Tala Madani: Smoke and Mirrors

Lombard-Fried Projects February 23 – April 7, 2007

Tala Madani is a young, Iranian-born artist who has lived in the United States for seven years. Her painterly style is delicate, adroit, and agile, persistently on the verge of an attenuated hedonism; yet, at the same time, her message is simple and to the point, straight from the pit of Poe’s pendulum. The surreal, antagonistic gestures of her male protagonists are less literal than imagined—perhaps related to what the artist observed or imagined while growing up in a politically conflicted Middle Eastern country. Madani’s paintings simmer with sublimated anger, or vengeance. Are the yellow streaks emanating from the top of “Holy Light” (2006) a symbol of divine light or a cascading spill of urine? Though spare and delicate, her paintings reveal an inscrutable insight, making a mockery of all forms of conformity and the repression of imposed religious values. Madani’s depictions of middle-aged, Middle Eastern men emit a strong homoerotic underpinning—the unleashing of repressive desires and the machinations of self-loathing—a kind of collective unconscious built on the subordination of identity through subversion and guilt. This is evident in a black-and-white painting entitled “Pale Confrontation” (2006), in which two angry males face off in the foreground while mirroring an identical pair on a screen behind them.

Madani’s paintings, such as the menacing “Cake Head with Knife” (2006), are compelling not as much for their presumed social critique of Middle Eastern politics as for their coolly controlled exorcism, their restraint in delivering figurative subject matter through the use of calligraphic lines, intuitive marks, and lightly applied gestures. In “Spill” (2006), an ensemble of men in linear profile crawl on their hands and knees. “Fireheads” (2006) depicts a crowd of men holding aloft masks of themselves that have been set on fire. As the burning masks in the foreground recede into the rear, they ignite the men’s actual heads like candles in a huge birthday cake.

This imagery relates to the smaller paintings in the exhibition, the “Cake Series.” At times, the cakes themselves become masks or embodiments of torture victims forced to engage in ritualized play, such as “Cake Silence” (2006) in which a man holds his hand over the mouth of a portrait face inscribed on a cake, or “Cake Wash” (2006), which depicts three men standing equidistant from one another, each washing his face with a cake. With such a strong symbolic or allegorical overlay, maybe more allegorical than symbolic, Madani’s paintings strive to evoke the despair of living in a society in which the keeping of secrets (which, in fact, everyone knows) becomes a matter of life or death. The self-induced repression of these ostensible secrets entails a continual sequence of acting-out rituals of self-effacement and emasculation. In reflecting on these paintings, Madani asks: “What is the cake to these men? Aging, a birthday, every year blowing out the candles, blow them out, blow up, suicide bombers, and then stopping aging, the candles as vehicles of explosion, but as a birthday cake it must be a desirable explosion.”

While not of the same culture or history, it is interesting to consider the correlations between Madani’s “Cake” paintings and the late expressionist, cartoon-style paintings of Philip Guston. From the position of conventional art history, such a comparison would appear problematic; even so, one may discern an undeniable structural resemblance between the two artists. While Guston’s psychological metaphors may appear less political on the surface, there is a revolutionary aspect in the work of each artist that begins in a desire to overcome something horrific in the past, something that cannot be expressed in literal terms, but demands another kind of allegorical response to feed it. Madani’s figures could be seen as cartoon stereotypes with a political edge, but not as actual people. This is the key problem—perhaps, more related to interpretation than intention. More than likely, the problem exists at both ends. Madani’s characters too easily lend themselves to stereotype, and through stereotype, to a condemnation of Middle Eastern men—as if they were all the same. This is not only disturbing, but calls into question the artist’s motivation. However, there is another way of seeing this. What I get from these paintings—and, admittedly, this is a speculative interpretation—is a feeling of necessity to expose the “other” within herself, and thereby, to exorcise the specters that haunt her past. These are paintings that empty the hidden depths of the psyche from the barriers of oppression, and, in the process, reveal through art the liberty to assert subjectivity and the joy of womanhood without concealment.

—Robert C. Morgan

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Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.