TALA MADANI, Family Portrait, 2019, oil on linen, 96.8 × 76.2 × 3.2 cm. Photo by Lee Thompson. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Between the Waking Life and the Lucid Dream

Also available in:  Chinese

Tala Madani is best known for her comically twisted paintings and stop-motion animations that portray middle-aged men and mischievous toddlers engaging in destructive, perverse, and sometimes gruesome acts. With nimble lines and expressive brushstrokes, the artist attempts to capture the candid moment when an idea first emerges, and, in the process, index the action of painting on her canvases. In doing so she offers viewers a glimpse of her subconscious world, shaped not only by her personal experience and imagination but also by the complexities of contemporary life. In Dress Codes (2015), for example, two men are stripped naked and subjected to the gaze of three smiley-emoji-faced women. In other works, antiheroic imageries propose an alternate reality through which Madani re-examines history, humanity, and the concept of personhood. This is evident in Dirty Protest (2015), which depicts toddlers defiantly peeing and using a paint-roller to smear feces on a wall, calling to mind the “dirty protests” of Irish activists incarcerated in the British-run Maze Prison (1976–81) and Armagh Prison (1980–81) during The Troubles. Perhaps it is only natural that Madani cites as her favorite movie Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (1975), a boundary-smashing film exploring the themes of coprophagy, sadism, abuse of power, and political corruption. 

In August, ArtAsiaPacific contributor Danielle Shang met Madani in her Los Angeles studio, ahead of the opening of the artist’s solo exhibition, “Shit Moms,” at David Kordansky Gallery. In the following interview, they unpack the psychological space in Madani’s work, the symbolic motifs in her paintings, as well as the influence of parenthood and art history on her practice, with the hope of expanding the horizons of Madani’s paintings.

TALA MADANINature Nurture, 2019, oil on linen. 40.6 × 35.2 × 2.5 cm. Photo by Lee Thompson. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Your biography as an immigrant from the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United States can sometimes overshadow your work. Many critics often focus on the gender, identity, and political issues in your paintings and animations. While these are important topics, such analysis risks reducing your work to social commentary by the “Other.” I’d like to explore aspects of your practice that are revealed in the works of your solo exhibition “Shit Moms.” The men that are present in your previous paintings from the past decade seemed to have retreated in this latest show. Instead, I saw tableaux of women with children for the first time. A motif that recurs throughout the compositions is a dark brown, impasto motherly figure. Is she your alter ego?

I never wanted to not include women. Women have always had a presence in my works, by way of their absence. My previous paintings were more about the space I imagined myself to be in: an intimate but absurd interior space with those male characters and children.

To me, painting women has almost been a cliché. In European art history, women are either holy mothers or objects of sexual desire for the male gaze. Images of mothers, though pervasive, are puritanized, sexualized, and perversified. The world has not truly accepted her as a human being with agency. This objectification is misogynistic. For a very long time, I didn’t know how to freshen up the subject.

After I gave birth to my second child, I took eight months off from painting. One day I decided to paint myself holding my baby. But the painting disgusted me, because it reminded me of the same old format as the virgin and child. I started to erase the mom from the composition, and she became murky and shit-like. Then it dawned on me that this iconoclastic, “shitty” image of a mother was what I should be painting.

In many of my new paintings, children are scrambling, annihilating, and devouring the “shit moms.” It seems grotesque, but it’s the blueprint of Western civilization. Parents must allow themselves to be overcome by their offspring. Greek mythologies are fraught with matricides and patricides. In these epics, children kill their parents to overthrow the hierarchy and to reach self-actualization. This became the foundation of 19th-century novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s literature and Freudian psychoanalytical theory. Persians, however, have a very different filial idea. For example, in the tragedy of Rustam and Sohrab, the father kills the son.

You had painted children long before you had your own babies. Who are the hell-raising little ones in your paintings?

They embody something new: a new culture, a new way of life, youth, and the US—the new world. I articulate my experience in this new world through these naughty children. My perception of the US was influenced by British writer DH Lawrence’s critique of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work of historical fiction, The Scarlet Letter (1850). With this coming-of-age story about lust, shame, and guilt, Hawthorne became the representative of the new-world literature championing American Puritanism. Lawrence pointed out that Pearl, the daughter born out of adultery in the novel, was America itself, a child born in sin.

Being a mom of two young children, my superego makes me feel anxious, insecure, and guilty, especially when I have to leave my children at home to work in my studio. Many female artists avoid the dilemma of having to choose between being a mom or an artist by not allowing themselves to become mothers. I don’t know many female artists, except for Louise Bourgeois and Käthe Kollwitz, who have delved into notions of motherhood and its ramifications. To be fair, it’s very difficult subject matter to work with.

There are so many psychological layers in what you just explained about the subconscious processes behind your images of the absurd. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan proposes that a child passes through a developmental phase when an external image of the body represented through the mother produces perceptions of the child’s ideal selfhood. A painting of yours from 2013 is entitled Mirror Stage, the exact term coined by Lacan to refer to this phenomenon. Are you trying to articulate your understanding of self-identity in your paintings?

I’m always interested in the idea of self-awareness and the subconscious. One of my paintings from 2018, The Shadow, depicts a tiny baby who casts an impossibly large shadow that dominates the pictorial plane. The ego (the conscious mind) and the shadow (the unconscious mind) are in a constant tug of war to find unity, as one simultaneously attempts to realize one’s self and adapt to cultural norms.

In his book The Gay Science (1882), Friedrich Nietzsche argues that “thoughts are the shadows of our feelings—always darker, emptier, and simpler.” Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings, such as Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914), are littered with odd juxtapositions of objects, the exaggerated shadows of these components rendered with illogical perspectives and scales to evoke an unsettling mental space. Is it also your intention to manipulate scale to intensify the psychological effects of your pieces?

Scale is a highly selective device, especially when you reverse the expected relative scale. A few paintings from 2013 and 2014, such as Set Dressing (2013), The Swing (2014), and The Lesson (2014), were based on advertisements targeting children in the 1950s and Key Words, a set of books published in the United Kingdom to teach children English. The children in my paintings resemble the ones in those didactic materials: monumental, idealistic, or even propagandistic. On the contrary, the misbehaving middle-aged men are depicted as tiny and insignificant, like ragdolls for the children to play with.

There is a story behind creating those paintings. I wasn’t into painting in this realistic style because I never liked the idea of learning one particular technique and copying an image—but I was hoping to bring socialist realism into the conversation: the collective mind, sociopolitical idealization, and the artistic aspiration for technical impeccability. I first outsourced one of the works to someone in the US, but it turned out like a thrift-shop painting. British or American artists couldn’t paint in the style of social realism anymore, because the social and cultural conditions in the West have changed. One of my friends who taught at Beijing University told me that artists in China could paint it perfectly and swiftly. So I hired a Chinese artist. 

TALA MADANIThe Swing, 2014, oil on linen, 96.5 × 64.8 cm. Courtesy the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.

Speaking of scale, I am looking at a small painting about the size of a large catalogue, on which a baby is shown crawling in front of a technicolor window. I just saw the same image on a much larger canvas, probably taller than me, in the other room. Is the small one a work on its own or is it a study for the large one?

It might start as a study, but it more than often ends up being a stand-alone piece. When the scale increases, the same image can expand from the center of the viewer’s gaze to their peripheral vision, which transforms the viewer’s spatial relations with the image.

The scale also corresponds with the ego of the work. If a painting calls for a small ego, a big space will fail it. It then becomes diluted to the point of embarrassment. An idea needs to be articulated within the adequate space. When I increase the scale, my technique must move up with me, be it the size of the brush or the thickness of the paint.

What about your animations? How do you decide on the scale of the projections?

Animation affords the accessibility and mobility that painting does not have. I have imagined all kinds of possibilities for my animations to be seen in Iran, where it’s difficult to show works by contemporary artists based in the West. The animations could be displayed on a TV monitor, on a phone, or projected on a wall. When I make the stop-motion works, I paint each frame in a way that makes them appear more direct and fuller, so that I don’t have to rely on texture or scale to communicate the idea. As a result, the videos could be projected big or small. They become more about the narrative. I should add that the effectiveness of my animations also depends on their dialogues with the rest of the works on view and the architectural space in which they are situated.

By incorporating time-based pieces, I hope to augment the dynamism of a group of displayed paintings. As a painter, I have to be okay with time on a completely different scale. I often think about my paintings in relation to the history of figurative painting and the history of photography. Each of my paintings depicts a decisive moment. Once the image lands on the canvas, the temporality is fixed: not one second earlier or later. The cognitive impact of a painting is so much richer than any split second of a film across times and places, because moving images are activated with contingency. 

You have so many sketchbooks in your studio. How do you move from sketchbook to canvas?

I constantly sketch in my sketchbook to let ideas flow. Once an idea solidifies in my mind, I will paint it directly onto the canvas. I want the painting to index my physicality: the stream of my consciousness, the tempo and pressure of my hand, and my attitude toward the subject.

Do you always paint from imagination?

Yes. When I was a child in Iran, my mom sent me to learn calligraphy first, then painting. I was taught to draw and paint from imagination, which has stayed with me. If I copy an image it disrupts my physical connectivity with the material. I would lose my focus on the idea, and the painting will lose the quality of immediacy. I want the viewer to attest to the physicality in
my work.

TALA MADANIA Solo, 2019, oil on linen, 50.8 × 42.9 × 1.9 cm. Photo by Lee Thompson. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Over the past ten years, the lines and silhouettes in your paintings have evolved. Your early paintings were rendered with crisp, fluid, and elongated lines that are reminiscent of calligraphic brushstrokes, such as in your 2008 work Dirty Starts. The male figures of this painting also fully occupy the pictorial plane. Now the brushstrokes of all the “shit moms” are short, fat, undulating, and lacerated, forming distorted but visceral shapes. You leave a lot of empty space in the compositions, such as in Shit Mom (Disco Babies) (2019). In A Solo (2019) and Figure in Rainbows (2019), the silhouettes appear blurred and foggy. What brought about these changes? 

My previous crisp lines and silhouettes reflect my commitment to the marks and the image. Now that I look back, Dirty Starts was almost like a line study. I made a rake with a crossbar toothed with the same brushes, so that I could make four lines at a time via one brisk gesture. The lines look quite uniform.

The blur has been gaining traction in painting. We, not only artists, but also society collectively, are very much in a space of flux and uncertainty. Blurs are in because we are becoming uncomfortable with the idea of a concrete reality. It’s almost absurd to commit to crisp lines that express unequivocality. There are historical precedents. During the tumultuous 1960s, Gerhard Richter painted blurry canvases using historical photographs of atrocities as references. The nebulous images call to mind camera movements and the erasures of the scenes, which suggest moral complexities, memories of trauma, and the degradation of history. 

TALA MADANIShit Mom (Disco Babies), 2019, oil on linen, 195.6 × 203.2 × 3.2 cm. Photo by Lee Thompson. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

What about the horizon line and the grid? Sometimes these elements are in your paintings. What do they do for the picture?

The grid or the horizon line is merely there to suggest an interior space, but I don’t want anything too explicit or for the image to appear realistic. If you remove the horizon lines, the figures are floating in a flat non-space, or an art-historical space, specifically that of American minimalism or color-field painting. The grid creates a different realm, implying psychological and sociocultural dimensions inherited from modern art history, spanning from Lyubov Popova’s constructivist paintings to Sol LeWitt’s minimalist sculptures.

Color too functions in a metaphorical way to create a specific emotional space. For instance, purple is often seen in precious stones. It represents a surreal domain of dreams. But I always prioritize lines over colors. Together, I want them to evoke a world of the subconscious.

You have until now situated your subjects mostly in interior settings with the trappings of the everyday. This trope is very much in dialogue with 17th-century Flemish paintings that represent figures in domestic spaces tending to their daily rituals and private affairs in order to explore the theme of inner worlds. In contrast to these historical paintings’ moralizing overtones, however, your works are transgressive. What kind of an inner world are you revealing?

The figures in my paintings are definitely not doing anything moralistic: neither writing love letters nor cooking family meals. Mine are reckless in their domesticity: ejaculating, smearing feces on the wall, and humiliating one another.

In my new body of work, Shit Moms, the interior became more specific: a bedroom in the twilight, white window curtains fluttering in the air, an abandoned room with broken windows, a dark discotheque. The “shit mom” and her children are enclaved and disoriented in an inner world of uncertainty and anxiety.

TALA MADANIShit Mom (Sandcastles), 2019, oil on linen, 58.1 × 40.3 × 2.5 cm. Photo by Lee Thompson. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

In the painting Shit Mom (Sandcastles) (2019), a mom and her three babies are on a smooth, buttery beach, and in Shit Mom (Dream Riders) (2019), they are melting in an effulgent vanilla sky. Why, for the first time, have you taken the protagonists outdoors?

The mom and kids go to the ocean to be dissolved in the water— a powerful symbol associated with the collective unconscious. In Carl Jung’s 1932 lecture at the Psychology Club in Zurich, he argued that if people dream “of baptism, of going . . . into the water . . . they are being pushed into the unconscious to be cleansed; they must get into the water for the sake of renewal.” 

Installation view of TALA MADANI’s Corner Projection (Time), 2019, oil on linen, two parts, each 182.9 × 365.8 × 3.8 cm, at “Shit Moms,” David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, 2019. Photo by Lee Thompson. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery.

In contrast to the bright exterior world, the interior spaces of your works are shaded and moody. The tension is heightened by your depiction of theatrical lighting sources and cinematic effects. Kelly Shindler, curator at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, wrote a brilliant analytical essay on illumination in your paintings, in which she states: “Light . . . is a formal optical device that directs the viewer’s gaze to key focal points in [Madani’s] work. Yet it also serves as an agent, an actor alongside her funny men. Light, whether realized as a glowing beam or a spray-painterly stain, acts upon her subjects . . . variably obscuring or illuminating them. This dual-sided strategy points to one of the larger aims of [Madani’s] practice, which quite literally is to shed light on deeper considerations of representation, cruelty, and truth.” Does the artificial lighting that you render in your paintings also have a metaphorical meaning? 

I always think of the world as an image being projected onto a black backdrop. For the show “Shit Moms,” I created a few diptych paintings that were hung in the corners of the gallery, with the individual halves perpendicular to each other. In Corner Projections (Time) (2019), for example, one panel depicts a projector that casts rays of light onto the adjacent panel crowded with ghostly and frantic figures fleeing from an illuminated, Ben-Day dotted screen and into the darkness.

Perhaps the world is after all an optical illusion. When you switch the projector off, it will disappear into the darkness, where the waking consciousness collapses into a lucid dream. 

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