The Donkey, the Pagan, the Bride and Others: Rokni Haerizadeh

16 March - 10 April 2008

 Rokni Haerizadeh paints with an extraordinary ability to immerse himself in the past - in myth and memory, literature and lore, whilst remaining firmly rooted in the popular culture and urban rhythm of the present. Born in Tehran in 1978, Haerizadeh has grown up with the Islamic Republic, and is as much an involuntary product of his times as he is a keen critic of his social environment. His work is largely an expression of the perennial discontent amongst Iranians that in recent years has manifested itself in a new generation of artists. In his playful yet carefully composed canvases, he constructs a refined review of Iranian mores and practices, often mischievously suggestive and always challenging to the status quo.

 

As Iranian artists before him, Haerizadeh reaches back into the rich literature of Persian history for potent allegory to address contemporary life. His new body of work demonstrates the diversity of his artistic endeavors and the universality of his appeal; several paintings are inspired from the fables of Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings, and the tales of the celebrated poet Rumi; others labour over the vibrant, unsettling scenes of modern urban life; a few works find their origins in the artist's personal reflections on life and art and identity, and are decidedly abstract in composition. In all these paintings, Haerizadeh scintillates with his highly personal and un- compromising pictorial narratives.

 

The series of five paintings entitled Masnavi Ma'navi: The Fifth Notebook is based on the eponymous tale by Rumi, from his celebrated book of poems. The theatrical relation between the Khatoon, her maid, and the donkey, embellished by the ornamental script, turn the absurd into the familiar. Haerizadeh cap- tures this decadent story in five charged canvases, and succeeds in at once revealing new dimensions of the lionized Rumi and elevating the perverse acts of the story through the integrity of his art.

 

In the legends of Shahnameh, the court musician Barbad distinguishes himself by climbing into a Cherry tree and impressing the Shah with his beautiful compositions. Haerizadeh offers a stark contrast to this time of artistic patronage in Under the Sour Cherry Tree, where Barbad is instead skewered like an animal above the scene, a commentary on the lack of state support for music in modern Iran.

 

Also drawn from Ferdowsi's Shanameh, the painting Khosrow and Shirin recounts the romantic epic of the Sassanid king's pursuit of the Christian princess Shirin.

 

Taking to the streets of Tehran, Haerizadeh confronts the hypocrisy implicit in the lives of many modern Muslims, highlighting the disrespect with which they treat each other and their religion. Pagans Dueling in the Street features two characters, one brandish- ing a pistol, the other defending himself with magicial powers and mystical accoutrements.

 

Somewhere nearby in the city, Tuesday Afternoon on Pahlavi Street illustrates an argument between a group of homosexuals and a con- servative man surrounded by his chador-clad wives, set on the notorious street bustling with gridlocked Peugeot 205s and a smattering of the socially marginalized.

In one of his most dramatic works, The Anniversary of the Islamic Republic Revolution, Haerizadeh has drawn from recent memory a public holiday in 2006, when festivities took a deadly turn. The trapeze artist at the centre of the painting recalls a climber whose mortal fall in sight of a boisterous crowd attracted appallingly little notice.

Revealing what lies beneath the facade of Iranian social customs, the larger-than-life diptych entitled Typical Iranian Wedding invites us into a bifurcat- ed hotel ballroom; the two panels reinforce a curtain divide between the women and men. The left panel is dominated by the fantastically over-primmed bride, surrounded by her equally ostentatious guests and a mysteriously empty banquet table. Meanwhile, in the right panel, from which musical notes float across the diptych, the men engage in debaucherous revelry around platters piled high with food. In this compendium of symbols and metaphors caricaturing

Persian society, Haerizadeh translates a vain attempt at opulence into grotesque and farcical images.

 

Haerizadeh also explores his personal memories and reflections on contemporary Iranian art in several abstract paintings in which he, paradoxically, enjoys the meaningless. 8x7=56 refers to a children's game that consists of endlessly transforming in Farsi the rhyming words of 8x7=56 into other rhymes, losing all sense along the way.

 

The title of I use Calligraphy to Make the Donkey Laugh hints at Haerizadeh's earnest efforts to diverge from mainstream calligraphic art, which is so often overloaded with gravity and metaphor. The phantasmagorical One Snowy Day takes place within a lion's over-stretched mouth, an expression of the artists mood at the time. These three pieces deftly adapt the tradition of Abstract Expres- sionism in their freeform manifestation of the subconscious.

 

Haerizadeh's paintings, whilst politically engaged and intellectually adventurous, are defined by the ironic distance of the painter, directing his pieces toward the spectacle of politics and society rather than specific issues. To this end he masterfully commingles memory and history, ancient literature and popular songs, urban life and private life, and consumerism and conservatism, amongst a host of other seemingly disparate themes. The resulting body of work is as eccentric as its absurd and inspiring characters. To wit, Rokni Haerizadeh's extravagant, multivalent approach is contem- plative and magical, at once personal and universal.

 

In closing, I feel it is important to comment on the popular conception that Iranian art must necessarily confront Iranian issues. Of course, every artist is inspired by his immediate environment and cultural background - it is that which forms the cradle of his creative energies. But beyond this foundation is the idea that art is not limited to any specific paradigm but rather asks questions... sometimes providing answers.

 

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