Dec. 10, 2020 - Jan. 10, 2021
What in the works of Mohammad-Hossein Maher has always impressed me is the way he makes use of color. Vivid oranges and tasteful reds sit next to tranquil shades of green and blue. These are colors that in the abstraction of abstract portraits of human beings acquire a redoubled intensity. They make us stand before a painting time and again to discover something new at every turn. But this is just a folio, a season in the oeuvre of Mr. Maher that appears in the current exhibit.
The fish appear at first to be defined more by colors than by lines. But drawings bring blood to our face as soon as we lay eyes on them. Should we have the cheek to continue beholding them, these sketches will tell us of a surgical operation on history daringly put on canvas against the well-composed and pleasant lines and marks. The fish are expressions of an audacity gone around the bend. They retell a story of anger and blood. The artist has to take refuge in myths to bring serenity to his paintings. Colors acquire an ancient aura depending on the subject matter of the paintings. As for the sketches, they appear abstract in their aesthetic manifestation and over time they seem to be free of any cruelty or fault. This is a familiar quality among all ethnic groups of the past, which seems to me to be an attempt to celebrate ancestry. And perhaps there is no need for the painter to remember his ancestors as undesirable. What’s more important is to depict them as such. Every people need to lay claim to a capital, be it economic, cultural, or historical in nature. It is a stepping stone. In visual arts, taking refuge in mythology is to forestall the dissolution of everything; if I am not mistaken, myths of Maher constitute a chapter in the four seasons of his oeuvre, and function as a distancing tool from cruelty depicted in the fish. They provide the artist with mental balance. This is why the painter chooses to represent remains of fortresses. The fourth season is detritus but it is very close to the third season, mythology, where fortresses are depicted without cavalrymen, resembling the subject matter of Iranian miniature paintings. Lonely fortresses, empty and without a human soul, point to a forgotten architecture. The imaginative creation of myths seems to be Mr. Maher’s offering. There is no longer any need for myths and no patience or need for fortresses. Thus, it is enough for these monuments to be circumscribed by these square, wooden frames to remind us that we are, after all, ancient people, and that we can’t forget the good and bad stories of our ancestors, their ugliness, and their beauty. This is a token of a realistic regard that Hossein Maher sets out to recreate. For as long as I have known him, he has striven to move from place to place, like the wave whose existence is predicated on its turbulence.
The Mythopoeia of Hossein Maher
“Archetypes, in spite of their conservative nature, are not static but in a continuous dramatic flux. Thus the self as a monad or continuous unit would be dead. But it lives inasmuch as it splits and unites again. There is no energy without opposites!”
– Carl Gustav Jung
It is through myths that the ancients talked about our human journey on this earth. Mythology, as such, is the building bock of our understanding of existence and our world. The Pishdadian, for example, is a mythic dynasty in ancient Persian texts. Although all Pishdadi kings are mythological characters in Avesta and they are called “Of God,” in the Book of Kings (Shahnameh) only those kings are described in mythological terms that possess “God’s Grace.”
In the ancient literature of Iran, the death of heroes marked a tragic moment when people mourned and disciples symbolically cut their hair over the dying body of their masters. Hossein Maher does the same in his Myths series. His choice of cold colors and focused composition tells the story of a mythic isolation and stasis. Maher is capable of depicting the depth of tragedy; yet, he has an eye for the eternal. The artist realizes that the hero will be lonely during his lifetime but there is a sense in which s/he will continue life in lore. In one of his paintings we see the pain and suffering through the supine body of a women wrapped from head to foot next to a boulder. But there is a sapling growing next to the boulder as well, which points to an indeterminate future.
Through his dynamic yet bold strokes, Hossein Maher is able to summon a breeze of mythology and memory to his paintings to invite the viewer to appreciate the way our ancestors saw the world. He does that in a compendious language that nevertheless brings softness to the frame.
Through the Bird’s Eye
Hossein Maher has showed his penchant for travel in many of his collections. His is an inquisitive drive that manifested itself in the abstract while being closely personal. In Monuments, however, the much traveled artist is standing at a distance, beholding the struggles of a people to find scattered pieces of memory among historic remains. Those who hop on their saddle first chance they get to seek refuge outside the chaotic graze land of the city find, among these remains, vectors that point to a time when each building block, be it a fort, a house, or a caravansary, foretold the roughshod form of governance in their respective city-states. Dejected citizens of our modern cities journey to see fortresses that have withstood the scourges of time but within whose walls a stratified social structure was closely carved to distinguish soldier from priest, farmer from craftsman. These were fortresses, however, that did not reproduce themselves. People moved away to live in places where they could have some control over their lives and relations. Now, our modern fortresses with their discordant planning are as structurally stratified as their antecedents and force their citizens to give up many of their original attractions and set out to reclaim bygone monuments as tourists who can ultimately only feel a vague sense of being bereft of something. This is the feeling of exile.
As such, the artist is preoccupied with the question of exile. He may not count himself as an exilic soul but he has stood witness as friends and relations left. This is a familiar experience that connects many of us: The experience of detachment, the warmth of reunion that can match in intensity the coldness of disunion. The artist is standing at a distance and looking at the game of hide-n-seek tourists play in their journey of discovery. They may eventually share their stories in virtual space with those who have left their land altogether to live in another modern fortress somewhere around the globe. Human bodies in Monuments of Hossein Maher are dreaming of becoming something else, of leaving, of being suspended between growing deep roots in soil, fugacious ones in water, or yearning for a lost utopia in the wind. Those who have had the experience of exile have become strangers to a land that offers no shards of memory for decorating so much as a room.
Masks of Hossein Maher constitute a genuine shift towards a lucid language which no doubt had its seeds in the inquisitive mind, vision, and experience of the painter, formed over the years and now reaching new planes and fathoming new depths.
In many of these works we are witness to a clear revolution in subject-matter and technique, which constitute a departure from the geography of “local colors” and a landing on a more expansive pasture.
When I behold these daringly sharp and pointed works, I imagine the soft and noble faces in the paintings of Modigliani gashed, hashed, pared, and transfigured by Picasso — having just finished the “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” — into African masks. The explosion of bold colors and the reduction of many of the faces to Brâncuși ovals — that have acquired human facial characteristics through the addition of vertical lines — frame the world of an artist whose nomadic proclivities for the southern regions of Iran and African art on the one hand and the liberating modernism of the mid 1900s on the other hand have come together on canvas to give wing to distinct portraits that embrace their varied ancestry.
A requiem for a befallen calamity
Shock, that’s the name Hossein Maher chose for his fish series, which was first shown in the winter of 2009 at Etemad Art Gallery in Tehran. The collection included 21 large paintings of mutilated fish flesh. Aptly titled, paintings in Shock were amongst the most lurid and expressive in Mr. Maher’s oeuvre.
What do these flayed carcasses have to say? Are they telling us how they were caught, cleaned, gutted, cut, and broiled before ending up on our plates? Are their lacerated bodies only an excuse for the painter to study form, color, and texture, to better force realism into abstraction? Or perhaps they speak of a condition, an accident, a fate, a human tragedy?
Fish are cold-blooded, seafaring creatures whose bodies even many dedicated vegetarians find palatable. It is perhaps due to their graceful and studied comportment that they have come to represent life and movement, purity and innocence. As a motif they have been used in works of Iranian craftsmen and women of different eras and millennia. Mr. Maher has also made use of the fish motif in his works, expressively or ornamentally. But in Shock his fish are used in an entirely different manner. They have become creatures of flesh, bone, and skin. They have acquired a human aura.
In some canvases, fish carcasses shine brightly against a dark background. The painter has been able to use the form and texture of his subject matter to emphasize a metaphoric presence, one that invites viewers of his works to move into a different plane of understanding. Free style and excited brushstrokes, the red of blood and the pink of raw flesh, transparent layers of paint that moves from the flesh and skin to bones, veins, muscles, and the innards, popped up eyes that have frozen life in its track, grotesque heads hanging frighteningly, precipitously from their bodies, as if they wanted to hang on to dear life at all cost, all these submerge the viewer in the dark waters of death. The choice of large canvases increases the unpleasant and disturbing effect on the viewer. The strong and violent contrast between positive and negative spaces, the use of glaze on oil and acrylic, has infused these paintings with renewed vigor. The fish are no longer the white and silver trout that we fry to eat. They are kin to deformed and hitched bodies in the works of Rembrandt and Bacon, or bunnies and fish in paintings of Soutine — they speak of the innocence and bewilderment of the “victim” and the violence inherent in the desire to kill.
In the later works of this collection, once the initial excitement of describing the calamity has subsided, the painter brings us from the depth of realism back to the surface of abstraction. He flattens fish carcasses and in this way simplifies their form on canvas. His controlled brush attends to the formal relationship between parts. At this level, we no longer see eyes, body parts, head, or tail. The red and black of the calamity has given way to the blue, white, and gray of memory. Form and texture acquires an abstract quality and anemic patterns similar to the flesh and bones of the fish sit next to geometric and abstract forms. The fish are no longer and cannot even be imagined. It seems as if only a memory of the befallen disaster lingers. This collection, as such can be regarded as a requiem for victims of a calamity.
Samila Amir Ebrahimi