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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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JUNE 2020 Issue
ArtSeen

Reza Shafahi: Pomegranate Garden

Reza Shafahi, Untitled, 2014. Ink and color pencil on paper. 18 x 27 inches. Courtesy the artist and Club Rhubarb.
Reza Shafahi, Untitled, 2014. Ink and color pencil on paper. 18 x 27 inches. Courtesy the artist and Club Rhubarb.

I sit on a thin carpet laid on a wooden floor smoking and gazing up at colorful drawings of people and animals. There are no children; the figures are mature humans whose eyes and mouths are open conduits of pleasure. Perhaps the subjects are depictions of specific people, but they feel like expressions or metaphors of emotional conditions in a world boiled down to experiences of joy, laughter, and contentment. I am happy to let my mind wander in a place where a blue horse with a purple mane sends a half-naked brunette into ecstasy with its soft mouth on her peach tit.

The body of work spans about five years, from 2013 to 2018, and feels special and rare. Tony Cox, who runs Club Rhubarb out of his apartment in Chinatown, tells me about the artist, Reza Shafahi. He’s Iranian, born in 1940, and started painting and making drawings in 2012 at 72 at the behest of his son, Mamali Shafahi, who is an artist. A year later Mamali Shafahi included his father’s work alongside his own in his exhibition, Daddy Sperm at Galerie Nicolas Silin in Paris. Since then, Reza has maintained a practice that is singularly motivated by his own imagination. There is a combination of innocence, sincerity, sexuality, and violence that recalls Forrest Bess.

Reza Shafahi, Untitled, 2016. Acrylic paint, ink, color pencil, and marker on paper. 18 x 12 inches. Courtesy the artist and Club Rhubarb.
Reza Shafahi, Untitled, 2016. Acrylic paint, ink, color pencil, and marker on paper. 18 x 12 inches. Courtesy the artist and Club Rhubarb.

All of the works are untitled, which seems appropriate because of their sense of intimacy. Titles are for public presentations; these pieces have the feel of diary entries. There is a looseness to the line work that communicates confidence and a calm mind, and little evidence of Shafahi reworking or overworking anything. This is all the more remarkable on account of the psychedelic quality of some of Shafahi’s pictures. Faces double up on a single head; other heads have extra faces spinning off of them. The body of a cow is also a human face that contains colorful birds. There is absolutely no pretension, though there is plentiful personality.

Reza Shafahi, Untitled, 2016. Ink and color pencil on paper. 36 x 28 inches. Courtesy the artist and Club Rhubarb.
Reza Shafahi, Untitled, 2016. Ink and color pencil on paper. 36 x 28 inches. Courtesy the artist and Club Rhubarb.

The title of the show comes from the only work that has writing in it. This image depicts women in a garden of fabulous abundance. They are naked, holding pomegranates, and eating them. One of these three figures looks like she’s at least partially composed of pomegranates. Adjacent to the garden there is a storehouse, overflowing with pomegranates. Of course, the garden and the storehouse are both more emblematic of society than nature, but each corresponds to a different aspect of time. The garden is a place of immediacy, whereas the storehouse is oriented towards the future. The fruit implies pleasure, and insofar as it is the reproductive part of the plant, it also becomes an expression of sexuality and regeneration. To me, the work communicates an essential life lesson: be attentive to the pleasures of the moment, and cherish them in a vault built to last for the benefit of one’s time yet to come.

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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

All Issues