Painter Tala Madani’s show in St. Louis provided a concise primer on her work, featuring her hallmark subject: men, nude or almost so, perhaps Middle Eastern and probably middle-aged, in situations both abject and humorous. The small exhibition drew from a single body of work by the Iranian-born artist, one depicting individual protagonists against black backgrounds, emphasizing the illumination of their cartoonish forms. Among the earliest examples on view was Searchlight (2013), in which a balding, jowly man calmly points a flashlight or a glowing smartphone at his genitals. The warm pool of light blurs rather than reveals, however. The image exposes the act of exposure, not the thing exposed.
The dozen exhibited works share a concise visual vocabulary, repeatedly portraying certain items (flashlights, scissors, golden picture frames), suggestively Christian symbols (pietà embraces, outstretched arms, bodies passing through solid matter), and settings (the omnipresent blackness, though often also gridded floors). The consistency hints at narrative unity, as if each image were a screenshot from an online gaming universe or an outtake salvaged from the cutting room floor—fragments of a world, arranged in a semblance of order, a storyboard Woyzeck.
The world evoked is defined by privacy and voyeurism. In paintings like Love Doctor (2015), which shows a smiling balloon-headed figure cradling a man while brandishing scissors, an aura of transactional sexual therapy holds sway. Other connotations that compete for attention in Madani’s work—allusions to prisons and torture chambers, or equally to Muslim male social rituals—are present but subdued amid the many notes of care, pleasure, willing subjection, and role play. These works suggest fantasies awkwardly enacted, the kind of earnest, embarrassing attempts to transcend bodily reality that might take place in a hotel room or a dungeon.
The lighting helps. Many works by Madani read as illustrations of her men’s clumsy exploits, but the soft glow of these figures against the surrounding dark has an illusionistic power, implying the viewer’s presence in the shadows. Whether these shadows are in a private chamber or a public theater is, however, pleasantly unclear. Two brief stop-motion animations on view, The Dancer (2012) and The Primitive (2015), brought out this ambiguity. In each of the videos, the camera remains stationary and the sole character enters from stage right. These pieces recall early cinema’s fealty to theatrical conventions and their presence in the show imbued the static paintings with a parallel sense of temporality. The exhibition felt, in fact, like an arcade of Kinetoscopes—cinematic peep shows, fleeting glimpses into unfolding scenes. By turns humorous, dark, and bizarre, it reminded me (to my surprise) of nothing so much as Marinetti’s vision of an experimental variety theater—a series of fragmentary, jarring, hallucinatory vignettes—even though it lacked the Futurist’s kinetic bombast.
Madani has often created works in which her men appear in miniature and in multiple, as collections of scatological imps. While such works were not on view here, the show itself—displayed in the confines of the museum’s “front room” (more parlor or walk-in closet than gallery), where small paintings served to scatter the show’s narrow symbolic repertoire up and down the walls—approximated their compositional style, offering a menagerie of curiosities boxed into a single frame.
A very particular installation of a very particular selection of Madani’s work, the presentation offered physical intimacy, ambiguous narrativity, and subdued theatricality. It will be interesting to see whether these effects hold when an expanded version of the show—with additional works and, presumably, more space—opens at the MIT List Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this month.
A British series of educational books published in the 1960s and colloquially known as Peter and Jane (its proper title was Key Words Reading Scheme) was parodied to brilliant effect in artist/comedian Miriam Elia’s recent book We Go to the Gallery. Taking the eponymous siblings on a tour of a gallery, Elia lampoons such art-world oddities as blank canvases and balloon-dog sculptures. The original books’ dated illustration style and family-values traditionalism provide an easy foil for that which aims to be avant-garde and convention-busting.
Painter Tala Madani also showed this to be the case in two canvases, The Lesson and The Swing (both 2014), included in her recent exhibition at Pilar Corrias. Each of these paintings features an expressionistic interloper amid a Peter-and-Jane-style scene. In The Lesson, a loosely depicted sylphlike figure straddles the head of a schoolboy, urinating a stream of egg-yolk yellow onto his exercise book. The nebulous character suggests a personification of gestural painting, as though “high art” were excreting onto the staid bourgeois respectability represented by the illustrative scene. In The Swing, however, the tables have turned, with Madani appearing as willing to ridicule the opacity of expressionistic painting as she is to criticize the banality of educational imagery. Here, a Peter-like boy gleefully pushes a drippy demon on a swing, the latter slipping off its seat and dissolving into illegibility, its vague rendering seeming noncommittal amid the otherwise tightly painted composition.
Abstract Pussy (2013), the show’s titular work, presents a team of Lilliputian adventurers crawling toward the crotch of a small girl suspended against a flat field of color like a clip-art pictogram. One of the party holds up a placard bearing a Kandinsky-esque design, as if its abstruse meaning is what they seek in the uncharted territory between the girl’s legs. In such works, Madani falls back on the well-worn strategy of lumping together discordant pictorial idioms (computer graphics, newspaper cartoons, modernist abstraction). What distinguishes her approach is the humor underlying some of her juxtapositions: Abstract Pussy nicely expresses the absurdity of turning anatomical parts into metaphors or abstractions like the Greek god Priapus or the vagina dentata.
The toilet humor and tits-and-ass silliness in much of Madani’s paintings are in exquisitely bad taste. Yet her work is at its best where the bodily comedy strikes at some deeper social controversy or anxiety. The apparently young age of the girl in Abstract Pussy (and in a parallel piece, 3D Pussy, 2013, in which the probing figures wear 3-D glasses) cannot be ignored. Perhaps the picture’s superficial flippancy belies a critique of current obsessions regarding children’s sexuality and fears about pedophilia, pointing to the hypocritical mix of proscription and prurience that besets discussion of these topics.
At points, Madani’s medium dovetails nicely with her scatological themes: in Decorated, the thick, brown branches of a tree appear to have been defecated onto the canvas. Too often, though, her paintings have a labored quality, suggesting nimble satirical drawings that became bogged down in paint. This quality of in-betweenness or incongruity would no doubt be claimed by some as the canvases’ very point and potency. Yet it also draws attention to what they lack—the facility of cartoons or the spontaneity of doodles. Madani’s humor is not itself the issue; it simply demands more definitive and piquant expression.