On ViewLeila Heller
September 17 – October 14, 2020
Bahar Sabzevari is an Iranian-born, New York-based painter who mostly produces self-portraits that echo the greatness of the Persian past. A painter of unusual technical skill—Sabzevari studied at the New York Academy of Art—the artist regularly paints her own features, with embellishments that look back to her country’s history and culture. Her realism is a lively contrast, even a healthy antidote, to our obsession with a lyrical abstraction whose high point occurred in the middle of the last century. Because she lives in New York, and has studied here, Sabzevari must be understood as part of the local continuum of artists, even though her background establishes a contrast to the Americans working in the city. Interestingly, the artist’s style can hardly be described as exotic, being in some ways a technical tour de force of the traditional, even academic painting that is part of her and our cultural history. But the work is in no way dry or pedantic. Instead, it conveys a seriousness and avid introspection that sets a high standard for skill, self-exploration, and cultural allusiveness.
In her “Crown Series,” Sabzevari painted herself wearing crowns of vivid distinction. The chief attribute of this untitled group of works is a red cloth crown, covered with imagery from the past. Usually, the artist’s gaze is resolute to the point of severity, with her face displaying no emotion, but often the adjoining crown imagery is nearly wild in its suggestiveness: a celebration of an id not fully contained by a superego. In one untitled work from 2020, a patterned red headdress supports an unusual scene: a man in a red coat, with a long, curling string of hair and red lips, looks down on a bird of paradise, with iridescent colors. The painting, like much of Sabzevari’s work, offers a mix of the traditional and the contemporary, in which tradition presents a platform for self-investigation. How do we connect to our background in ways that allow us to make interesting art in a new sense? This is the challenge for most artists, especially those working in a figurative mode.
In Persian Medusa (Crown Series) (2020), Sabzevari again paints herself, expressionless but with a resolute gaze. Her headdress consists of multicolored demons, rendered in black, red, purple, blue, and pink, with teeth jutting out over their lips and pale pink horns. In a way, they take over the entirety of the emotional force of the painting, in contradistinction to the austerity of the artist’s expression and her sparsely imaged shirt. It looks like an embattled wilderness has emerged from the top of her head, contrasting sharply with the artist’s conservative demeanor. If one were symbolically inclined, the interpretation might be made that her imagination has taken over her capacity to reason with her demons. The shift between the studied discipline of the painter’s head and face and the (slightly comic) anarchy of the devils sitting on the crown of her head is a wonderful way of underlining the gap between our public demeanor and the chaos that may be dwelling behind it.
Golden Age (2020), surely a reference to former Persian achievements, shows us Sabzevari with shut eyes, wearing a voluminous red robe. On her left arm, a long, red and white striped viper rises, about to strike, while on top of her head, we find two demons on the left and a gray rhinoceros with a protuberant horn on the right. On both sides of the artist’s head is a face from traditional Persian painting. Here, too, viewers have the sense that the artist is determined, quite literally, not to see the antagonistic forces surrounding her. It is a measure of her strength as a painter that this mixture of the sharply realistic and the imaginatively surreal (yet also faithfully painted) convinces us of a psychic reality that we would be well to take note of, in light of the skill and emotional reach of the imagery. We are living in a time of extraordinary eclecticism, but Sabzevari remains close to her classical ties. The show is particularly interesting as an example of a gifted artist making intelligent use of the past. Sabzevari is a painter of genuine historical achievement, and her conceit of demons jumping out of her head makes her a psychically transparent artist of today. We hope that her insightful mixture of tradition and personal investigation, done so well in this show, continues in the future.