Brueghel Meets Mughal: Ali Banisadr at Sperone Westwater
Ali Banisadr: Motherboard at Sperone Westwater
March 1 to April 19, 2014
257 Bowery between Houston and Stanton streets,
New York City, 212.999.7337
If you have any trouble imagining what a cross between Pieter Brueghel the elder, André Masson, Wilfredo Lam, Gerhard Richter (in his abstract idiom), Walt Disney, San Francisco-style graffiti and a Mughal miniature looks like, don’t worry, Ali Banisadr can put you in the picture in a New York minute. This painter of rich-hued, busy, noisy tableau fills three floors of Sperone Westwater, in his first solo show with the Lower East Side powerhouse, with luridly raucous action dramas.
Iranian-born, California-raised, New York-educated and Brooklyn-based, Banisadr comes with a cv as cosmopolitan as his painterly influences. Ali grew up against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war before leaving Tehran with his family, immigrating via Turkey to the States at age 12.
The adolescent refugee soaked up the energy of 1990s graffiti in its golden age under the aegis of Barry McGee and the late Margaret Kilgallen, although the vibe that survives in his own handwriting is less the elaborate figuration of the Bay Area street artists as a more calligraphic tagging, again perhaps tapping his ancestry.
In New York, as Jeffrey Deitch observes in his catalogue essay for the present show, Banisadr maximized his time at the School of Visual Arts and then the New York Academy in the acquisition of manual skills; at SVA, for instance, he enrolled in illustration classes, while clearly reveling in the beaux-arts pedagogy of the Academy. The debut of this wondrously dexterous artist took place in 2008 at Leslie Tonkonow, where he showed again in 2011, and he has had solo shows in Europe, too.
Our Hieronymus Bosch of graffiti typically delivers his loud crowds in a massed cluster at the base of a tripartite composition. Despite the all-over energizing of his canvases, Banisadr achieves a strong sense of pictorial depth, with fore, middle and long distances, a clear horizon between sky and ground. There is an added sense of depth in the variety of scale amongst his heaving horde. They are a bestiary of varyingly gruesome, comical, menacing and preposterous personages formed in an equally fulsome array of gestures – artful smudges and splatters, striations and strokes, virtuoso flicks of wrist and bravura sleights of hand.
This throng forms a writhing gestalt that itself becomes a singular monster agitating the picture, sometimes sending shock waves of conflict into the anyway rarely very peaceful heavens. In Motherboard (2013) for example, the title piece of the show, a sharp, vertical band of red streaks out between the scrum below and the sliver of turbulent sky above reading like some barcode of blood. Or in Ran (2014), the triptych that dominates the ground floor of the gallery, the sky witnesses a strange mottled grid of red impasto that reads like a cross between Richter squeegee and fragments of long-lost cuneiform script. Banisadr’s combatants recall great renaissance depictions of conflict like Leonardo’s now-lost “Battle of Anghiari” (1505), known from presumed copies, and Michelangelo’s “Battle of Cascina,” also lost, except in the place of the naked, idealized combatants supplied by the Italians, Banisadr betrays a more northern penchant for caricature along with his pronouncedly eastern (as well as West Coast) palette in a modern-medieval sensibility. But what he has in common with the high renaissance masters is a way of enlisting the mass into a singularity while retaining an energetic thrust.
Despite the figuration and the action, and the traditional heaven-and-earth, figure-ground compositional structures, these are essentially abstract paintings. They are about all-overness, balance, movement, harmony and dissonance, detail and whole. Their cartoonish gestures — the schematic swishes of air current left in the wake of bodies darting to and fro – adds a kitsch element as do the knowingly vulgar color schemes but the sheer skill and vibrancy with which he marshals technique has us forgive these as surely as we do or ought to do in his surrealist or populist mentors. In some ways he is a flatter, cleaner version of Cecily Brown, replacing sex with war. He looks to Matta where she looks to de Kooning, which is to say that his skills are more linear and spatial and less fleshly or voluptuous.
And like Matta, Banisadr has a disconcerting ability to combine a fast read with meticulous, painstaking execution. It is this disconnection between execution and effect that surely accounts for a slickness some will find worrisome. It is not that he is postmodern even, so much as unmodern. This may be why, despite their galvanizing turmoil and breathtaking technique and at once abrasive and retina-soaking chroma, these are ultimately very distant images, emotionally strained and cold.
Banisadr has one stated ambition that he achieves with uncanny force: to generate visual noise. Somehow, his sheer velocity gives off audible sound. It is as if, caught up in the excitement, the beholder can’t help but supply, if not a soundtrack at least rather noisy sound effects.
And if you do find the drama does deserve a score, it is up to you whether to bring along heavy metal or a Berlioz symphony.