1.8 / Review

Situation Critical

By Mary Anne Kluth February 10, 2010

Taravat Talepasand’s exhibition, “Situation Critical,” recently on view at Marx & Zavattero, was composed of a complex body of work. The included images deploy a host of symbols through which the U.S.-born artist negotiates aspects of her identity as an Iranian, American, female artist from a Muslim background. In egg-tempera paintings, a series of graphite drawings, a pair of prints, a large collaborative oil painting, and a decorated motorcycle, she interweaves political, personal, and art histories with repeated images of herself. Rather than articulate a simplistic or didactic agenda, the results reveal ambivalence and instability.

The exhibition’s two hand-altered archival pigment prints are rich with meaning. In The Greenback #1 (2009) and The Greenback #2 (2009), published by Electric Works, Talepasand enlarges Iranian currency to over 10 by 19 inches in size. She incorporates herself and other Westernized figures into the official imagery. Using graphite to draw in the spaces left blank during the printing process, she alters the appearances of field laborers working in a pastoral scene, omitting beards and adding baseball caps, even turning one man into a long-haired woman. In the latter image, she turns a crowd of street protestors into an outlined silhouette, and draws in another long-haired woman, arm raised, wearing a long, dark robe.

Presumably, these two long-haired women are self-portraits. By visually inserting herself into the currency, the artist defies the gendered spaces of labor and political agency sanctioned by the Iranian government. But, more subtly, she writes herself into the official scenes of life in Iran; these scenes are designed to reinforce not only the sharp division of male and female life in Iran, but also the country’s larger national identity, pastoral ideals, and populist religiosity. These scenes are so familiar to anyone using this currency that they become subliminal or invisible. The stark contrast of printed ink and graphite and the delicate etched line and the scrubbed shading not only draws attention to the question of how Talepasand fits into these rhetorical scenes, but puts these scenes’ ideological messages under scrutiny.

The Censored Garden (2009) is a deceptively simple painting of a woman wearing an open chador and niqab (a long dark robe and a veil covering the face below the eyes), surrounded by decorative flowers painted on a shaped canvas, peaked like a mosque window. The woman’s torso is exposed but pixilated; her tilted, draped head, and slightly outstretched hand echo emblematic images of the Virgin Mary. The pixilation directly reiterates the effect of wearing a chador, negating the shape and details of the female body. The fact that Talepasand has painted herself like this suggests that she understands censorship comes as much from within—internalized as modesty or shame—as from religious stricture or the state.

The Censored Garden, 2009; egg tempera and gold leaf on linen; 44 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Marx & Zavattero, San Francisco.

Hafez, September 9, 1978, 2009; graphite on paper; 40 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Marx & Zavattero, San Francisco.

The pixilation also cleverly refers to the way mainstream American media deals with so-called indecent images of women. Reality television and late night Girls Gone Wild commercials titillate with pixilation, and networks clean up instances of accidental nudity, using the unfulfilled promise of voyeurism to sell air time and DVDs, while reinforcing a Protestant code of public decorum ultimately predicated on the idea that the female body is sinful.

Using her own visual language, Talepasand displays the combined effect of both cultures’  attitudes about her own body, revealing apprehension about both options, and hinting at the hypocrisy of either culture in condemning the other. As a feminist, and also as an American, I have no direct experience or context for wearing a chador, other than the symbol of oppression it presents to a Western culture. Based on my cultural experience and the ideologies I grew up with, I find any compulsory, dark, and shroud-like garment  frightening. That response drastically shapes my empathy with these self-portraits. However, Talepasand has clearly considered this possibility—that a viewer will project his or her own particular identity politics onto this work, either consciously or unconsciously, as I am doing—and she is interested in investigating this angle.

Hafez, September 9, 1978 (2009) is a mysterious graphite drawing of two women next to a wall in front of the intricate Tomb of Iranian polymath Omar Khayyám. The woman on the right has loose, shoulder-length, dark hair, has her arms folded under her coat, and is wearing pants. She is looking directly at the viewer, and resembles most of Talepasand’s other self-portraits. The woman on the left appears older, has her hair tied back, and is wearing a dark overcoat. She seems to be wearing a thin, dark veil over her face that comes from under her hair and tucks into the collar of the coat.

The sense of light in the drawing is hazy, with the top of the building fading into the white of the paper, and delicate shadows on the ground suggesting nearby trees. Particularly mysterious is the way only one woman’s shadow shows up on the nearby wall, while the other’s illogically disappears at the corner between ground and wall; instead of reaching nearly the same height, the shadow is cut distinctly short.

The title hints at the narrative of the image, as it refers to a date that falls within the political agitation leading up to the Islamist Revolution in Iran. It is also the year before Talepasand was born. The rendering is so tender and ghostly that it brings up tantalizing questions: Who are these women? What is the occasion for their visit to this landmark? What do the strange veil and the truncated shadow mean to Talepasand? And how does this moment relate to her life?

Though her meticulous painting and drawing style suggests an earnest exploration, the images cumulate into an impression of the effort and anxiety involved in forming a necessarily unstable cultural and personal identity. Talepasand’s personal and oblique approach to the cultural tension between the United States and Iran allows for a complex and nuanced understanding of cultural identity, an understanding increasingly scarce in current popular political discussion.


“Taravat Talepasand: Drawings” will open at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on February 13, 2010. “Situation Critical” was on view at Marx & Zavattero in San Francisco until January 30, 2010.

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