A criticism often leveled at Iman Maleki’s astonishingly realistic paintings is, “ why not just use a photograph?” To survey the strengths and weaknesses of one of Iran’s most promising artists, we ask the same question of the following work by American painter, Denis Peterson.
“Don’t Shed No Tears” (2006) is, believe it or not, acrylic on canvas! This instance of hyperrealism is a performance art. Viewers are deliberately made to notice the amazing amount of time and painstaking effort that went into portraying this Darfur refugee. Peterson isn't showing off; he is a radical painter, compelling us with his dedication. The astonishing realism is the result of every wrinkle and twist of hair being colored and shadowed in the context of reflected light from every other object in the scene. Whereas the camera does this mindlessly as a matter of optics, the artist has endured whatever it took to make sure human eyes do not respond as mindlessly. We can flip the page on a Newsweek photo, worth a click of the camera, but we can’t as easily turn away from such an extraordinary labor of compassion.
Maleki’s hyperrealism is likewise rooted in obsessive compassion. But he also draws from his gift as a storyteller. In “Omens of Hafez,” one young woman is wearing a ring on her right hand, the other only a watch, both waiting.
Empty sandals is a clever way to suggest each woman is waiting for someONE. The poetry book being opened does Hafez justice with its double entendre, hinting at wedding night sensuality. There’s a subtle contrast in the facial expressions of the two characters. The soft trace of hesitation in the older girl’s face is enigmatic. What is there to fear about becoming a woman?
In the next painting, we see a possible answer.
In this image, the age difference in the characters is more extreme. It is no longer possible to nuance the obvious. The infant is sleep to the world. The young girl looks on, perhaps with envy, at the younger sibling who has displaced her as the baby. She is on her way to the reality that her mother experiences. The angular motif in the background window echoes a similar pattern on the carpet in the first painting, connecting the themes. The sandals in this painting are now full, by the way.
I asked an Iranian woman friend about this painting. This was her comment:
“There is fear, and there is resignation, worry and perhaps even feelings of betrayal among many other feelings, all encapsulated on the face of the young mother holding her newborn. This is an undeniably huge commitment sitting on her lap. The unknowns on the road ahead are even huger. Is the father a war 'martyr'? An absentee dad? Is there a 'havoo' somewhere in the picture? Will she end up having to beg for her and her kids' livelihood? Is she rejected because she has given birth to yet another daughter?”
Maleki is an artist who sees fit to pay a brush stroke for every human suffering, using detail to flagellate himself in sympathy with his subject. He reflects a Shiite culture in shedding visible tears for the suffering of others, and reveals an Iranian mindset in respecting our tradition of detail in visual arts. The best carpets take years to weave; inlay artists sacrifice their eyesight, and tile workers grow old with unfinished mosques. Iran's aesthetic culture is more comfortable with styles where clear references exist by which to judge a work. In showcasing labor and commitment Maleki makes his work immediately accessible to a larger audience, yet in energy and impact, he holds his own against more exclusive abstract styles.
Sometimes, however, the traditions that give strength to Maleki’s art also conspire against him. He is brilliant at drawing attention to suffering, but tends to abandon his subjects to noble resignation. The mother in the above painting has dignity but no power. The child in the painting below is trapped in his environment, just like the beautiful goldfish he can’t sell.
In meter with Iran’s traditional poetry, Maleki occasionally finds more artistic payoff in surrendering to Fate.
Philosophical bickering aside however, the above work is quite successful in what it sets out to do. By Western standards the painting may appear overly sentimental, but that is mostly because something is lost in translating the Iranian emotional vocabulary. It is probably the days before Nowruz, still winter. But for this child there is obviously never a spring. Putting philosophy back into the debate, the Nowruz symbol could have been used beyond irony, to encourage hope.
When Maleki refuses to surrender, his images of adversity are energizing and inspirational. Below is a painting titled, “Composing Music, secretly”—presumably so as not to alert a Baseej gang, as it is unlikely these musicians are practicing in secret for a birthday surprise.
In this image of defiance, the drum is silent, and the singer is brooding, heavy verses sagging his shoulder. Yet there is a rebellious joy in their gathering. We are moved by the almost childlike enthusiasm of these souls, who stubbornly refuse to let go of their right to “boogie.” Touchingly humorous is Maleki's implying that each performer has brought his own chair to the jam session. Also, he shows us it is daylight outside. The darkness is not imposed by nature, but by social circumstance. Note, there are no women in the scene, even though this is a secret gathering. In this regard a progressive reading of the painting is compromised.
Maleki’s treatment of women is sympathetic and respectful, but not empowering in a modern sense. In “Unstable Cover,” the artist shows us the hands from the da Vinci portrait, Mona Lisa. Here, the painting is not what is covered; Mona Lisa herself is draped! We could take this as a visual joke by a master painter, or read a feminist protest in it. Or both.
If Mona Lisa’s hands ripped away those covers though, we would not see the typical Maleki woman. We would see a painting where the Italian artist has given his female subject a great deal more power.
Most strikingly, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is looking back at the viewer. In Maleki paintings, women are often looking down, usually preoccupied with books, mementos, and other ways of being somewhere else in spirit. Below is an example.
Maleki’s playfulness is apparent in the way he makes us guess how these three young women are related. The clue is in the black and white photo of the three of them as children. Can you tell which is which? Who was Mom’s favorite? Or maybe the sisters in the black and white picture are from the previous generation, and these women are first cousins. This is the kind of painting one can spend hours navigating emotionally. Longer than it takes to watch a movie. Not bad for a single frame! Significantly, Mom is not wearing a roosari in her mug shot. The photos are outdated technology, but Mom’s world was advanced enough she could look into the camera. The “photographer,” Maleki, does quiz himself on issues of female power; he’s just timid about it.
In contrast to his women, the stunning male portrait below projects solid confidence in the charismatic subject staring at us.
Just as self-assured is Maleki’s “Achaemenid Soldier.” The diligent research into Achaemenid weaponry and military uniform is admirable. Architectural grandeur is appropriately understated, yet breathtaking. Hollywood should occasionally hire this artist as a set consultant.
The atypical narrative-starved choice of subject, however, exposes an unsoldierly hesitation in the painter. If Maleki wishes to romanticize this period of Iran’s pre-Islamic history, he certainly knows of more provocative Ahcaemenid legends he could risk. Of course depicting the defeat of the imposter Gautama--who pretended to be Iran’s legitimate ruler—may have Maleki chalking murals on Evin prison walls. Safer, but just as communicative would have been, Cyrus freeing the Jews of Babylon, or Xerxes lashing the sea. After seeing “Achaemeind Soldier” I am curious as to how Maleki would treat historic/legendary themes--pre-Islamic or otherwise--that give a better workout to his talent for hidden commentary.
To illustrate, below is Jacque-Louis David’s propagandistic “Oath of the Horati.,” completed during the years leading up to the French revolution. David is recognized as an influential painter because he used romanticized historical themes to participate in the political debates of his time.
The testosterone on canvas notwithstanding, Horace (center) is making the ultimate sacrifice, offering up his sons in the service of the Roman Republic. It is obvious that David’s mind is not as complex as Maleki’s, yet the French painter is more assertive in making his political statements.
Western artists such as David, da Vinci and Denis Peterson are important in part because of their skill and innovation, but also because they come from cultures that dominate the modern global power scene. Renaissance painters catered to emerging capitalism, the sons in David’s painting above symbolize French colonies, and Peterson’s Darfur painting, “Don’t Shed No Tears” provokes America to intervene with her wealth. Iran too is no longer an “extra” in the global power drama, and has found a “speaking role” in History, so the voice of our best artists has the potential to carry much further into the future, and much wider across societies. Our artists are more important now than they have been ever since the Safavids.
Which brings me to the most urgent aspect of modern art criticism. Financial advice! Sell your belongings to snap up the right Maleki paintings, as they come along.