Smoke and Mirrors

Tala Madani

Lombard-Freid Projects
USA Iran

Just 26 years old, Iran-born Tala Madani left a strong impression on the New York art scene, selling out her debut show of recent works, all from 2006, at Lombard-Freid Projects in the Chelsea art district this spring. In her large- and small-scale paintings, Madani depicts the misadventures of a cast of abject characters—middle-aged men, paunchy and balding—employing the bracing, satirical efficiency of political cartoons. Indeed, her sense of spare detail and grotesque figuration recalls the illustrations of Quentin Blake, whose quirky drawings grace English children’s book writer Roald Dahl’s comic, twisted tales of moral comeuppance.

In some cases, a few looping strokes convey the round crowns of the men’s heads, as in the almost two by three meter canvas Bang Bang, featuring a limitless hajj-style pilgrimage procession rendered in brown outlines with off-white, pink and brown silhouettes. Madani achieves a remarkable diversity of character through squiggled expressions, compressing multiple narratives into one flat plane. Some men make suicidal gestures, pointing their fingers like guns into their open mouths. Others appear to be smiling, excited, pensive or disputing with neighbors. On the borders, yellow vertical lines suggest architectural details or iron grating, while arcing across the middle foreground additional yellow swirls evoke blinding holy light or simply a giant golden shower.

Elsewhere, Spill presents a half-pyramid of men stacked upon each other on their hands and knees. The men’s bodies are schematic red flourishes; their heads, in profile, consist of forehead, prominent nose and beard done in efficient black outline. Violent white strokes threaten the upper echelons of this clownish hierarchy, while a white pattern waves along the canvas’s bottom edge. These add a sense of draftsman-like play and erasure to the composition with its spare, cream-colored background, as though Madani was sharing her sketchbook rather than displaying a finished product.

While the large canvases explore repeated patterns and anthropomorphic “decorative” motifs, the small canvases—generally 30-centimeters-square and grouped in salon-style arrangements—delve deeper into brutally humorous vignettes. Ears Covered finds two men standing against a blank background festooned with party banners. One man covers his ears as thought bracing for an explosion; his partner’s head has been replaced by a pink birthday cake with a lone candle sticking out of it. In Cake Wash, three men press cakes into their own faces. Oddly, a mirror behind them reveals the back of their balding heads. In other works men argue, wrestle or tease each other, forming a composite panorama of a ritualized society of cake eaters that, in its activities, verges on emotional cannibalism.

Madani’s use of slapstick and simplified form makes these paintings inherently accessible and appealing, while she also finesses narrative figuration with abstract gestural brushwork. However, her art is strangely placeless, skimming the surface of possible political or socio-critical readings. A painting such as Spill alludes equally—poignantly—to idle fancy and the abhorrent images of torture from the US military’s Abu Ghraib prison. It’s unclear whether Madani aims to address the human capacity for Heart of Darkness-style horror or the absurdity of male-dominated religious theocracy. Like the children’s book team of Dahl and Blake, she understands that repulsion is attraction and, ultimately, comedy is the most appealing end game of despair.