TALA MADANI, Projections, 2015, oil on linen, 203 × 250 × 4.8 cmPhoto by Josh White. Courtesy the artist, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, and Pilar Corrias Gallery, London. 

First Light

Tala Madani

MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge
Iran USA

Tala Madani’s paintings can be repulsive. And witty, absurd and sinister, often all at once. This discordant medley of attributes is amplified by Madani’s virtuosic style that borders on the cartoonish. A few facile brushstrokes and a spray of the airbrush is all Madani seems to need to create her tableaux depicting the misdeeds of men. In recent years, the gross-out humor of Madani’s canvases has frequently tipped into the realm of the perverse—like with the man milking his own enormous penis that has curled above his body (O, 2015), or a grizzled Santa Claus impersonator urinating through a hole in a gift-wrapped box onto a Christmas tree while a baby in a crib is looking on in horror (Tree, 2015). Madani doesn’t hesitate to embarrass her cast of chubby man-children, or her viewers. There’s urination, masturbation, defecation, brutality, torture, interrogation, and intimations of suicide and even potential rape, all mixed together in a way that somehow remains humorous—which troubles us with the questions of how and why.

In her recent paintings, many of which are see in “First Light” at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there’s a new character: the smiley face (or “Smiley”), which Forrest Gump viewers know dates to the early 1960s when it became a symbol of happy-hippie culture. The hapless vapidity of the symbol has been rescued somewhat from clichéd hippie-dom in the form of emojis today, but in Madani’s hands, Smiley’s banality is linked with evil, as in Projections (2015), which depicts three men holding projectors that shine smiley faces down onto a cast of forlorn inmates. In the similar-looking Sainted, four smiley-faced but shadowy men on an upper floor, projecting smiley icons over the heads of five naked detainees seated below, turning the face into a cruelly ironic halo in what looks to be a situation of abusive captivity. Going further into the realm of torture is Love Doctor (2015), which shows Smiley in a lab coat with a pair of scissors in hand, ready to remove a man’s nose (Smiley himself has only eyes and a mouth). Levity prevails occasionally, as in an untitled 2015 work where the smiley faces float across a darkened grid and begin to resemble calligraphy, or as if illustrating some pun about “free-floating signifiers.”   

In addition to the paintings, “First Light” also includes two stop-motion animated films. Eye Stabber (2013) depicts a painted figure covered in black-and-white photographs of eyes, stabbing those eyes until they run rivers of blood, in a kind of mass attack of self-castration (the eye being linked to the phallus in surrealist and other films). The second film, Ol’Factory (2014), is funnier and also riffs on the philosophical, as it depicts a man in a cave (think Plato) sculpting objects from clay or feces and hurling them at the viewer as he breaks the fourth wall. In a nearby canvas, entitled Dirty Protest, Madani again conflates defecation and art-making: the work depicts seven children, some of whom are painting the walls in feces-brown using a roller, while another is urinating a smiley face onto the wall, and others are sculpting little brown piles on the floor. In Madani’s emasculated realm, everything is devolved into its most elemental and most puerile Freudian form.

Although “First Light” was co-organized by Henriette Huldisch, curator at MIT List Visual Arts Center and by Kelly Shindler, associate curator at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, where the show originally debuted in January 2016, it seems more like a gallery exhibition than an institutional one—that is, a straight-forward display largely of recently created things, rather than any kind of deeper reflection on them. The discursive framework of “First Light” (as judged from the wall text and brochure) is largely descriptive and lacking much context or interpretation, while making little reference to the artist’s trajectory or previous works, such as her past interest in the world of djinn, the mischievous humanoids of Islamic theology whose parallel universe sometimes invades our own. Instead “First Light” foregrounds several obvious elements of the works, such as her satirizing of men (there are only men, and now a few babies, in her paintings) and the prevalence of certain tropes, like “cinematic” light and art-historical references. “Ultimately, her work presents a larger reflection on human cruelty, fantasy and folly, coupled with the wary recognition that humans are somewhat ridiculous and grotesque, just because they are human,” the brochure text concludes tautologically.

TALA MADANI, Love Doctor, 2015, oil on linen, 40.6 × 36.2 × 1.9 cm. Collection of Christina Papadopoulou. Photo by Josh White. Courtesy the artist. 

Perhaps this feeling that “First Light” resembles a commercial gallery exhibition has to do with the fact that many of the works—at least 18 out of the 25 works, including four of the largest-sized canvases in the show—came from Madani’s July 2015 solo presentation “Smiley Has No Nose” at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, making “First Light” almost a reprisal, or elaboration, of that exhibition. It’s quite a remarkable moment when two curators working at two museums organize an exhibition and end up pulling more than 70 percent of the works from a single commercial gallery show that happened just the previous year, almost as if the gallery’s exhibition had toured to their institutional spaces. (To David Kordansky Gallery’s credit, its press release about Madani’s works is more richly informative than the one produced by the two institutions for “First Light.”) The reasons for this cannot be good ones—whatever they are—particularly given the lack of additional discourse “First Light” brought to Madani’s works, even if it afforded audiences in Boston and St. Louis a chance to see her paintings firsthand. If museums can’t build on the conversations initiated in galleries, then what is their function?   

TALA MADANI, Eye Stabber, 2013, digital video, color, silent, 1 min 35 sec. Courtesy the artist and Pilar Corrias Gallery, London. 

Tala Madani’s “First Light” is on view at MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MA, until July 17, 2016.

HG Masters is editor at large at ArtAsiaPacific.