On ViewHelen Anrather
October 29–December 22, 2022
The artist Nicky Nodjoumi left Iran in 1980 and, en route to eventually settling in New York, spent the spring of 1981 painting in Miami. What sprang from the artist’s mind was a stream of consciousness, a collection of memories and associations brought on by witnessing the upheaval in his home country. Nodjoumi was not young when he painted these—38 years old—so they are not early works, but they are different from what one registers as Nodjoumi’s mature style as well. Typically he diffracts and deconstructs clearly painted elements, sectioning them or placing them against abstracted forms and backgrounds, a not dissimilar methodology to the Leipzig school painters such as Neo Rauch. By imitating a didactic style of illustrative painting, his works satirize the serious aesthetic they mimic, and Nodjoumi has crafted a very efficient means of visual political discourse. The “Miami” series is both more spontaneous and less considered; with a brushier stroke and much darker palette, the artist lays out a framework of positing old against new, horror and beauty, and playing with a variety of painterly styles; all of which combine to make these paintings mesmerizing. When the Sword Touches the Neck (all paintings in the show 1981, unless otherwise noted) presents two main elements—an arm wielding a crescent-like scimitar, and a disembodied head. The implication of decapitation and violence is obvious, but the arm emerges from a deep green pool, from whose surface a red/pink fish appears. Beneath the fish’s head, the artist has drawn in the silhouette of the animal’s body, ostensibly underwater, but analogous to the man’s head; the fish also is visually cut in two. Brightly colored animals appear on the shore of the pool next to shadowy protestors, and another man, with a fedora, tie, and trench coat, seen from the shoulders up, emerges from the bottom of the canvas. When the Sword Touches the Neck depicts multiple forms of confusion—political, emotional, and cultural—perhaps also that of an artist who both loves the visual culture of his land but also feels an intense need to wipe away the political and cultural institutions that gave birth to this beauty.
Nodjoumi painted his “Miami” series in forest greens, Prussian blues, charcoal, and other grays, punctuated often, and sometimes overwhelmed, by brighter pinks and yellows. For the most part though, the atmosphere is somber and darkly frenetic, but not the dark wit of later paintings. The brightest point in these images will frequently be a stark white shroud, sometimes flecked with blood, generally indicating the presence of death. In Garden View, a pair of bodies hang in opposing directions, from top and bottom: with most of the paintings in the “Miami” series, the artist amplifies the sense of disorientation by making it difficult to differentiate top and bottom (perhaps another German influence in the form of Baselitz). In Garden View, a pair of legs seemingly dangling, but presented feet-up, are placed front and center in the canvas. A ghostly white rabbit leaps across them towards the right, and a braying donkey pokes its head from the bushes, stage left. A window in the sharply angled perspective of the Persian miniature book illustration tradition appears over the rabbit, and a woman stands in the window, her hand to the side of her face, perhaps listening or just trying to concentrate, her other hand resting languidly on the sill. Amidst the chaos of revolution, these traditional details return again and again. At times, like the maiden in Garden View, tradition acts as a restraint, or watchful presence.
In a series of smaller paintings, “Untitled (Hope and Anarchy 1-11),” presented in the second room of the gallery, animals, often leaping or crouching, heighten the anarchic content either by sprinting across the canvas, as in Untitled (Hope and Anarchy) 1, 2, 3, and 8, or simply by remaining still. The artist places dark groups of horses, quoted from Persian painting, in the corners of his canvases, which combined with flailing and crumpled bodies and the pained expressions of the anonymous portraits also in these collages of memory, hint at the burden of history weighing down the hopes of revolution. There are some strange and fraught moments of relief. Almost every painting has a reprieve from the unrelenting fear and sadness. Oddly, Nodjoumi seems to be happiest when channeling a freedom of form, brushwork, and color that recalls Matisse. In Trying to Reach the Apple (1978), a gray body whose ribs, buttocks, and appendages are strongly redolent of the figures in Bathers with a Turtle (1907–08) or The Dance (1910), tumbles downward while a blue hand reaches from the left; either to steady the falling torso, or catch a blue apple, which gently collides with a red fish at the bottom of the painting. Simultaneously tumbling alongside the gray figure, a horseman from a Persian miniature with outstretched sword cuts into the forearm of the outstretched hand, while another historical maiden watches from behind a tree. If the Miami paintings of Nodjoumi express one sensation with clarity, it is the chilling feeling of complete helplessness in the face of historical threads twisting and knotting into violent conclusion.