Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Conversation with Choreographer and Artist Trajal Harrell

Trajal Harrell. Photo: Bengt Gustafsson

Choreographer and artist Trajal Harrell shows us in October with three New York area performances and a Bessie Award nomination why many believe his work has been transforming the art of dance in the same way Martha Graham did in the 20th century. The Yale graduate and 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient pushes the boundaries of dance by incorporating elements from other art forms in ways most would never consider. He courageously confronts and challenges his viewers, exploring the "impossible" to reveal what is possible. And he does all of this with wit, drama, emotion and love. When you get right down to it, his cerebral, seductive art -- which years ago began to feature fashion runway movement and now includes acquainting his audience with the facets of Harlem voguing balls -- is about imagination and hope. 

While the inclusion of dance in visual arts has recently become popular, Harrell has always presented his work at museums and galleries while solidly maintaining his footing in the dance world. With performances at traditional dance venues and acclaimed projects in dance research and curating, Harrell has long been an ambassador of contemporary dance. In New York and the U.S., Harrell's work has been seen at dance/performance spaces such as New York Live Arts, The Kitchen, Danspace Project, Dance Theater Workshop ("DTW"), Performance Space 122 ("P.S.122") and at colleges/universities, and internationally, his work has appeared in countless major festivals and toured in France, Switzerland, Portugal, Japan, Holland, Belgium, Austria, Germany, Poland, Croatia, Brazil, and Mexico. 

Among visual arts institutions, Harrell's work has been seen at: ICA Boston, Performa Biennial, Third Streaming Gallery, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, The Bronx Museum of the Arts and Art Basel-Miami Beach. In 2013, Harrell will be presenting newer work at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and MoMA PS 1, as the first commission by MoMA PS1's Associate Curator of Performance Jenny Schlenka.

Harrell's work currently appears as part of "Anti-Establishment," a timely and important exhibition curated by Johanna Burton at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College ("CCS Bard") of art by artists who have helped redefine the roles and functions of established arts institutions. On October 22, 2012, Harrell will give a performance and lecture at CCS Bard as part of the exhibition, following up on his performance there in June. 

Trajal Harrell, Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (S), 2009. Performance at Bard College as part of the exhibition "Anti-Establishment," CCS Bard Galleries, 2012. Photo: Karl Rabe

And as the contemporary dance world currently celebrates fifty years of Judson Church's presentation of experimental dance since 1962, Harrell presents two separate works in October at Danspace as part of Danspace Project's Judson Now platform. Antigone Jr. and Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem are both installments in his best-known work, a seminal series titled: Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church. A project that he began over ten years ago, this series looks at the relationship between the voguing dance tradition that originated in the Harlem balls and the establishment of early postmodern dance at Judson Church around the same time in New York in 1963. Harrell recently described his own position in the historical reimagination that he constructs: "Though I am African-American, I am not a voguer from Harlem nor anywhere else. I am ivy-league educated; Rem Koolhaas-referencing (S, M, L, XL); and the self-proclaimed baby boy borne from the union of Yvonne Rainer and Lucinda Childs who grew up to have a crush on Steve Paxton.... By problematizing this location and the space I occupy within it, there begins the auto-fictional presence of Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (S)" (from "Anti-Establishment" Exhibition Guide/Curatorial Statement by Johanna Burton, CCS Bard Galleries).

Trajal Harrell, Antigone Sr., 2012. Performance at New York Live Arts, 2012. Photo: Miana Jun

Note: This conversation took place in September of 2012. An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the Huffington Post in October of 2012.

Julie Chae: Your vision as an artist is singular and highly original. From the very beginning, you incorporated theater, visual arts, music, technology, literature, fashion, drama, high culture, pop culture and explored abstract concepts like psychology, time, emotion, etc. in your dance. Your work is difficult to categorize so that often it is discussed in terms of all the boundaries that it blurs. How would you describe your art? 

Trajal Harrell: I am interested in art that confronts impossibilities. In general, I work with the historical imagination as a way to rethink both how we process and create history as truth and fiction. By activating this in performance, I hope together we see new possibilities for the future and perhaps possibilities once thought impossible.

Trajal Harrell, Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (S), 2009. Performance at The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 2009 & 2010. Photo: Miana Jun

Julie: I think this element in your art of confronting impossibilities and pushing the boundaries of what is possible has led to your creating unconventional works which can be challenging for venues to present. You are currently one of the artists in a very interesting exhibition at CCS Bard called "Anti-Establishment." Curated by Johanna Burton, the exhibition examines institutions of art and, contrary to what the title may imply, explores how certain artists force or 'cajole' these institutions into reconsidering their established or traditional roles in order to support their particular art. Can you discuss your experiences where you might have gotten institutions to enter new territory or break precedent in order to present your work? 

Installation view from "Anti-Establishment," CCS Bard Galleries, 2012. Photo: Chris Kendall

Trajal: It is almost always difficult with both visual art and dance institutions in terms of breaking precedent; my work often has aspects which require a re-patterning of institutional habits -- e.g. immense darkness in some works; unconventional curtain times; unconventional seating -- to name a few. Usually, it gets worked out, but I have to say, The Kitchen in New York as a space that supports performing and visual arts, I have found to be the most supportive off the bat. They definitely look at the work first before looking at their institutional rules. It seems that they make the institutional rules from the artist's needs, and this is completely rare.

Trajal Harrell, Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M) also known as (M)imosa, 2011. Performance at The Kitchen, 2011. Photo: Paula Court

Julie: You're really good at convincing producers/curators why your works' unconventional elements are intrinsic to the work and necessary for its proper presentation. Have some pieces, though, been particularly tough to work out with the institution or venue?

Trajal: In terms of new territories, I would say The Ambien Piece is the work of mine that probably caused the most stir. This is a piece where the performers sleep on the drug Ambien in a gallery. I proposed it after an invitation by a visual artist, Neil Goldberg, who was curating an evening of dance in a gallery in Chelsea. At first, all seemed fine. Then, the gallerist got completely nervous and called in lawyers and redefined the parameters of the piece -- where we could take the pills (outside), what time, etc. It really kinda ruined the piece because we couldn't do a full six to eight hours of sleep. But the piece became kind of notorious because of this little controversy and later was produced successfully in Berlin and Tokyo. And I think soon it will make its way back to New York. So look out for it!

Trajal Harrell, The Ambien Piece, 2006. (Successful) performance at Gallery Objective Correlative as part of Whenever Wherever Festival, Tokyo, 2012. Photo: Kota Yamazaki

Julie: As part of CCS Bard's "Anti-Establishment" exhibition, you will present a performance called The Conspiracy of Performance on October 22. What can we expect to see?

Trajal Harrell, Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (S), 2009. Performance at Bard College as part of the exhibition "Anti-Establishment," CCS Bard Galleries, 2012. Photo: Karl Rabe

Trajal: This is a performance by myself and the French actress Perle Palombe. It is an appropriation of a famous text by Jean Baudrillard called The Conspiracy of Art. I took the text and replaced the word "art" with "performance" and changed certain other terms, and the text then has a different significance, especially at this critical moment when the art world is very concerned with dance and performance. 

Trajal Harrell and Perle Palombe, The Conspiracy of Performance, 2010. Performance at Fondation Cartier, Paris, 2011. Photo: Olivier Ouadah

Julie: You also have two different works that will be performed in October at Danspace. What are you performing first? 

Trajal: They are both in the series Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church. On October 1, we reprise the piece we showed in Performa Biennial last November at Third Streaming Gallery. That work is called Antigone Jr. and it, along with the following piece I made for New York Live Arts this past April called Antigone Sr., looks at the relationship between the Ancient Greek theater and the Voguing dance tradition. After some research, I actually think the aesthetic strategies of these two were not so far apart and a voguing ball might be much closer to what the theater of antiquity was like than most of what we see today.

Trajal Harrell, Antigone Jr., 2011. Performance at Third Streaming Gallery as part of Performa 11: New Visual Art Performance Biennial, 2011. Photo: Whitney Browne

Trajal Harrell, Antigone Jr., 2011. Performance at Third Streaming Gallery as part of Performa 11: New Visual Art Performance Biennial, 2011. Photo: Whitney Browne

Julie: It's terrific more people will have an opportunity to see that work; it was such a triumph last November during Performa. Both performances at Third Streaming were completely sold-out weeks in advance and the audiences were filled with VIPs from both the visual arts and dance worlds.
And your second upcoming project at Danspace in October?

Trajal: On October 11-13, I premiere a new work in the series entitled Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M). The works in the series come in seven sizes, from extra small (XS) to extra large (XL). They all share the same proposition: "What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?" Only, in this made-to-measure size, the proposition is inverted and the question becomes "What would have happened if one of the early postmoderns from Judson Church had gone uptown to perform in the voguing ballroom scene in Harlem." 

Julie: Interesting ... even today, lots of people don't automatically go up to Harlem, and in your piece we're talking 1963. 

Trajal: So, it's quite a twist. And the twist is more about me. After imagining migrating to Judson downtown in the other five works of the series, to come back now to Harlem requires again problematizing my position. I am not coming back the same as when I supposedly left. And clearly I am a postmodern dancer, but I am also giving another kind of "realness" that comes from ... where? That we will have to work out and see in the work. That's what makes this piece very difficult to perform and exciting to watch.

Julie: Well, speaking of twisting, flipping and perhaps intertwining, can we discuss just a few of your fabulous collaborations? You have collaborated with artists from music such as Meshell Ndegeocello and Imani Uzuri, fashion such as Joseph Carter (Design Director at Marc Jacobs), and visual artists such as Assume Vivid Astro Focus, Franklin Evans and Sarah Sze. I think these inter-disciplinary collaborations play a role in creating groundbreaking art. Do you like working on collaborative projects?

Trajal: I find it difficult to collaborate in general. I don't like it really, but I keep doing it. I don't know why. I think because I love artists.

I recently collaborated with Sarah Sze and we didn't have defined roles. We were two artists trying to make a performance. Of course our disciplines informed our way of speaking, our knowledge, and our skills, but we really tried to make a work that didn’t play into the normal division of labor that usually accompanies a choreographer and visual artist collaborating. Meaning, the visual artist makes the set for the dance. And so what we made in the end, I find myself treasuring because it is such a beautiful emblem of what we set out to accomplish.

Julie: This is The Untitled Still Life Collection, the minimal, abstract piece basically involving a blue string? Can you describe it?

Trajal: It’s not dance. It’s not sculpture. It’s something else. It is a performance because it has a time quotient with live bodies activating and generating procedures. Sarah and I actually performed it once in public. I don’t think it will ever be performed by the two of us again. That was special. I will continue to perform it with other performers, but with Sarah it was just that one time.

Trajal Harrell and Sarah Sze, The Untitled Still Life Collection, 2011. Performance at ICA Boston, 2011. Photo: Jaye R. Phillips 


Trajal: When you do the other method where the division of labor is clear, it can be very successful in a different way. I think Assume Vivid Astro Focus did an excellent set for Showpony and Franklin Evans co-designed with me the set for Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (S).

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Trajal Harrell, Showpony, 2007. Set design by Assume Vivid Astro Focus. Performance at CNDC Angers, France, 2008. Photo: Wilfried Thierry

Trajal Harrell, Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (S), 2009. Set design by Franklin Evans and Trajal Harrell. Performance at The New Museum, 2009 & 2010. Photo: Miana Jun

Trajal: In all honesty, I just find it difficult to make things with other people. Rather or not it is a visual artist or another choreographer or whomever, I like to make the decisions. And honestly, I don’t like explaining my choices. Artmaking for me comes out of a very complex set of conscious and unconscious actions and thoughts. Negotiating that or bringing it to verbal explanation can be a killer. I like to dream things into reality. It’s hard to do that with another person. With Sarah, it was an incredible journey that maybe took the course of 3-4 years, but because we were such good friends, I always felt it was quite fun to be in that dreamspace with her.

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Trajal Harrell and Sarah Sze, The Untitled Still Life Collection, 2011. Performance at ICA Boston, 2011. Photo: Jaye R. Phillips

Trajal: Perhaps, my longest collaboration is with my set designer, Erik Flatmo. He has worked with me since 2004, my first piece, and the longer we work together the more I realize how dear he is to me. He gets me; and puts up with my demands, and gives so much of himself to the projects. And he makes great work. The set he made for Antigone Sr./Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (L) creates the right context for the piece. You could not think it’s special. But it’s so refined and articulated like that to fool you.  

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Beautiful set design by Erik Flatmo. Trajal Harrell, Antigone Sr., 2012. Performance at New York Live Arts, 2012. Photo: Miana Jun

Julie: What is like to be compared to a legend of dance like Martha Graham? Some of the things you did years and years ago, like when you first incorporated fashion runway movement in your dance, nobody knew what to think. And then 8-10 years later, it was everywhere. Same with your explorations of the "Cool" and voguing culture. Can we say your entire career has been about bringing dance into the 21st century?

Trajal: It is nothing less than an honor to be compared to Graham. She weathered the storm in her time and broke incredible ground. It's nice to hear that there is recognition now that I did similar things because yes, at first nobody knew what to think and it was stormy to say the least. But I hung in there and, in some ways yes, it feels now that I was ahead of the game and making important historical and innovative choices that people could not see at the time. In terms of my dance and the 21st century, it was Graham who said that an artist's expression is unique because there is only one of you in all of time. So, yes, here I am....

Trajal Harrell, Antigone Jr., 2011. Performance at Third Streaming Gallery as part of Performa 11: New Visual Art Performance Biennial, 2011. Photo: Whitney Browne

For more information:
Trajal Harrell's premiere of Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure) at Danspace, October 11-13:
"Anti-Establishment," CCS Bard Galleries, June 23 - December 21, 2012:

Bessie Awards (The New York Dance and Performance Awards), Apollo Theater, October 15:
Also see: 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Cultural Landscape Architects: Hudson of Feature Inc.

In lieu of the standard headshot for Hudson, Feature Inc. sent various portraits that artists have made over the years; this 'upside-down' portrait is by Judy Linn, whose work is currently on display 'upfront' at Feature Inc.

As the owner of the highly-respected art gallery Feature Inc. for 27 years, Hudson has exhibited art uncompromisingly based on aesthetic -- not business -- principles, as well as the values of pluralism and diversity shaped during his years as an artist and non-profit arts administrator. Feature, which began in Chicago, moved to NYC's Soho, then Chelsea, and now located on the Lower East Side, launched the successful careers of Raymond Pettibon, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince, Charles Ray, Tom Friedman, and many others. Yet throughout Feature's history, Hudson has exhibited and supported art/artists without regard to economic considerations or the artists' positions within the critical art establishment. He continues to exhibit some of the most incredible and interesting art in New York City today, and his gallery is a favorite among artists as well as critics and smart collectors.
All images courtesy of Feature Inc., Hudson and the artists.

(A version of this interview appeared on the Huffington Post in September of 2012.)

Julie Chae: How did you decide you wanted to open your own gallery?
Hudson: In mid-1983 I decided to leave the not-for-profit sector, the artists-run spaces, and open a commercial gallery (on April Fool's Day, 1984). I used a few thousand dollars from a grant that I had received for my work as an individual artist and a $ 5,000 loan from my father to open the gallery.

For the two or so years prior I had been increasingly dissatisfied with the watered-down results of the peer-panel decision process that was then, for that field, the structure by which curatorial decisions were made, and wanted to find a way out of that. I was more interested in the way autonomy allowed me a greater range of possibilities, wider extremes, swifter decisions, and a more expansive thinking. A gallery seemed the way to go.

This photo of Hudson with Tom Friedman's sculpture is by Judy Linn

JC: Your consistently strong vision for groundbreaking art amazes everyone. What has shaped your artistic sensibilities and helped determine the kind of art you want to share with the public?

Hudson: Certainly my largest influence is derived from my experience of being an artist who is content-oriented -- making work more meaningful by working from the personal -- and having an interest in and respect for skill and technique. But I also am deeply indebted to my experiences in the not-for-profit sector, where the commitment is to art and artists and not economics or trends.

JC: Getting more specific, what makes you choose to display one artist's work and not another's?

Hudson: There are a number of factors, some personal and some social, things like:
that the artist has been developing their skills and ideas for more than five or so years, seems committed to their investigation, and while there is a solid sense of form and resolve in the work it also displays the possibility to develop/change; that there be a sense of adventure, care, intelligence (but not overly so), investigation, and intuition in the artist and their work; my excitement about the work and how its meaningfulness interfaces with my perception of what is going on in the art world and the culture at large; wanting to encourage the artist to continue to grow and expand and bring more of what they are doing into the world; that there is a personal uniqueness in what they are doing...

This bubblegum drawing of Hudson is by Jim Shaw

JC: So how much of your decision is influenced by factors related to the artist versus the artwork? In other words, how much, if at all, does it matter to you that an artist makes great work AND not be a pain in the ass?

Hudson: Art first, artist next, gallery third, me fourth. Yet if an artist is a big pain in the ass, I will pass on working with them and their work.

JC: As you know, I'm friends with Douglas Melini who recently had a solo show at Feature Inc. this past July/August and received a terrific NYTimes review (Roberta Smith). So for example, could you describe how you decided to exhibit Doug's work? 

Douglas Melini: A Sharing of Color and Being Part of It (10 July - 11 August 2012) at Feature Inc.
Hudson: I've been watching Doug Melini's paintings for about ten years, since I saw his exhibition at White Columns in 2003.

His paintings have always been catching my eye, but in terms of representing artists, I am generally hesitant with the more formal types of abstraction as, soon after the initial inventiveness is established, far too often it slips into a kind of arrested development. Its horizontal expansion becomes predictably incremental and there is almost no vertical expansion. Frequently this type of art becomes fussy and insular, two qualities that I prefer less of. I wanted to be fairly certain that this would not happen with his work.

 Douglas Melini, Colossus, acrylic on canvas, overall dimensions 8 ft x 63 ft (2000-2003), white room installation views at White Columns in 2003; courtesy of the artist

 JC: And what happened as you were watching Doug's work over the years?

Hudson: Two or three years ago, when he added his hand-painted frames to the paintings, and 'the painting' thoughtfully moved into new territory, from paintings to painted objects, I could sense that his thinking, inspiration, and intuition were quite secure. Then it was just a matter of scheduling.

Douglas Melini, The Forms of Thought, acrylic paint on canvas with hand-painted frame; 71.5 x 45.5 x 1.75" (2010)

detail of hand-painted frame, right side edge 
JC: How did you decide to schedule his show? Were you thinking in terms of other exhibitions and your programming?

Hudson: It was in fall of 2011 that I began to think that he should be the summer 2012 exhibition at Feature. That is a time I traditionally use for a group exhibition, but I thought what he was doing was important/engaging/developed to warrant a one-person exhibition. In terms of programming continuity, I'm not a strategic planner. My opinion is that you just butt good things up against one another and let them do the work.

JC: Do you have a certain way of describing an artist's work to say, collectors, or others who might inquire?

Hudson: When someone asks me about any artist's work, I address what the artwork means to me, my excitement and interest in the physical nature of the work and its surrounding ideas and that work's relationship to this time we live in.

JC: What about the artist's background? 

Hudson: I generally don't speak much about the artist's exhibitions history, collection inclusions, or cite their education. None of that stuff has anything to do with the successfulness of the work. And when one is appreciating and purchasing art, especially with younger and mid-career artists, it is the art and not the social position or investment that is important and meaningful.

JC: I don't know how you keep finding such incredible artists; one of my very favorites at Feature is David Shaw. I have just decided to accept that I love everything he does. Can you explain why his work is so appealing?

David Shaw, Lee, wood, glass, 41 x 38 x 51 inches (2009)
Hudson: The nature/science discussion in David Shaw's work is particularly timely, wide and loose, and is enhanced by the work's engaging materiality. Some aspects of the work are quite literal, some physical, some are poetic, and yet some others link to you via intuition, intellect, or playfulness. This complexity allows viewers to enter his works from a variety of hallways that are all relatively friendly and open.

 David Shaw, Dark Materials, 2011; wood, steel, holographic laminate, paint, epoxy, flocking; 31 x 22 x 13.5”

JC: How did you start working with David and what is it like working with him?

Hudson: He introduced his work to the gallery via the quintessential packet of images/info very soon after the gallery's 1988 move to NYC. Working with him continues to bring me a wide range of information, images, and ideas that enhance my understanding and appreciation of his work and, as well amuse my day-to-day. The guy is rigorous, decisive, comprehensive in his thinking, has a terrific sense of humor, and is relatively fearless.

JC: I also love the drawings on (pink!) paper by Kinke Kooi. It's a purely visceral reaction; they are amazing. You've worked with her for a while now -- what makes her work so wonderful?

Kinke Kooi, Female View, acrylic paint, graphite on paper; 36.75 x 26 inches (2010)
Hudson: The primary grabs of Kinke Kooi's works on paper are the slowly drawn repetitive graphite lines lying on top of the individually hand-coloured pink paper, the way the depicted scenes dive deep into increasing detail, how her rendered representation smoothly moves in and out of areas of abstraction, the playful push and pull between foreground and background, and the way big ideas and little ideas sit comfortably together.
 Kinke Kooi, Everything Is Vain, 2011; acrylic paint, marker, graphite on paper; 30.25 x 22.375 inches
JC: Looking back on all this time you've been running your gallery and looking forward as well, what are your ultimate hopes and goals for yourself and for Feature Inc.?

Hudson: So I've had the gallery for 27 years and, it seems that throughout the years, the driving force has remained the same: to exhibit and share my excitement for what and how artists do what they do. I really don't have other goals; its been a slowly evolving situation. When I look back at Feature Inc.'s history the essence is the interaction of art and people. It's been an inspiring education.

This graphite portrait drawing of Hudson is by Michael St. John

Judy Linn, Bud, 2012; digital inkjet print; 22 x 16.5 inches; ed. 1/7; currently on view at Feature Inc.

 Josh Podoll, A Color that Does Not Exist, 2012; acrylic paint, oil paint on canvas; 24 x 18 inches; 
in "Josh Podoll: paintings," currently on view at Feature Inc.

Gina Magid, Le lecteur de tarot (Nina Simone), oil paint, charcoal on canvas, 30x24" (2012); 
in "Gina Magid: paintings," currently on view at Feature Inc.

Current exhibitions on view: September 5 - October 7, 2012; for more information, see:  

 David Shaw's Dark Materials (2011), wood, steel, holographic laminate, paint, epoxy, flocking, 31 x 22 x 13.5" (l) and Doug Melini's Invisible Change (2012), acrylic paint on canvas with hand-painted frame, 23.5 x 19.5 x 1.75" (r)

David Shaw describes the moment of inspiration that resulted in this photo: 
This image came about when I stopped by Feature to decide on pedestal sizes for Dark Materials because Hudson was showing it in the Nada Art Fair in Hudson, NY. It was a few days before Doug's opening and his incredible exhibition was already installed. (I have been a fan since before Hudson was showing him and asked Hudson to take another look at his work back in the day.) We pulled out the box pictured so as to have a visual take on the height and so forth, then Hudson got a phone call. I quickly moved the box and sculpture into the exhibition space and snapped this pic for Doug. The formal relationship was undeniable even at a distance, but setting it up this way highlighted the fractured chemical underpinnings of each piece. Doug's painting Invisible Change became a schematic, an origin, a synaptic plan for Dark Materials and, when I think about it, vice versa...
 -- David Shaw, September 2012

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Conversation with Ali Banisadr

Ali Banisadr, Interrogation, oil on linen, 48 x 60 inches (2010), in "Contemporary Iranian Art from the Permanent Collection" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ranked #1 in Flash Art's Top 100 Artists of 2011, Ali Banisadr is a 36-year-old artist whose painting Interrogation is currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Organized by Maryam Ekhtiar, the Met's Associate Curator of Islamic Art, "Contemporary Iranian Art from the Permanent Collection" (March 3 - September 3, 2012) includes art by three generations of artists of Iranian descent and is in the Kevorkian Special Exhibitions gallery nestled among the just-renovated Islamic Wing of the Met. For many visitors, the exhibition is a wonderful surprise, a rare chance to see the discourse between six artists ranging in ages from 88 to 36 years, as well as to see the cultural connections between the new art and the old.

As ambitious as many of the works by the Old Masters in the Met, Banisadr's art addresses universal questions about humankind and life. At the same time, his art is thoroughly post-Modern, eluding easy categorization and incorporating a myriad of artistic influences from both Western and non-Western history along with renowned Modern artists. His artworks entice you to engage in an act of looking that becomes a pleasurable Borges-ian labyrinth where you think you're beginning to figure out what is going on just as you realize you probably do not.

Banisadr's art has an aural quality, a way of experiencing sound through paint and linen. And he has taken the time to learn many of the Old Master techniques in handling oil paint, creating illusions such as light and air, and he fuses those brushwork elements with features of Persian Miniatures, particularly the compositional layering of perspectives and stylization of motifs. He creates his own unique versions of "history paintings"; instead of glorifying the current political systems and power structures, however, his art questions myths, history, what really happened and what is really happening.

All images courtesy of the artist.

Note:  A shorter version of this interview appeared in the Huffington Post.

 "Contemporary Iranian Art from the Permanent Collection" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (l-r):  Banisadr's Interrogation (2010), Parviz Tanavoli, Poet Turning Into Heech (2007), Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Flight of the Dolphin (2010)

Julie Chae: I love how Maryam Ekhtiar's terrific exhibition of contemporary Iranian art is right in middle of the Met's New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia.

Ali Banisadr: It is very interesting to walk in the new Islamic Wing and then enter this small exhibition that sort of shows the contemporary artists that are working today in art historical context.  

JC: There is a lovely sense of timelessness and movement in many of the works in the contemporary show. Even the sculpture by Parviz Tanavoli is called Poet Turning Into Heech and, even though made of metal, implies transformation. What is striking to you about this show?

AB: You can also look at these works not just in the context of their being Middle Eastern but see they also have a universal appeal to them. I am speaking, for example, of Y. Z. Kami's portrait paintings or Monir's work. Their work doesn't deal just with Iran or the Middle East -- they're entirely relatable and somewhat universal.  You don't have to be Middle Eastern to be drawn to these works -- they can speak to the viewer on many levels.

"Contemporary Iranian Art from the Permanent Collection" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, installation view

JC: Before we discuss Interrogation, your work in this show, I must comment on how photos cannot seem to capture what your paintings really look like in person. And Interrogation is no exception.

AB: Photographing my work has always been a problem not so much for the quality of the reproduction but because the work takes a while for it to unfold it self and show the images within, while a photograph can just give you a glimpse of its abstract surface.

JC: Yes, viewing your paintings is like getting lost in one of Jorges Luis Borges' fictional labyrinths -- I'm in there, looking at one thing then noticing something else, going back, and constantly looking and searching for clues for what is going on. I actually think that how your paintings elude being "captured" in photographs is an apt metaphor for how your art cannot be easily described.  

AB: Well, there have been many cases where I had studio visits and, as I was talking about a work, visitors would start to see more and more and discover what the work is really about. It is certainly not a quick read and it needs time.

Ali Banisadr, It Was Written, oil on linen, 16 x 16 inches (2012)

JC: Many have discussed how you're influenced by Bosch, Bruegel, Persian Miniatures, De Kooning, etc. And they talk about your growing up in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War until the age of twelve and then moving to California and getting involved with graffiti.

Ali Banisadr, Excavation, oil on linen, 66 x 88 inches (2011)

AB: It is true that there have been so many influences mentioned about my work. All these influences and others are brought into my work subconsciously so perhaps that is why there are glimpses of this and that in my work but there is always so much more than the ones mentioned.  

JC: Remember when we were looking at Interrogation together and I said it made me think of Michelangelo's Last Judgment? Your painting doesn't look like The Last Judgment, but it does suggest a similar atmosphere that is chaotic and even apocalyptic. You replied that you have a poster of Michelangelo's masterpiece in your studio and you are around it every day. Is this the subconscious somehow at work here?

AB: Probably. The highlight of my residency in Italy as a student at SVA was visiting The Last Judgment. When I entered the space, I could not move and could not believe what one artist was capable of creating. At the same time I had this feeling of nostalgia as if I had been there before.  I found out many years later from my mother that when I was a child she had taken me to the Sistine Chapel to see The Last Judgment. She said I had gone in, was stuck in one place and would not move. 

Ali Banisadr, Interrogation, oil on linen, 48 x 60 inches (2010), in the Permanent Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

JC: Like many of your paintings, Interrogation hints at a chaotic field of cacophony and epic action. What is special or important to you about this painting?

AB: With Interrogation, what was really important to me was this sense of light coming from above.  I painted a light, which to me, has a symphonic sound to it, and the kind of light that you'd see inside of a church. A lot of paintings have a specific sound to them for me, so this one had its own particular melody that I was trying to bring to the surface.
JC: Yes, 'light that has a sound' -- these are the sorts of things we find when we talk about your work! Your artworks have so much going on in them -- different artistic styles and references, current events, history, personal memory, collective memory, and so on -- and you discuss how your subconscious is involved when you're making your art. MoMA curator Fereshteh Daftari has written brilliantly about your work and she discusses how your titles play a significant role in "decoding" your paintings. But I wonder if your paintings are, in the end, decode-able?

AB: When I am working on a painting, everything that I am thinking about at the time -- be it current events, the books I am reading, personal events, influences, emotions, etc. -- all find their way into my work. And in a way, painting is a way of thinking visually, so whatever is happening with me at the time gets reflected in the work. So the title does at the end give some kind of clue about some of the things I was thinking of when I was making the work.  

The work always requires a 50/50 participation with the viewer as they need to complete their half by filling in the spaces that I have left for them to complete.

Ali Banisadr, The Myth Makers, oil on linen, 10 x 8 inches (2012)

JC: What about the relationship between your work and that of a non-visual artist like Orhan Pamuk? When you told me his Nobel Prize-winning My Name Is Red is your favorite book, I was struck by some amazing parallels between your works, especially how his multiple narrative structures are literary equivalents of your multiple perspective compositions. By the way, the first line of the book is one of the most amazing beginnings to a work of fiction ever:  "I am a corpse."

AB: I read My Name Is Red in 2008 and, just like you, after reading the first line I was hooked. I feel a strong connection with Pamuk's books; he talks about things in his work that echo a lot of my own personal thoughts so that sometimes it is almost scary. Also, his style of his writing is very visual and Miniature-like, and as I went through reading all of his books, I realized there is an echoing of a similar technique in his mixing Old Masters and other literary greats, such as Dostoyevsky, Proust, Tolstoy, Kafka and Borges, and injecting all of that with personal experience, current events and history. This way of writing is like my way of working visually. He is able to weave together so much from so many sources, make it all work and have a poetic rhythm.

Ali Banisadr, Time for Outrage, oil on linen, 48 x 60 inches (2011)

JC: It is always fun for me to see fantastic artists do printmaking projects because they often find clever ways of exploring their artistic concerns while fully exploiting the print medium. You had a solo show in Paris recently where all the works were monoprints. In these works on paper, the sense of trying to recall facts via memories or whatever is even more prominent. What were some of the concepts behind this project?

Ali Banisadr, 2M, mixed media on paper, 30 x 22 inches (2010)

AB: I think with the monoprints I was able to create a different kind of space; on each piece of paper there would be about 4-5 different rolls of prints and each had a different set of images. I wanted it to have a feeling as if you were an investigator looking for some kind of clue -- that is why the title of the show was called "Evidence."

Ali Banisadr, 6L, mixed media on paper, 22 x 30 inches (2010)

AB: With the monoprints, I had this idea of making work that mimics a film negative. I wanted it to have a forensic quality to it as if you were looking at these for some kind of. It also made me think of Warhol and Muybridge... In each roll, the image would repeat itself like a film roll but each image would be slightly different, and then I would work each image individually [by hand] to alter them a bit. 

 Ali Banisadr, 8M, mixed media on paper, 30 x 22 inches (2010)

JC: What is it like having one of your paintings at the Met -- in its permanent collection and on display? When you and I were there, tourists from Sweden wanted to take your picture with your painting and the security guard in the gallery (who also happens to be an artist) shook your hand and congratulated you. You handled it all so graciously.

AB: The Met is my second home, it is just across Central Park from me and I go there often to visit my old master friends and to get advice. It is a place where I can go in and get lost because it is so encyclopedic -- it's like being inside of an Art History book.  So to be on display at The Met and in its permanent collection -- it is a true honor for me.

It was interesting to meet the Swedish visitors as I've been to Sweden a few times and was able to practice my little Swedish that I know with them. It was nice to hear their thoughts about my work because they're the general public, the tourists that visit NYC and go to one of the biggest attractions New York has to offer. It's not like when you get the opinion of your friends or family or fellow artists. And the guards at the Met are amazing; I really appreciate what they do.

Photo of Ali Banisadr and his painting Interrogation at the Met taken in August 2012 by Jonatan Blomberg visiting from Sweden with his father; courtesy Jonatan Blomberg

JC: Many might look at your career and think you've had "instant success" because you had your own solo show at a major NYC gallery along with a great New York Times review of it shortly after receiving your MFA and, only a few years later, the Met acquired your work. How would you respond?

AB: I am not sure how others measure success but for me success is about this slow progress in my work which started as a child holding a pencil and paper in my hand. It takes all of what you have learned, experienced and practiced for you to get to where you are, and I have a long way to go because I always have my eye on the big picture.

It has taken me 36 years to get to where I am now and, when you are looking up to artists like Goya, Michelangelo, Velazquez and Bosch, for example, you realize that you have a long way to go and may never even reach close to what these artists reached in their time. Painting is a slow process; it takes time to get there, you learn little by little and always want the next painting to be better than the last. For me, success is about this, seeing the slow progress in my work.
Ali Banisadr, History, oil on linen, 10 x 8 inches (2012)

Ali Banisadr

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