The Unstoppable Art Scene in Iran – Billionaire

First published in

A change in the world order – putting Iran increasingly at political odds with the West – presents significant challenges for a vibrant Iranian art scene.

In 2016 Tehran Auction, Iran’s biggest auction, held two sales of classic and modern Iranian art, and contemporary Iranian art, smashing record prices to reach US$7m and US$3m in sales, respectively. One month into 2017, US President Donald Trump included Iran in a list of seven countries subjected to extreme vetting regarding entry to the US, and, at the time of writing, has put Iran formally ‘on notice’ after the country had tested a ballistic missile. Such critical events demonstrate keenly how the development of Iran’s cultural scene has long been inextricably bound with its political activity; both internally, in terms of how artists respond to issues of national identity and history, and externally; the exchange, both physical and intellectual, of art and artists internationally. At the beginning of 2016 thawing international relations underpinned a solo show by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye in Tehran, yet by the end of the year a proposed exhibition destined for Berlin, then Washington DC, of modern artworks from the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) was postponed indefinitely.

In spite of, or even because of, constant upheavals and turbulence, Iranian art has long been astonishingly rich and diverse, reflected in its flourishing presence in the international art market — especially so following the lifting of sanctions in 2016 — and in the city of Tehran. The last four decades have seen a thriving cultural scene coloured by progressive artistic tendencies; a new generation born in the years after the 1979 Revolution is less concerned with producing ethnic or political art, using traditional modes and iconographies, and more with forging an independent voice on a global stage.

Iranian art is fiercely and proudly unique, using its heritage but by no means bound to its traditions. Graphic artist Reza Abedini personifies this when he asserts: “For me, graphic design is totally art.” In his compositions, Abedini conceives of the Persian-Arabic script less as typography and functioning text, adapting the traditional calligraphic art form so it becomes a form of pure art, and pushing it to the limits of legibility by running the letters together, squishing into shapes to form silhouettes and patterns. He discards the regularity of Western graphic design, instead focusing on the capability of the text to carry a spiritual or poetic significance visually. This radical use of the historic Persian text is alone a political act — Abedini cites lithographs and paintings of the Qajar period as particularly influential, frequently copying their portrait format of a silhouetted figure against block colour – adapting an historic, traditional discipline for contemporary means. Although initially inspired by Western artists such as Kandinsky, Pollock or Warhol, and having studied graphic design at the School of Fine Arts taught according to Bauhaus principles, Abedini’s career now spearheads a strain of contemporary Iranian art strongly informed by its cultural heritage. Its importance has been recognised on a global stage.

Abedini’s studio is based in Tehran, a city that has thrived as an artistic centre open to cultural exchange, and, with the lifting of sanctions, has become something of a cultural hub. This is in spite of its political circumstance; Iran’s relative isolation is dictated by sanctions and the difficulty of market exchange with the outside, and artistic expression is compounded by restrictions enforced by the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance. Isolated from the international art world’s recognised structure of galleries, auction houses and curators, these roles are blurred in Tehran, where the artistic community is forced into finding its own way of working. This is evident in flourishing exhibitions, lectures and talks, late openings and a strong art dealership.

A desire for outward exchange is matched in turn by the international art world’s eagerness to show and acquire Iranian art; the TMoCA in 2016 planned a show of modern art from Arab countries including the Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while the UAE itself has held major exhibitions of Iranian artists Parviz Tanavoli, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian and Farideh Lashai; Dubai’s market in particular has been responsible for the sale of much Iranian work, with Christie’s Dubai notably making Tanavoli’s sculpture Oh, Persepolis the most expensive Iranian artwork, selling for US$2.8m in 2008.

State intervention in the arts continues to be a problematic presence within Iran: controversially, the modern Western masters owned by the TMoCA have never been available for show, appearing only in censored format in 2012, with concerns expressed by many over conditions of storage. In the collection’s now-cancelled schedule to travel to Berlin in 2016, Europeans would have enjoyed a fuller experience than Iranian nationals. On the other hand, in 2016, for the second year running, the mayor of Tehran had all billboards and adverts replaced by works of art for 10 days, turning the city into a giant breathing art gallery. Tanavoli has long been celebrated as a giant of Iranian art since the 1960s, famously for his ‘Heech’ sculptures which adapt the characters representing the word ‘nothing’ in Persian, but in 2016 had his passport confiscated as he was about to leave the country; he had been due to speak at the British Museum.

Against this background, Mehdi Ghadyanloo is a remarkable case; born during the Iran-Iraq war (1980–88) and having lived and worked as a fine painter all his life in Tehran, he has perhaps the unique position of having been commissioned by both the US and Iran governments to create public art. Monumental in scale, yet playful in his use of surrealism and trompe l’oeil, brilliant colours and impressions of blue skies lend an upbeat, wondrous feel. In completing 100 such murals around the city, he has literally changed the face of Tehran. His murals also appear in the US in Boston, Los Angeles, and at sites in England and Norway.

Indeed, Ghadyanloo encapsulates the new artistic generation of Iran; the Boston mural was created at a critical point in the thawing of US-Iran relations following the historic nuclear deal. It remains to be seen whether he will fulfill works in the US given recent activities by the Trump administration. This illustrates the challenges the Iranian art scene and its emerging talent continues to face.

Hockney Retrospective at Tate Britain – Hyperallergic



First published in Hyperallergic, 4.4.17



LONDON — Since the passing of Lucian Freud, David Hockney has come to be regarded as the UK’s greatest living painter, his name a byword for extraordinary draftsmanship and an altogether less “passionate” style of painting. The queues snaking around the block for his retrospective at the Tate demonstrate the compelling popularity of his bright colors, the aesthetic pleasantness of his vibrant landscapes spanning his near-60-year career, and his capturing of glamorous sex and sun in the 1960s. Hockney is comparatively dispassionate, however, because his method of working is instructively informed by inquisitive intellectual and technical explorations. Tate Britain curators Chris Stephens, Andrew Wilson, and Helen Little make this clear by their choice to arrange this chronological survey around Hockney’s technical interests, theming each segment in the context of, say, abstraction, naturalism, and optical theories regarding cameras. The chronological method of display overall, however, reinforces what has been cited by many a critic and will be obvious to any visitor: Although the technical interest is in play throughout his career, the visual quality of his work undeniably suffers and declines following his 1960s peak.

Rooms One through Five cover early works of the 1960s, demonstrating Hockney’s prodigious inventiveness in his youth combined with his absolutely breathtaking draftsmanship skills. The period is compartmentalized into technical explorations thus: “Play within a Play” shows his investigations into the conventions of perspective (his reimagining of Hogarth’s famous perspectival oddity in “Kerby (After Hogarth) Useful Knowledge” of 1975 is a cocky artist’s in-joke); “Demonstrations of Versatility” covers his work at the Royal College of Art, in which Hockney selects or discards different styles, treating painting as an intellectual exercise. (He noted, “I deliberately set out to prove I could do four entirely different sorts of picture like Picasso.”) “Paintings with People In” addresses his years after the royal College of Art, visiting Los Angeles for the first time in 1964, pointing out his interest in the painting plane as a stage combined with interplay between modes of abstraction vs. representation: 1963’s “The Hypnotist” quite literally turns the picture plane into a theatre stage, across which two players traverse.



David Hockney, “Model with Unfinished Self Portrait” (1977), oil paint on canvas, 1524 x 1524 mm (Private collection c/o Eykyn Maclean © David Hockney)



If all this sounds terribly detached and unemotional, that’s because Hockney’s technical skill is quite clearly completely effortless and natural — almost unbelievably so. His confidence of line and economy of modeling means that painting, for him, presents no struggle whatsoever, hence the room for complete focus on its means to explore intellectual ideas. Such formidable talent is evident in some iconic portraits, lending that distinctive 1960s coolness: “Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy” (1970–71); “American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman)” (1968). The famous LA paintings, including “A Bigger Splash” (1967) and “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” (1972), strip all modeling down to its bare minimum, using precision of line, color choice, and composition that make it all look so still, easy, and unforced. These are presented again in terms of artistic theory — we are invited to observe their use of pictorial framing, and, yes, you probably never noticed that the sensational “A Bigger Splash” has an enormous expanse of unpainted canvas left as a framing device — but their visual punch nonetheless goes straight to the gut.



It’s all too easy. Thus, one can’t help but feel that the output following this initial starburst tends toward the sloppy. When you’ve encapsulated the 1960s in a singularly iconic body of work, though, why should you bother? This was my repeated thought throughout the subsequent works. Hockney’s landscapes are increasingly abstract from the naturalistic, using freer, more expressive strokes that sometimes don’t actually cover the bare canvas. His colors similarly depart from naturalism in their loudness: all purples, yellows, and greens straight from the tube, applied to all landscapes, whether supposedly LA or East Yorkshire: They could theoretically depict anywhere. Indeed, his recent works of large scale and outdoor depictions of trees tend toward the outright naïve; gone is the precision of hand, that economy replaced with — I hate to say it — what looks an awful lot like laziness. When the final rooms bring the advent of Hockney’s digital paintings, conducted on an iPad, one wonders how much of it is for the technical interest in the “next step” in making art, and how much for the convenience of no longer bothering with the messiness of paint. Perhaps I’m being harsh to an increasingly frail artist who has already more than proven himself, but from a coldly art-historical perspective, given that the iPad lends itself particularly to the naïve tendencies in Hockney’s drawing skills, the case for it here as a method of advancing the means of making art is not exactly convincing.



The show’s curation at times feels forgiving toward this decline, in evidence from the first when it chooses to bend the rules of its own chronological method; the exhibition’s mantra is to show how the “roots of each new direction lay in the work that came before,” and it uses Room One to juxtapose works from the 1960s, 1970s, and one from 2014 to reinforce this cyclical idea, justifying the progression into computer generated images. Thus the brilliant “Rubber Ring Floating in a Swimming Pool” (1971) — gorgeously economic in its geometrical treatment of a plan view of a pool, just two blocks of color with a red circle — sits with 2014’s “4 Blue Stools,” a “photographic drawing” splicing together drawing and digital photos of sitters, with the Tate arguing for its technical concerns with pictorial plane and perspective. The brilliance of Hockney’s early paintings, regardless, still acts as a yardstick that his forays into fiddling with digital manipulation never come close to surpassing.

Similarly, describing Hockney’s experiments with multiscreen video works — shown here in a film recorded by nine cameras of a Yorkshire road over four seasons — as “a cubist film, showing different aspects of the same scene as perceived by a moving observer,” uses backward-facing art-historical terms to describe something we expect to be forward-looking, straining to justify the artist’s ongoing relevance in a contemporary art world which, it must be said, is already leaps ahead of him in its use of cutting-edge technology.



David Hockney, “9 Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon” (1998), oil paint on nine canvases, 1003 x 1689 mm (Richard and Carolyn Dewey © David Hockney; photo credit: Richard Schmidt)



Despite its best efforts to justify the relevance of his digital experiments, the arc of Hockney’s career remains clear, well presented, and with precision focus on his varying intellectual ideas of pictorial representation. The sheer skill of draftsmanship similarly shines through in intervals as a key element underpinning his freedom to paint naïvely if he desired; as late as the iPad paintings are charcoal pieces observing his native Yorkshire, proof that he can draw if he wants to (though frequently he doesn’t: In his recent show of 80 portraits painted in recent years at the Royal Academy, the work was embarrassing in its wanton laziness). The epic heights he reached in the 1960s, however, are so magnificent that they have apparently given him a free pass ever since.

David Hockney continues at Tate Britain (Millbank, Westminster, London) through May 29.

Michelangelo & Sebastiano at National Gallery – City AM


First published in City AM 16.3.17

You probably haven’t heard of Sebastiano del Piombo, the Venetian born artist and contemporary of the Renaissance superstar Michelangelo. Frankly the dynamic, superlative output of Michelangelo blows Sebastiano’s relatively diminutive works out of the water.

Thankfully, this show is unconcerned with ‘rediscovering’ a lost master, or using Michelangelo’s name to sex-up a generic Italian Renaissance exhibition; instead, this is a rigorously academic – and utterly fascinating – exercise in exploring a working artistic relationship through collaborative paintings, drawings and correspondence.

The two men shared a friendship that lasted 25 years, enduring twists and turns up to its acrimonious end. Revealingly intimate letters exchanged between the two create a vivid impression of an unforgivingly competitive art scene in early 16th century Rome.

Some fascinating theories are put forward by the show, each one backed up with visually compelling evidence. It suggests Michelangelo joined forces with Sebastiano against his ‘detested’ rival Raphael, demonstrated by the shift in Sebastiano’s typically atmospheric Venetian style towards the brilliant primary colours that were recognised as Raphael’s main selling point.

The juxtaposition of a preparatory drawing of clasped hands by Michelangelo are directly borrowed in Sebastiano’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ, the back of which bears doodles by Michelangelo anticipating certain sections of his Sistine Chapel composition.

The exhibition is stuffed with such thrilling cross-pollination of designs by Michelangelo worked into paintings by Sebastiano.

It’s undeniable that the utterly beautiful Michelangelo drawings lose their vitality in the versions painted by his friend: the Lamentation, though directly influenced by Michelangelo’s Pieta (a copy of which is loaned here from the Vatican) lacks grace and refinement; likewise, the centrepiece of the Raising of Lazarus is clunky.

This justifies the National’s radical decision to recreate Sebastiano’s Borgherini Chapel in S. Pietro in Montorio using ground-breaking technology; we gain an awesome impression of its scale and presence, but there’s not much in the way of fantastic paintwork to see.

It’s refreshing to see an exhibition set out not to champion a lesser known artist but to use his friendship with a true master as a starting point for a compelling visual investigation.

America After the Fall at Royal Academy – City AM



First published in City AM  23.2.17

American Gothic by Grant Wood

Hot on the heels of its Russian Revolution exhibition downstairs, the RA continues on an exciting trajectory in its programming with an equally intriguing – and rigorously curated – show in its Sackler Wing, focusing on American art in the decade following the Wall Street Crash of October 1929.

Much has been made of the UK debut appearance of its starring piece, Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ of 1930; even if you are unfamiliar with the title, you will have seen this famous painting (above) duplicated, referenced or parodied somewhere in contemporary life.

For a relatively small exhibition, so many themes are crammed in.Yet they’re represented perfectly in the 45 paintings selected here that it is impossible to emerge without a better appreciation and understanding of the uncertainty and turmoil that characterises this strange period.

The compact rooms efficiently cover key themes; mass migration from rural areas to cities in search of prosperity and, in turn, the importance of New York City as a focal point; slowly recovering industry and cautious optimism twinned with nostalgia for its agricultural past.

Striking, then, is Charles Green Shaw’s giant Wrigley’s chewing gum floating amidst abstract skyscrapers, the ominous onset of commercialism and advertising (anticipating American Pop Art as we know it), contrasting with Alexandre Hogue’s ‘Erosion No.2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare’, which imagines the dust bowl literally as a female figure abandoned, lamenting the passing of an era. In this context, the question of whether Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ celebrates or satirizes old-style rural America is compellingly renewed.

Elsewhere, more forceful images delve into darker issues: Joe Jones’s ‘American Justice’ of 1933 shows a lynch mob behind a prostrate black woman, while Philip Guston’s ‘Bombardment’ of 1937, directly inspired by the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War, refers to a universal terror of conflict.

What emerges from this collection is a distinct aesthetic; none of these paintings are large scale or particularly ambitious. Rather, many appear subdued, communicating a tangible unease and anxiety, keenly felt during the Great Depression.

Against this background, more recognisable names – Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock and Georgia O’Keeffe – are illuminated in a more sombre social-political context than we usually see them, allowing us to experience their works anew in this most turbulent period of American art and history.