NICKY NODJOUMIInspector’s Scrutiny, 2012, oil on canvas, diptych,  215. 9 x 330.2 cm. Courtesy Taymour Grahne.

Chasing the Butterfly and Other Recent Paintings

Nicky Nodjoumi

Taymour Grahne
USA Iran

NICKY NODJOUMIThe One Who Sees What is Hidden, 2011, oil on canvas, 215.9 × 165.1 cm. Courtesy Taymour Grahne.

NICKY NODJOUMIIn the Shadow of a Cloud, 2013, oil on canvas, 243.84 × 152.4 cm. Courtesy Taymour Grahne.

Demonizing a faceless man in a suit is about as subversive as wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt. He’s a crooked politician, he’s the status quo, he’s corporate America, he’s The Man—enough already! From American Psycho to Occupy Wall Street, suit-as-symbol has been used and abused so much it has lost all critical power. It’s time to dig deeper.

Which is why it’s too bad that fledgling New York gallery Taymour Grahne chose to open its very first show with a series of blandly critical statements by Nicky Nodjoumi, whose oil paintings lean heavily on the iconography of a powerbroker in a suit to get their message across. “Chasing the Butterfly and Other Recent Paintings” is a selection of Nodjoumi’s work from the past three years, and includes full-color canvases and several ink studies. The primarily large, three-meter finished canvases showcase his way with color and technical fluency, but are undermined by their flaccid political message.

Nodjoumi was born in Iran in 1942, and lived there on and off until permanently decamping to New York City in the early 1980s. He has said that his experiences both in his home country during the precursor to the Iranian Revolution, and in the United States as a protestor during the Vietnam War (he had a brief stint in New York from the late 1960s to early 1970s), have inspired him to critique systems of power in his work. It’s his personal history that scored him the inaugural show at Taymour Grahne Gallery, whose eponymous 24-year-old founder first cut his teeth writing a blog about Middle Eastern art. Grahne has said that he plans to continue highlighting artists with connections to the region.

Some of the paintings in “Chasing the Butterfly” are indeed beautiful, such as The One Who Sees What is Hidden (2011), which is dominated by a vibrant ochre landscape that is perhaps more abandoned nuclear testing site than Arcadia. At the base of the canvas, two men in suits, rotated horizontally, shake hands. Most of the paintings focus on these kinds of figures who dash, dangle and loiter across the canvases. Nodjoumi works hard to make them ridiculous: he distorts and segments them, perches birds on their noggins, tangles them in strings and sends them chasing after butterflies, as featured in the piece for which the show is named. He rests tiny heads on big bodies and intersperses body parts with swatches of crosshatching and harlequin diamonds. The only women in these paintings were a couple of naked and faceless figures posed like props, such as in In the Shadow of a Cloud (2013). The male figures are drawn from American and Iranian news images, and Nodjoumi recently told the Huffington Post they were simply meant to represent “people of power.”

Despite all this action, some of the paintings feel flat. Even the most captivating piece, Inspector’s Scrutiny (2012), in which suited figures wrestle with a mule against a backdrop of two warriors drawn from traditional Persian miniature painting, is dispassionate. 

The problem with the works in “Chasing the Butterfly” is that Nodjoumi doesn’t seem ready to commit to any distinct message, context or event. Some of the figures look familiar—is that Clinton, or could that be Nixon?—but the resemblance is only incidental. Nodjoumi chooses to critique the idea of power by making fun of an archetype. Why be vague when you can be pointed? How do we stick it to The Man if you won’t say who The Man is? Nodjoumi knows his way around a canvas, but right now he’s all aesthetic. If he already has the vocabulary, he should decide what he wants to say.

Nicky Nodjoumi: Chasing the Butterfly and Other Recent Paintings is on view at Taymour Grahne from September 7–October 23, 2013.

Madeline Coleman is a writer and copyeditor based in New York.