Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Shirin Neshat, The Book of Kings @Gladstone

JTF (just the facts): A total of 56 black and white photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung in the main gallery space, the reception hallway, and a smaller side room. The show also includes a new three-channel video installation entitled OverRuled, on view in a separate darkened room. 45 of the photographs come from the series Masses and are ink on LE gelatin silver prints, each sized 40x30, in editions of 5+2AP. 6 of the photographs come from the series Patriots and are also ink on LE gelatin silver prints, each sized, 60x45, also in editions of 5+2AP. And 3 of the photographs come from the series Villains and are also ink on LE gelatin silver prints, each sized 99x50, also in editions of 5+2AP. The other two works in the reception hallway are 47x60 and 62x49, with similar details in terms of process and edition size. All of the works were made in 2012. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Shirin Neshat's newest photographs are a direct response to recent political events in the Middle East, encompassing both the Green Movement in Iran in 2009 and the broader protests and revolutions of the Arab Spring. Her images take her back to her mid 1990s aesthetic style (spare black and white portraits with faces covered in painstakingly detailed calligraphy) and apply this haunting look to contrasting groups of participants (Masses, Patriots and Villains) in the struggle for power and freedom.

The Masses portraits are hung in a overpowering 3x15 grid that covers an entire wall with serious, staring head shots. Her subjects run the gamut from the older generation to younger people, and each everyday face provides tiny nuances of group emotion: anxiety, uncertainty, resignation, hope, aspiration. The Patriots images step back to show torso level portraits, with the universally young subjects placing their right hands over their hearts. These activist faces have even more intense expressions: defiance, fervor, pride, devotion, even potentially hatred(the image of Nida is particularly striking, second from the right, at right). The calligraphic text written on their skin is larger and bolder than on the people from Masses, as if shouting rather than whispering, even though the poses are equally sober and quiet. The Villains are full length portraits of older men, where the calligraphic text has been replaced with elaborate illustrations across their bare chests like tattoos. These drawings of ancient war (complete with spurting decapitations in blood red) reinforce the feeling of implicit violence (religious or political) that hangs in the air. Taken together, these three sets of participants are made into metaphors, or symbols of simplified emotions.

I have to admit that I think it is hard to completely understand these works given my inability to read the text superimposed on the bodies and faces. For Western audiences, the calligraphy is transformed from a storytelling layer into a purely decorative motif, and I'm guessing that I'm missing quite a bit of the desired effect. Imagine trying to understand Barbara Kruger's work if you couldn't read the text; sure, there is a graphic quality we as viewers can all connect to, but the irony and juxtaposition of the images and text would be completely lost. I have the same sense of being in the dark with these images. What is being said by the text blaring from the foreheads of the Patriots? And how might it change my experience of their ultra serious faces?

With this caveat of likely misunderstanding, I do think that many of these portraits are quite beautiful, even if they are sometimes harsh and heavy handed. The whole body of work is a personal reminder of the powerful emotions that surround the abstraction of political revolution, where individuals (not types) take part in the action on the front lines.

Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows. The works from Masses are $35000 each, Patriots are $65000 each, and Villains are $85000 each. The other two photographs are $65000 and $75000 respectively. Neshat's images are regularly available in the secondary markets, particularly I Am Its Secret, which was printed in an edition of 250. Recent prices at auction have ranged from roughly $3000 to $70000.

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Interview: Modern Art Notes podcast (here)
  • Review: Huffington Post (here)
Shirin Neshat, The Book of Kings
Through February 11th

Gladstone Gallery
515 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10011

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