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Art: Icons, Shoja Azari

by DAN GEIST in New York

13 May 2010 14:083 Comments

Shoja Azari--Coffee House Painting.jpg

To find the Shah, start dead center. Shift the gaze a foot and a half to the left, now eight inches down. There he is, a small framed black-and-white photo, licked by neverending flames. This is the still point of Coffee House Painting, centerpiece of Icons, an exhibition of the work of Shoja Azari on view at New York's Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller Gallery through May 27.

Coffee House Painting is a video collage of unusual and innovative form. An image of a painting in the genre -- Mohammad Modabber's The Day of the Last Judgment (1897) -- is projected onto a large canvas, approximately eight feet wide and four-and-a-half tall. Within this giant projection, with its myriad scenes of paradise and perdition, are projected small images of violent acts, their preludes, and their epilogues, from the past four decades of Middle Eastern history. Frozen amid the gold-and-ochre sprawl of the Modabber, the 20-odd video miniatures come to life by turns.

Hezbollah forces march. American rocket launchers fire. Palestinians wielding stones confront Israeli bulldozers. An election protestor is killed on the streets of Tehran. Most of these small videos have an audio component, in some cases verbal. A masked suicide bomber recites his final testament. Hassan Nasrallah delivers a fervent peroration. Lynndie England explains that the soldiers at Abu Ghraib just did as they were told. The reverberation between the different levels of scale is dazzling: The import of each video is vastly disproportionate to its tiny size, little changed from their primary source, YouTube. The scalar play redoubles with the vivid impact of each clip versus the vast hush of the Last Judgment.

In a structural irony that underscores the sophistication of the work, it is due to the very fact that the image of the Shah never freezes, that the flames are constantly in motion, that it is experienced as a point of stillness. The face of the dictator is situated just a few inches from the concealed one of Muhammad, one of several images of the Prophet that appear in Modabber's painting. The original now resides in Tehran's Reza Abbasi Museum, but here it is given new life, its original function as a basis for edifying narration in an informal setting restored and brought grippingly up to date.

In a side room, not officially part of the exhibition, but more than close enough, is Silence, a series from 2007-8 that takes a different approach to the video/painting hybrid. Here Azari projects videos over actual paintings, mixing landscape and calligraphy, by collaborator Shahram Karimi. There are four pieces, one devoted to each of the seasons (the room is suitable for showing just two at a time).

In the darkened room, projected water gently ripples over the canvases, the fixed and ephemeral images echoing and completing each other. The effect is calming, but the precision and delicacy with which the two mediums interact keeps the viewer watchful. Indeed, the interactive nature of the work invites the viewer to interact as well. What does the painting "underneath" look like laid bare? Raise an arm close to the canvas, blocking some of the projection, and see. Obscuring part of the artwork to make another part more visible -- an intriguing idea, as is the thought that one has violated the piece to experience it more fully.

Between Autumn and Winter, two viewers talk. One says, "The other pieces are more for a museum, but these you could really imagine in your home." The other pieces: Coffee House Painting and the series of new works that gives the exhibition its name.

The Icons are five Shia saints, venerated as martyrs. Azari refers to them as "video portraits." Pop-vernacular paintings were scanned and converted to video, the faces of the male saints then replaced by those of women. Subtle motion loops cause them to slowly change expression, even shed a fleeting tear. The works are presented on television sets, set on end and framed to look like lightboxes.

The ingenuity of this third approach to the video/painting cross is matched by its conceptual depth. The series touches on an array of issues: the visual representation of revered figures in Islam, the ways of reverence itself, the status of women in contemporary Iranian society, their role as participants and sometimes martyrs in the struggle for democracy.

The ideas involved are potent, but the series is defeated by the formal vacuity of the portraits: they are kitsch, almost cartoonish in a style viewers may recognize from the black velvet mode. Kitsch is no trifle -- it has the power to overwhelm. The fidelity of the scan is thus excessive. The poignancy of the ideological transgressions is dulled, and the subtle motion effects can hardly impress when the figures to which they are applied lack aesthetic interest. The works strive to hook the intellect, but too quickly release the eye. Yes, perfect for a certain brand of museum.

The sound of Coffee House Painting bleeds over from the adjoining room, drawing one back. It is inconceivable in a home...why? Because we don't allow representations of violence in our homes? There go the video games. Goodbye, Top Gun DVD. Because this one has no end? It takes little to end it. One touch of a button.

Here, of course, the violence pictured is real and thus strikes the soul in a way the notional megadeaths of popular culture are crafted to avoid. Surely, the maintenance of domestic tranquility demands that it be institutionalized. And yet, in much of the world, the home -- like the coffee house -- offers no sure sanctuary. For millions, if this handiwork is not already in the home, it's right outside the door.

A return visit to the piece confirms its most surprising quality: It is meditative. The rhythm of the voices, the miniaturism of the moving images, and the restricted palette of the video "canvas" combine to produce an effect that is -- perhaps shockingly -- close to that of Silence. Its power to induce an effect seemingly so at odds with its content, while never betraying that content's historical and human import, sets a high standard for socially engaged art.

Where does such a piece belong? People have been known to tack a print of Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights -- one half depravity, one quarter hell -- to the parlor wall and live in peace. There is no need summarily to consign Coffee House Painting to a white box for ever more. It is too soon for its interment. Well to imagine it out in the world: ideally, on the wall of a proper coffee house (as for the simulacrum, one can only wonder if it would transform a Starbucks or vanish within). And if not that, yes, in one's home. There, at leisure, one can find if it is possible to swallow its most caustic irony: The despot burns and burns, but annihilation never comes. He's smiling.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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3 Comments

Interesting piece.

Violet Theviolet / May 13, 2010 7:00 PM

Fascinating!

Anonymous / May 13, 2010 11:06 PM

I wish they would put a copy of this piece up as a youtube video or something on the internet.

Thanks for the article, Dan!

Anonymous / May 15, 2010 2:23 AM