Shotgun Review


By Art Practical Editors November 15, 2011

We approach most art as a kind of vessel, whether it takes the form of a flat canvas or a three-dimensional object. In both the making and the interpretation of art, our shared task seems to be to fill it up—with color, with figures, with gods, with language, with scraps of culture, with things. As critics, we add to the brimming mass, drawing out meanings, cobbling together associations, and pouring our guesses into the cask.

Approaching the works of Hadi Tabatabai currently on view at Brian Gross Fine Art in San Francisco requires a shift in focus. Tabatabai's "thread paintings" contain neither color nor figures; with the visual markers of meaning withdrawn, these works speak in the language handed down from twentieth-century Minimalism. For Tabatabai, as for artists of earlier generations, the tasks of paring down and emptying out have become redemptive though rebellious gestures. Privileging form over figure, our attention shifts away from all of the messy content within and focuses instead on the vessel itself: its surface, shape, and materiality.

The geometries and simple expanses of Minimalism did more than evacuate content; they provided us with a new language and way of seeing. The flat planes of Tabatabai's works are populated by black-and-white threads pulled taut over dark fields. From a distance, these threads melt into one another, forming bolder shapes where negative and positive space is interchangeable. In Portals, the Iranian-born artist's second solo exhibition at the gallery, many of the works assume the familiar outlines of passageways—a simple rectangle gesturing towards the shape of a doorway, the panes of glass in a window.



Thread Painting 2011-1, 2011; wood, thread, and acrylic paint on Dibond; 17.13 × 33.5 × .94 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Brian Gross Fine Art, San Francisco.

Articulated in the accented tones of Agnes Martin's visual vocabulary, whose graceful geometries converted Tabatabai to the use of simple forms, these works are experiments in repetition and focus that strive toward perfection. Critics have written elsewhere of the "meditative" quality of the works. They are steeped in stillness, but have a tendency to open up as viewers draw closer; the fibers of the threads disrupt the crispest line, reminding us that these are the marks of the artist.

Though they mimic the hollowness of a vacant vessel, Tabatabai's works are not empty. Conceived of by the artist as gestures rather than static lines, Tabatabai's threads both capture and conceal. For the artist, these threads are documents of his actions and expressions of his intentions, quiet as they may seem.



Portals is on view at Brian Gross Fine Art, in San Francisco, through December 23, 2011.



Liz Glass is a writer and curator interested in performance, media, craft, avant-gardism, and liminality. She has her Master's in Curatorial Practice from CCA, where she ran the PLAySPACE Gallery and worked on exhibitions at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. She is a finalist for the ACAC Writing Fellowship.

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