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Art | Manou Marzban: Whimsical Cool

by SETAREH SABETY

29 Jun 2012 23:32Comments

At play in a painter's mental universe.

BourbonStreet.jpg[ spotlight ] On a beautiful sun-splashed Sunday in May, I went to visit Manou Marzban at his studio-villa in a fishing village a few miles up the coast from Cannes.

Manou is the sort of man whom everyone sooner or later loves. He is full of himself, but in a good way. His character is so large, so generous, and so vibrant that people find themselves happy in his company. His enthusiasm is contagious.

The son of an Iranian diplomat who served under the Shah, Manou was educated in Britain and the United States. As the eldest son of a family in exile, he was not able to pursue his passion for art as a young man, opting instead for an MBA and a corporate career. Perhaps it is this latent desire, now happily released, that makes his art to explode with youthful panache. It is the art of an inner boy set free.

Visiting his studio, I was moved by how much it reflected him. Not in the heavy sense of expressing his anxieties or "demons," but in the childlike, whimsical manner of artists who have approached art as play. His art is dramatic, thought-provoking, but above all beautifully animated and colorful.

A renovated and refitted boat garage serves as Manou's studio and gallery. It displays the artist's paintings, drawings, and sculptures. But it does more than that. The place itself is an art installation, with the artist's jet black 1973 Corvette Stingray as its proud centerpiece.

Large panels with big brush sweeps of vivid colors that change with the light and seem to shift if looked at for long adorn the studio's main wall. On another wall, detailed black-and-white drawings of crowded scenes that reveal cartoonlike stories hold the viewer's attention for longer than it is comfortable to stand. Psychedelic portraits of famous figures in colorful oils and paintings of floating bodies bleeding color cover a third wall. An American flag floats above the artist's desk. A blow-up doll sporting a cowboy hat and pistol sits in the Corvette. From inside the car, a projector silently beams a classic horror film through the windshield onto the ceiling.

It's a teenage boy's dream garage featuring the electric work of a talented new painter not jaded by a long career in the art world. The business degree and career that followed may have been tedious for the artist but it saved Manou's art from being pedantic, pretentious, and boring. His work is varied, crossing genres and techniques, and all of it possesses a bold playfulness that defies labels. Yet it also possesses a depth that conveys a true love of the medium.

In the middle of the garage, sculptures made from his son's old toys are assembled in scenes and presented with a narrative text -- a tangible snapshot of a fanciful mind. I ask him about his influences. As he mentions the great names in modern art, several names pop up repeatedly: Buñuel, Dalí, Bacon, and Mad magazine cartoonist Sergio Aragonés.

"I don't have any particular influences," he says. "I appreciate artists that allow their imagination to create whatever it wants, and transfer it undiluted onto a canvas. That's enigmatic creativity to me. And I like to make people think. You can see the influence of film, music, and comics in my art. If you read Mad, you may recall the little cartoons that were drawn on the borders of the magazine. To me they were magical. I'd look at these tiny drawing for hours. I want you to look at my art and see something new each time."

In recent months, galleries across Europe have started to show an interest in Manou's latest series of works, Streaks. He shows me a set of vibrant paintings with bold colors that dance vividly when exposed to light, artificial or natural. In a darkened room with a hue-shifting mood light, the paintings really come alive.

BankersMakeDo.jpgNext he shows me recent Streaks that incorporate human faces. In many of the Streaks with Faces series, the mesmerizing characters wear suits and ties or formal attire (as in Bankers Make Do, at right). Could this be a reference to his corporate career? "Perhaps. I see suits and ties as a form of wrapping we use to convey normalcy, but as you know, no one is normal. In fact, what is normal? When you look at the faces on the paintings, you can clearly see that they are not 'normal.' They are eccentric, outrageous, over-the-top versions of ourselves. I want you to look at these characters and actually think you could or should be one of them. I want to visually stimulate you to become mentally playful."

Indeed, it is the artist's mind that we are invited to enter at Manou's gallery. We walk into a mental universe and, like childhood friends, are invited to play. It is likely this raw playfulness, along with the artist's humorous approach, that has made galleries in Europe take notice. There are plans for exhibitions in Cannes, Nice, Amsterdam, and Berlin in the coming year. "I am getting a chance to express my art with no restraints or pressures. An old MBA friend of mine and I have started a business for artists looking to promote their art and we are looking at new online and offline business models for getting art into people's homes, as well as compensating artists accordingly. The old gallery system is dead."

With that, Manou stretches his tall figure. He asks me if I like Deep Purple. Before I have a chance to answer, the speakers erupt with "Highway Star." Standing next to the Stingray in a garage full of art that talks to you, it seems like an appropriate anthem.

To see more of Manou's work, go to Art-Werk and Manou Art.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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