On ViewLeila Taghinia – Milani Heller Gallery
May 25 – June 18, 2011
“And even if you eat my poems while they’re still fresh,
You still have to bring forward many images yourself.
Actually, friend, what you’re eating is your own imagination.
These are not just a bunch of old proverbs.”
I’ve followed Shahram Karimi’s work for the last few years, especially the two recent large group exhibits, Iran Inside Out at Chelsea Art Museum in 2009 and Tehran—New York at LTMH Gallery in 2010. The first thing one notices about this exhibit is the pervasive sentiment of haunted memory and the ways in which images compel us to bring forth our own poetic imagination in order to fully grasp his pure poetry translated into visual form.
Karimi’s repertoire of imagery reminds us of Francesco Clemente’s paintings, without the erotic and psychedelic content, insofar as constant movement and dislocation form the basis for both of their creative and managerial flows. However, unlike Clemente’s deliberate change of geographic and cultural perspectives, afforded him his nomadic existence, Karimi’s sense of dislocation is by force. This can be seen in the installation “Look,” which is comprised of 30 old photographs—reproductions that have been painted over, drawn in some parts, gently glazed in others. Each constitutes a whole poetic odyssey, one that he has poignantly structured to correspond to his own poem and read with different images moving throughout the video component. (The poem also has the same title, “Look,” translated by Sholeh Wolpé and published in the catalog.) It’s a reverie that has no sense of time; no specific tie to any particular place or culture. As one looks at each image while listening to the poem, reading according to Karami’s verse and intonation, one can’t help but think of George Harrison’s greatest song, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The song was inspired by Harrison’s reading of the I Ching—a book that centers on the evolution of events as a process. In other words, events that happen are never coincidental. Everything is meant to be. Similarly, “Look” is more than a lamentation of lost paradise; it’s a prophetic meditation on life and how it’s lived from past time and time forthcoming.
This unbound sequence of time is readily transferred from one event to the next in the poem, as it similarly appears in his paintings. By using black felt-tip markers to draw out all images with an equal pace of execution (one sees clearly in the diagonal mark-making, particularly in the shadow areas, drawn back and forth from top left to bottom right) Karimi insists on the urgency of how the image emerges. It’s as if during any accidental occurrences that arise in the course of the process—whether spot, stain, or printed images suggest other visual possibilities—the artist is at hand, ready to embrace his old-world alchemy and bring the whole painting to its fruition. Even though all were painted on different kinds of fabric, mostly with a rose motif, each has, first of all, a distinct absorption of the painted pigments. In “Dream” (2011) or “Pear Tree” (2011), the surfaces are relatively loose and dry. As a result, the images are ghostly; they bleed into their backgrounds like a palimpsest, eroded by time or physically scraped off and repainted again. The opposite effect can be seen in “Beach” (2010), where the tightly weaved and stretched surface accentuates the legibility of the images, while the background is more opaquely painted, bringing the two standing figures closer to the front of the picture plane. Karimi’s tendency to centralize his imagery, which is more or less contained in the front of the canvas, allows both the narrative elements and the over-all image to coalesce with the fluidity of his poetry.
Within Karimi’s selected and natural vision are different urges that manifest themselves distinctly in each of his treatments of pictorial aims. For “In the Garden” (2011), “Children” (2011), and “Beach,” again, Karimi left generous portions of the bottom of each painting exposed, unpainted except for the accumulation of drips from the painted surface above. In “Eyes (Triptych)” (2010), which evokes a Renaissance altarpiece, Karimi adopted an overlaid approach where variously sized figures and portraits overlap one another. The series of found objects comprising “Suitcase” I and II (2007) can be seen not only as a symbol of constant migration but, due to the old and tarnished surface, it’s in accord with his own sensibility. As with “Dusk” (2011), Karimi presents his collaboration with the well-known artist Shoja Azari—a video projection of the view of Manhattan at night with light generated by the city, reflecting the moving surface of the East River onto the painted imagery of the canvas, rippling what appears above. The exhibit is a visual feast to those of a poetic mind who are willing to traverse Karimi’s images with complete vulnerability.