On ViewTaymour Grahne Gallery
January 26 – March 5, 2016
“Has a people on the march ever melted away? Tell me where. And how.”
–Jean Genet, Prisoner of Love
Nicky Nodjoumi’s exhibition, You and Me, fills two floors of the Taymour Grahne Gallery. The show is made up of his familiar large paintings and a group of sketches that, taken together, represent a new iteration of old thoughts. Inside the anti-iconic culture of his native Iran, Nodjoumi’s practice is daring and bold because of his figurative approach; abroad, he is recognized as the Iranian counterpart of contemporary artists contemplating Social Realism. Whether it is read through Iran’s complex history or from a global humanistic perspective, Nodjoumi’s work evokes the abyss of modern socio-politics.
The artist is famous for his monumental political allegories. In the ten large panels presented here, men are placed next to and in contrast with wild animals amid the surreal ruins of modern societies. Nodjoumi’s canvases become stages; the men study, obey, mimic, and ultimately become the animals. It’s an absurd game of power that the men join without objection. Willingly, slowly, they lose their identity.
In comparison to peers like Neo Rauch and the Kabakovs, Nodjoumi’s symbolism is simple—suited men refer to power, female nudes to desire—and his technique seemingly naïve—cartoonish and, at points, happily flawed. Nonetheless, these artists share a common background; they were all born within, failed by, and have moved beyond Social Realism.
Nodjoumi’s reference to the Soviet practice points to a part of modern Iranian history that is commonly dismissed. We have gotten used to a simple narrative that overlooks the socio-political climate. The past is passive: ancient Sassanid reliefs, rugs and ceilings, narrative miniatures, and the mysteriousness of calligraphy. The modern has been reduced to abstract movements like Saqqakhaneh—just like their Western inspirations from Abstract Expressionism—to become as apolitical and safe. From this perspective, Nodjoumi’s work appears as anomalous and his supposed shortcomings resultant from the lack of representation traditions.
What is dismissed is the country’s long and profound tradition of socially and politically engaged art. In the modern era, a wild range of left-leaning artist/activists appeared and their visual art comrades communicated through illustrators and cartoonists. Nodjoumi’s approach is a commentary on this turn, an homage to their hope and an ode for its horrific results.
Nodjoumi’s history, nationality, identity, and existence are all enmeshed with politics. In Essential Importance of Playing the Game (2015), a businessman battles a suit-wearing cow. It’s a deadly bullfight turned into a table-top game. Behind them a transparent ghostly religious cleric—mockingly designed with a colorful Islamic geometric pattern—watches over everything. In the corner is a red certain, turning the scene into a play, acted out for us, the invisible people watching.
In Internal Inspection, (2014) with aggressive brush strokes and a nuanced combination of blues and yellows, a silhouetted man is depicted in the midst of a destroyed city. It is unclear which way he is facing; he could be leaving or returning. This is a simple allegory of a common experience for Iranians—one that is indeed not exclusive to Iran. It is also true for the artist who came to New York in 1969 to continue his education, became politically active, and returned to Iran to join the uprisings only to find severe restrictions both before and after the actualized revolution.
It has been more than three decades since his subsequent return to New York. His work has become a way to study the reality of his youthful dreams, to look for what their naïve optimism then dismissed: the old story of greed and power. Invasive Personality (2015) shows a figure on the move looking at a city under fire. While watching the clouds of smoke, the suited man preciously holds a fragile and childish orange balloon. One can’t be sure if the man is running away or coming to the rescue, which prompts the question: is the artist’s symbolic restless adolescence the cause or the victim of this situation? Unclear, surreal, and absurd, the image encompasses the reality of today’s turmoil.
Engaged Crowd (2015) draws the eyes like a black hole. One of the few black and white pieces, this enormous painting—consisting of two canvases—is cluttered with stark figures. It is a hectic intersection. Suited men and women with voided eyes run around, distracted and lonely. The two panels are replicas of one another with minor changes. For example a suspicious authoritative character with sunglasses on the right transforms into his inner animal on the left. On the far corner of the left panel one finds a distraught man holding a letter and being held by an unknown figure with his back to the viewers. On the right panel, the man changes into an iconic ancient Iranian warrior. As the only character in the painting with opened eyes, his gaze watches over all the rest. Whether understood for his Iranian otherness or for his modern, global, anxiety, this piece withholds what truly signifies Nodjoumi. He, as a man from a uniquely troubled past, is offering an embrace to all individuals battling to survive the horror of society and politics.