New YorkSperone Westwater Gallery
March 1 – April 19, 2014
From the distant view of the mezzanine of the gallery, Ali Banisadr’s triptych “Ran” (2014) gains a depth of field that allows the viewer to get a handle on the wild whirring, spinning choreography of the oil painting. This is a revelation in itself, as his canvases actively fight recognition; instead, the composition encompasses the eye in a maelstrom of movement and form. At first view, this seemingly figurative image quickly dissolves into a menagerie of strokes and shapes that are anything but human, evoking both the meticulous and amorphous patterning of Max Ernst viewed close-up, and the broad paint-fixated swishes of Fiona Rae. In the case of “Ran,” and most of Banisadr’s newer works, the paintings take refuge behind streaks and random marks that reject the brushstroke in favor of an imprinted mark. These marks, often thick goopy trails made by a large indiscernible tool, are the enigma that unifies the show.
It is intellectually reassuring to imagine that there is some human activity going on in the foreground of most of the paintings—“Ran,” “Motherboard” (2013), and “The Cycle”(2013) all seem to evoke battle scenes or carnivalesque revels—but Banisadr is toying with perception rather than storytelling. His enigmatic titles fluctuate between encouraging us in our conjectures to offering a completely different reading—of “Motherboard” in particular, which seems to liken the imagery to an orderly array of circuits. “Contact” (2013) swims in brick-red slashes and spatters, conjuring up a bloodbath on the shore of a mythic sea, while the greys, blues, and purples of “Paper Tiger” (2013) seem like a fall of El Greco’s rebel angels. But this is merely an instance of the viewer comforting him/herself with recognition; the artist modifies his palette and manipulates our emotions via color, rendering disorienting chaos or concerted action. Despite a cursory similarity to Hieronymus Bosch or miniature painting (both Persian and Western), Banisadr has created a rigid formula for his paintings, a clever approximation of foreground, background, and sky. This chameleon imitates the protocols of landscape, history, or narrative painting, but his work rather reveals the sensibilities of an abstract beast, one marked by a Richter-like obsession with the propensities of the paint, at one moment used to imitate the sheen of a medieval steel helmet, the cloak of a dervish, or a patch of ocean, only to melt into a pure flow of nectarine or an ethereal cloud of azure.
The smaller paintings break free of this false sense of space and depth; “Reflektor” (2013) is a short visual essay in lugubrious reds. With dots and bulbous strokes, iterations of the illusion of shine and sheen are tossed back and forth across a 10-by-8 inch canvas. “Stairway” (2013), the same size, is a meditation on ascending: sets of parallel lines, some straight, but others snaking up and down guide the eye in an automatic and predictable movement. Yet again, however, Banisadr summons visual cues to control the eye of the viewer, breaking down the idea (of narrative?) by fracturing his imaginary stairs into pieces, angling in all directions.
Banisadr is determined that there be no story in his paintings, and this is made manifest by the alien streaks that mar the skies of most of the larger works. These scumbly random patterns, rolled over the carefully crafted scenes beneath, subtly add to a sense of violence—as in the red streaks over “Ran” or “Motherboard”—and in the blue and pink in the upper half of “Aleph” (2013) and “Say My Name” (2013), which hover like a set of supertitles. More importantly though, they break the illusory nature of the image: the streaks sit clumsily on the surface, thick daubs of paint not laid down with hand by a brush, and trouble the eye, drawing it back from the fake horizon and the blurred almost-figures. It’s a bold interruption and a risk, but it plants the paintings firmly in the camp of intelligent and challenging abstraction rather than letting them slide into the realm of surrealist dreamscape.