Kamrooz Aram: Elusive Ornament
On ViewPeter Blum
September 17–November 11, 2022
Through painting, and more recently, sculpture and collage, Kamrooz Aram’s practice explores the classification and hierarchies of art history. Grounded in eurocentrism and informed by colonial conquest, understandings of Islamic art—itself a European discipline—have been formulated through contradistinction. Relegated to the category of “decorative arts,” Islamic artistic practices, a term perhaps too expansive to hold much meaning, have been historically dismissed as lacking the fundamental characteristics of the “fine arts”; their focus on abstraction rather than figuration, favoring ornamentation over representation and failing to privilege the individual artist have justified their labeling as crafts, utilitarian rather than conceptual in nature. Elusive Ornament is a quiet exhibition, beautifully composed and rigorous, in which Aram continues his interrogation of the assumed distinctions between painting and its oriental “other,” revealing that instability is in fact at the core of these enduring categories.
The paintings included in Elusive Ornament come from Aram’s “Arabesque” series, the title of which the artist both problematizes and reappropriates. Writing about the term, he has suggested that, as an Iranian often misidentified as Arab in America, he himself is “Arabesque” while simultaneously recognizing that “there is no such thing as the Arabesque.” In one corner of the gallery, two recent oil paintings—Scrutinuity (2022) and Wall Garden (2022)—exemplify his use of the gridded canvas, one of the hallmarks of modernist painting’s autonomy. And yet while operating within this paradigm, Aram pushes against its integrity. Through a vibrant but controlled palette, the structure of his grids holds tensions that somehow work in harmony: bold curves and organizing lines coexist alongside hasty brushstrokes, paint unevenly applied, at times dark and thick, elsewhere sheer, almost to the point of being erased.
Gardens, which appear in the individual titles of works from this series, emerge as fitting metaphors for spaces that are both public and private, natural and manicured, capturing the false binaries that interest Aram. Paint drips down to the bottom of the canvas, grid lines and pencil markings are left behind; there is an insistence on revealing process and upending the expectation of a pristine, complete work that does not betray its layered origins. In Garden Revelation (2022), the shadows of geometric patterns appear as traces on the canvas, the specter of another work that will remain elusive. The decorative is not without improvisation, just as the modernist is not without a referent.
The five-panel series, Variations on Glazed Bricks (2021), incorporates the same image, a page taken from an art history book, into a collage. Only the bold colors of the painted squares surrounding each photographed object distinguish one piece from the other; through their reproduction, their multiplicity, they are demystified, their autonomous status made questionable. Decontextualized and repurposed in this way, the unidentified images become untethered from the limitations of definitions and categorization. Rather than being confined to the past, classified as ossified, decorative objects of an anonymous craftsman’s labor, we are able to engage with them as contemporary material.
In his reexamination of the definitions that constitute art historical narratives and canons, Aram questions the boundaries of the artwork itself, recognizing the modes of exhibition and display as integral to the piece rather than distinct from it. In Bosphorescent Badakhshan (2022), the painted collage extends beyond the confines of the linen support and into the surrounding space. Both the pedestal and the column in the painting above it share the same intense blue color, also divided into selections of varied shades. An unidentified object—a ceramic jar, decorated with a floral pattern that might be generically labeled as Islamic, and covered with a brass lid—sits on the marble slab that tops the pedestal. The pottery is bordered by the grid lines faintly drawn in pencil on the canvas that hangs on the wall behind it, just as the canvas also includes a ceramic tile. The piece further unfolds into the gallery as the canvas and pedestal are enframed by a pale pink wall, marking the parameters of the piece and unifying its separate elements. Similarly, the second sculptural work in the exhibition, Remainders (2022), is connected to the painting, Garden Revelation, on the adjacent wall through the use of the same pink backdrop. The wall color creates a relationship between and across the pieces in the exhibition. Aram’s understanding of wall-painting and pedestals as more than functional—as in fact constitutive of meaning—pushes us to reconsider both the artificial boundaries between media and museological practices as central to the production and definition of the categories of art.