In Iranian artist Ali Banisadr’s show of explosive, exuberant canvases it’s hard to pinpoint the exact nature of the action, but there’s a lot of it, and it’s compellingly allusive. The exhibition’s title, “It Happened and It Never Did,” suggests a sort of political machination that merges fact and fiction. With their amassing of so many small marks and strokes in a palette variously fiery or verdant, his paintings are riotous and chaotic, creating scenes of what could be either paradise or a battlefield.
Banisadr’s canvases embody a multicultural ethos: he was born in Tehran and lived there for 12 years during the Iran-Iraq War, against a backdrop of bombs and sounds of combat. Now based in New York, he also lived in Turkey and California as a child. Persian miniatures, graffiti, Bosch and Brueghel all come to mind as influences, as well as the painterly brushwork of de Kooning and Cecily Brown, both of whom similarly extract imagery from a mess of paint. Banisadr seems to have processed all this information to produce paintings that embody a mysterious sense of order within their tumult.
In this, the artist’s second New York show, the five biggest canvases were more effective than the smaller ones, which lined the gallery’s entrance hallway and seemed to give us only parts of a vast picture. The flurry of small brushstrokes that coalesce into imagery is much more dramatic on a larger scale. The larger size also enables areas of grotto-like deep space-replete with shimmering pools of water and minute depictions of figures and objects—to weave a tale that has the evocative power of poetry.
Movement is key. Using writhing calligraphic marks and squiggles, blobs and veils of paint, Banisadr is devising landscapes that are also mindscapes-trippy, visceral and cerebral-with intimations of war and turmoil but also of pure pleasure. Predominantly bluish-green, the paintings are each separated into “land” and “sky,” often with flecks and spatters of orange, green and yellow blurring the boundary between the two. Some have a gorgeous misty veil of silvery vertical strokes raining down from the top of the canvas, reinforcing the ambience of a verdant Shangri-La. The Marvels of the East (2011) stands out simply for its hot-pink sky across which flecks of black suggest either confetti or barbed wire. The cobalt blue sky of Nowhere (2010) is punctuated by what look like lingering spirals of battle smoke, and its ground appears strewn with debris. Interrogation (2010) has a similar ashy gray atmosphere of pessimism and despair. These paintings demonstrate the dichotomy in Banisadr’s work: that of a joyful celebration juxtaposed against a war-torn world.
Ali Banisadr, The Marvels of the East, 2011, oil on linen, 72 by 96 inches. Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow.