Absolute darkness prevailed at the Golestan Gallery during a recent exhibition by the young Iranian artist Barbad Golshiri. This art student, painter, and art critic explored the aspects and implications of formalism in six “light boxes.” By manipulating and isolating his chosen medium of light, the artist focused attention on discrete objects and austere themes.
Black Square - 1913 first drew my attention, not to the large shape itself, but to its obscurity. Hailed as the first word in the language of pure abstraction, Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square of 1913 reappears here in a different guise. Golshiri repeats the form, but transcends its historic status by highlighting its surroundings. For the spectator standing in its white glow, the relevance of Malevich’s philosophy is called to question, for we are in fact part of the surrounding illuminated by the work, and given greater precedence.
Golshiri’s art both ignores and engages the spectator, and awareness of this relationship is an essential factor in understanding the works. A tall stripe of textured black paint runs down the length of a canvas and is lit up from behind. Requiem for the Author (I Am Standing) is a tribute to the artist’s late father, Houshang Golshiri, one of Iran’s most prominent literary figures. Intrigued by the title, I asked the artist to explain the thoughts behind it. He is adamantly formalist: “It calls attention to the medium of paint, its qualities, and its significance. As an artistic medium, it is of equal importance to light. This is rare in the history of light art, where light is customarily dominant. This work is a painting, nothing more.” Standing before the work, one cannot help but search for the figurative allusions. But the streaks of paint refuse to lend themselves freely, and Requiem remains a mysterious personal statement, which nonetheless brings the viewer to wonder at its intent.
Of the untitled video piece, perhaps the most elaborate work of the exhibit, more shall be said in another review. It too uses light as its medium, showing the artist cutting off locks of his own hair and tossing them on the floor. “I am simply sketching,” Golshiri says. “Ingres defines the sketch as artistic exploration, and in modern times, the process of exploring itself has gained greater importance.” In this video, the act of randomly scattering hair has created the “sketch” on the brightly-lit floor. The performer remains outside the frame throughout, thus his identity also remains hidden; a parody of an action painter, a self-sacrificing feminist activist, a portrait of the artist as an angry young man... anything seems permissible. While politics are seldom associated with the literality of formalism, the social and political implications of the act are undeniable.
The definitive minimalist statement of Less Is More introduces another work. A small square of light emanating from the floor shines upward and mesmerizes, but doesn’t do much more. It underscores the entire collection in its adherence to the philosophical ideal of the “the thing in itself”—something independent and unrelated to any other being.“ Is it still possible to find beauty in formalism? Or have the possiblities been mined and exhausted?” Golshiri asks.
But the art is not as detached as it may appear to be, and many levels of criticism lurk in the stern, dark atmosphere. The twenty-year-old Golshiri has voiced the preoccupation of his generation with light and darkness, with absolute values, and with that fearful and ambiguous area between good and bad ruled by shades of gray. He claims to have chosen black out of habit, and his art testifies to the darkness that has now become merely commonplace to many. Early Persian architects and designers valued water for its lifegiving qualities, and in this dry desert plateau, it was celebrated through the turquoise and azure of Persian tile work. Like many other young Iranian artists who have found sparks of hope in the bleak landscapes of contemporary life, Barbad Golshiri treats light as an aesthetic element of great value, to be explored and cherished.
In what was almost a casual afterthought, he spoke of a short story, attributed to the senior Golshiri, which inspired the video piece. What Has Befallen Us, Barbad? tells the story of a political activist imprisoned for his dissidence. His only visitor is his young son. The child stops speaking after his first visits, and draws pictures of terror and darkness instead. What cannot be voiced directly will often be expressed otherwise, and critical art has time and again created awareness and provided the incentive for change.
From stark formalism to open-ended social criticism, the artistic perspectives of Barbad Golshiri’s art draw the spectator into recognizing significance in the undefinable borders of light and dark.