On ViewSperone Westwater | 257 Bowery
May 4 – June 24, 2017
A convergence of influences is at play across painter Ali Banisadr’s body of work. In writing dedicated to his paintings a reader will find frequent reference to Northern Renaissance and Venetian art, Persian miniatures, as well as more modern touchstones like Francis Bacon and Willem de Kooning. Banisadr has acknowledged the effects of literature and cinema upon his thinking, and although these influences are apparent in his recent exhibition, Trust in the Future, certain paintings achieve something different—and more exciting.
Banisadr’s large canvases are a swirl of characters and movement that fall somewhere between the figurative and the abstract. That there is action afoot is evident; what that action amounts to is less clear. This is deliberate—Banisadr’s technique is deft and formidable. He has a knack for integrating exceptionally wide, washy brushstrokes with delicate and precise marks, which creates the unsettling effect of watching a film through smeared glass. In the florid and wild Myth (2016), strange, half-human creatures in vivid gradations of purples and blues roam the foreground, densely packed in against each other. As the background recedes to an aquamarine sky, the brushwork becomes airier and more ethereal. Hieronymus Bosch is frequently cited in discussions of Banisadr’s work, and the Netherlandish master’s influence is powerfully evident here.
Elsewhere Banisadr attempts to move beyond such easy art historical connections. Spatially, the painting We work in shadows (2017) is akin to Myth, with a crowd of abstracted, spectral figures clustered in the foreground that are separated by horizontal lines crossing the canvas from a wider, more open expanse above. His palette is significantly more somber and muted in We work; in a murky brown the color of a turbid mushroom soup, a maelstrom of upward brushstrokes breaks apart the upper swath of grayish-white. It’s as if a cascade of bombs has detonated somewhere in the distance, sending earth flying skywards. This viewer’s eye was constantly drawn back to a small, clown-like creature sitting almost at center, whose gaze seems to alight mournfully upon a single flower in a pot it holds in its hand. It’s as if the clown has recognized the last organic form in a world that is rapidly collapsing around it.
For Trust in the Future (2017), the painting which gives the show its name, Banisadr departed entirely from his typically brilliant color palette and made a work entirely in shades of indigo, which range from nearly black to pale gray. From a distance the scene is arctic—the tumultuous action inherent in the painting recalls the plight of the mountaineers struggling through the wicked snow in “The Blizzard” vignette of Akira Kurosawa’s film Dreams (1990). Up close, sensual forms overtake the eye, some of which seem to suggest the ancient cave paintings of Lascaux. The opposing powers at play result in a restlessness that is not lessened by the work’s monochromatic color scheme.
These two breakout paintings indicate the possibility of a new direction for Banisadr. Though his technical skill has always been undeniable, it can feel strained and overly mannered at times. More crucially, his tendency to draw from the stylistic approaches of other artists can become a crutch that inhibits the emergence of an aesthetic program more authentically his own. In both We work in shadows and Trust in the Future, Banisadr seems to have tapped into something more primal within himself. It is a daring departure, and one hopes he continues to be brave.