentury Persian Poet
The poetically entitled In The Field of Empty Days: The Intersection of Past and Present in Iranian Art is a dense yet sprawling exhibit that features compelling images from artists whom we may not have seen before. A hallmark of these modern and contemporary Iranian artists is their ingenious blending of images related to myth, history, social disruption, political upheaval and religious restriction in their work. They, like so many contemporary artists, are mining the past for re-presentation in the present.
In the first room are ten large-scale inkjet prints by Siamak Shan from his Underground series of 2014. Shan’s work is an unexpected revelation and the star of the exhibit. His work is an audacious mash up of the sacred and profane. Narrative threads are woven as tightly as any prayer rug. Dream-like and heavily influenced by the political machinations of the Dadaist photomontages, the Underground series resembles nothing more than Fellini’s darkly satiric film “Roma.” This is a deliciously transgressive and dangerous sexual romp in a repressive theocracy.
Siamak Shan, excerpts from Return From Europe, from his 2014 Underground series.
Each of these highly theatrical works has been staged with costumed actors (some covered in dried mud) engaging in dubious and mysterious activities in a highly decorated palatial space. The gender fluid protagonist (The Shah) is dirt covered and scratched (crawling through the metaphorical underground can make you literally and figuratively “dirty”) appears as the central figure in most of these complex tableaux that are redolent of decay and decadence. The Shah” appears wearing Fredrick’s Of Hollywood sexy lingerie and is presiding over a circus-like, rusting, and chaotic palace. This crammed space is populated with white rabbits (a reference perhaps to the unreality of Alice In Wonderland), chickens, a debauched looking British Ambassador dressed as a ringleader wielding a whip, a Russian ambassador proudly holding the larger part of a dead fish, disembodied heads on a platter, a middle aged white clad chubby angel, provocative women of the night, multiple armed assassins along with other fascinating characters, too numerous to discuss.
From The Underground series, installation views of the Execution triptych
This visually arresting and intense series contains multiple clever references to Western and Middle Eastern literature, art history, spaghetti Westerns, Christianity, the contemporary pervasive use of the iphone to document atrocities and so much more. Since context is necessary in order to understand the many coded and philosophical images presented here, the viewer may feel perplexed while struggling to untangle the intertwined relationships presented in this complex narrative.
However, the exquisite tonality, beautiful muted color, breathtaking scale and the ambition of these works reward the viewer even though many specific Iranian references may be lost to the uninitiated Western viewer. These inkjet prints, are loosely based on the assassination of Nasiral-din Shah (who was Shah for 50 years), by Mirza Riza Kirmani in 1896. Archival documentary photographs of the Shah and his assassin are included in this room but detailed curatorial wall text or a statement by the artist would still be welcome.
A bit of history is required here to understand the influence on Iranian art of the epic poem entitled “Shahnameh or Shahnama,” (50,000 rhyming couplets) written by the Persian poet Firdausi around 1000 CE. An Iranian cultural touchstone, the poem tells the story of ancient kings along with an account of the seventh century mythical Arab conquest. It delineates the original fifty kingdoms but also is filled with battles against enemies from without and within. At the same times it ruminates on moral struggles and romantic encounters. It is considered not only a masterpiece of literature but a respected moral handbook as well. Most if not all of the work in this exhibit references the Shahnama either directly or indirectly.
Interspersed in the exhibition are single superb illustrated pages taken from The Shahnama of Firdausi (1524-76) that is arguably the most spectacular one of the illustrated manuscripts. All the painted pages shown here are done with ink, opaque watercolor, and gold and silver on paper and covered in the exquisite nasta ‘liq script. In it there are battles, gift exchanges and other aspects of Persian 7th century life. These hyper detailed one- brush miniature paintings are what most viewers are familiar with and these examples from the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Los Angeles contemporary Museum of Art don’t fail to thrill.
The rest of the exhibit is more of a mixed bag of works from the 1900’s to the present with no chronological thread but with a distinctly political feel. The acerbically entitled “The King is always above the people,” is a Saul Steinberg-like ink drawing from The Life in Iran series, 1978 by Ardeshir Mohasses (1938-2008.) The aforementioned King is literally hanging by the neck while there are throngs of mostly men below looking not at all bothered. Nearby there are two miniature paintings by Kimon Evan Marengo (1942) that depict meetings by Hitler/Roosevelt/Churchill and Stalin (all on horses) in a fantastical Iranian landscape. His style is more simplified and cartoonish than drawings of earlier ancient manuscripts but still admirable. These miniature paintings prefigure the cultural fusion work of Masami Teraoka and Gajin Fujita, who both mixed Asian culture with American and Chicano life.
The next room has work by women artists with a feminist bent. The most arresting is the large beige cardboard installation by Yasmin Sinai (Iranian born lives in UAE) done in 2015, entitled “The Act of Gurdafarid, The Female Warrior”. This is based on a famous story from The Shanama (The Book Of Kings) of a famed woman warrior who fought valiantly while disguised as man. Think Joan of Arc. Each individual piece is made up of scrap cardboard, glued, taped or attached with twine. The cardboard is a humble usually ephemeral material but here provides a welcome texture to the monochromatic piece. There is a female figure with a horse head and she is carrying a stick with her head on it –a possible hint of role reversal? The two female warriors are surrounded by masks -spaced around on sand presumably to represent the male warriors they defeated. The piece is charming but strangely static given the ferocity of the heroic Gurdafarid.
Then there is the quixotic but fascinating oil on canvas painting by Abdallah Musavar, who died in 1931. The painting entitled “Battle of Karbala,” dated loosely late nineteenth to early twentieth century, is a wonderfully weird amalgam of Hieronymous Bosch and Charles Garabedian. The picture plane is packed with kings who are winged angels, naked women (temptresses) holding snakes and tarantula’s, a heroic haloed figure with many arrows in him. A gallant King with a gold nimbus is riding a white horse. In the lower right, is a chaotic land that is hell/Hades or the Underground, filled with demonic half men-half animal figures that rule over a tumultuous landscape not unlike Michaelangelo’s “The Last Judgment”. Sin, redemption, holy wars and the moral struggles of humanity are all on view here. The western viewer steeped in the history of art and religion, would see echoes of familiar Christian signs and symbols.
While it is filled with some extraordinary work, this meandering exhibit must be seen several times in order to process the wealth of visual information presented and to truly understand just how the Iranian artists shown here have incorporated narratives of the past into the landscape of the present.
Images of Return From Europe and Execution courtesy of Nancy Kay Turner. All other images courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Nancy Kay Turner is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Turner is an artist, arts writer and educator who has written for ARTWEEK, ARTSCENE and Visions Magazine. She fled NewYork for the sun and fun of California and has never looked back.