Art In Conversation
NICKY NODJOUMI with Phong Bui
On the occasion of his second solo exhibit, entitled Invitation to Change Your Metaphor, with Priska C. Juschka Fine Art (October 28 – December 30, 2010) the painter Nicky Nodjoumi stopped by Art International Radio to talk with Rail Publisher Phong Bui about his life and work.
Phong Bui (Rail): Even though I know that you’ve been showing your work quite consistently ever since you came to New York in the early ’70s at Leila Taghinia Milani, Artists Space, Pierogi, Stefan Stux, and many other galleries, I didn’t really come into direct contact with your work until the two exhibits in 2004 and 2006 that you had with Mike Weiss Gallery, as well as last year with Priska Juschka (2009). One of the most striking features, the landmark Nodjoumi feature, is the way the images, whether animals or figures, or a particular part of their bodies, get cut off, sliced off, taken away, and replaced normally on top or below, with other parts of the bodies that constitute for their supposedly proportional configuration as a whole. Yet the two parts never seem to amend to each other in the exact place where they were cut off initially. They split into some form of irregular or asymmetrical structure, and I would associate them almost with trees in the forest being cut off by chainsaws. One anticipates with fear that the tree will fall over.
Nicky Nodjoumi: It first appeared at the beginning of the American-Iraq War in March 2003. The reference is really about the dislocation of the body, implying the dismemberment of body parts that were lying all of over the city of Baghdad, caused by the heavy bombing and consequential war that followed. For many years I had been working with imagery that dealt with two opposing views in the same painting: the section on top represents our reality, the bottom represents some other reality. In early 2000 I experimented with having various objects such as tools, flowers, photographs, and my own hand partially submerged in water. I was intrigued by the visual distortion that created a dual reality. This experimentation resulted in a series of paintings called “Two Views.” After the second Iraq war started, this concept of cross-canvas duality transitioned, quite naturally, into fractures and dislocations of figures. This was a reflection on the instability of the dialogue and the relationship of power. So it was natural that one would lead to another body of work with a similar motif.
Rail: In some ways, had any of the images gotten cut off any differently than horizontally or vertically, the paintings would appear less stable than they already are. I haven’t seen any of the imagery get cut off diagonally.
Nodjoumi: No. I did paintings that were stretched and manipulated diagonally, but diagonal distortions weren’t working for me. I was looking for ways that would refer to the violence, and dividing the body seems to work as a pictorial motif best on vertical or horizontal planes.
Rail: I also noticed the shifting of the scale among the imagery, which is an element you seem to share especially with Neo Rauch. Though unlike Rauch’s impulse toward exploring the background and the between spaces among the figures that generates his collage-like structure—which essentially makes his paintings very intimate despite their large or small sizes—you construct your painting like a still-life, often with a prominent horizontal line below and almost an empty background, and often the images get painted just right on top, or overlapping the horizontal line, hence creating this sense of monumentality. This is something that Guston had observed from Morandi’s still life paintings, which he gradually adopted in his late figurative work by the late ’60s. Can you talk about your sense of composition?
Nodjoumi: First of all, I didn’t want to have any background that represented anything. Instead I was looking for a monumental gesture in the painting that confronts the viewer right at the level where they can see it. That’s one of the reasons why I prefer the figure to be full size.
Rail: Relatable to your own body.
Nodjoumi: Exactly. Large canvases with full-size, eye-level figures create confrontation or rather a confrontational dialogue between the painting and the viewer. I like the empty nothingness of the background because it conveys a nonspecific reality to the point that reality becomes an abstraction. Although, at times, I use recognizable political figures that put the viewer in a specific time and place, the void in the background helps to focus the viewers attention to the dialogue amongst the figures rather than the time and place.
Rail: Something else that I think most of us who have followed your work have noticed is that by painting your personal narrative, not autobiography, you essentially chronicle Iran’s political history. This inevitably brings us back to your origins: you were born in 1942 in Kermanshah, a city west of Tehran, not far from the border of Iraq, which suffered tremendous destruction during the Iraq-Iran War.
Nodjoumi: That’s right. Complete destruction.
Rail: And what was your upbringing like?
Nodjoumi: Kermanshah is an ancient city, which has the distant monuments of the past kings of Achaemenid and Sassanid. It’s a beautiful city, and I grew up and stayed there until I was 20 years old. Actually at that time the whole population was no more than 200,000 as compared to over 800,000 today. At any rate, there wasn’t much of an art scene when I was growing up, but I always knew that I would become a painter from childhood. I remember in preschool the teacher asked everybody to make a doodle. And I did a fantastic rooster. And they were shocked: How did I do it? [Laughter.] But the thing is, there were a couple of artists in my family: my grandfather and my granduncle were really fantastic artists.
Rail: They were accomplished artists.
Nodjoumi: Yes, but they painted mostly portraits, landscapes, and things of that nature. And when I was in high school, my cousin Abolhassan Nojmoui was an awesome painter, and we would paint together in his studio. We made many copies after reproductions of Russian artists like Shishkin, Repin, Aivazovsky, and a few others. Actually we were good at it and sometimes we’d sell the paintings. Then one day something happened: a friend of mine, Ali Asghar Masoumi, came to Kermanshah to visit me and he saw my work and said, “What the heck are you doing? Don’t copy anymore. Why don’t you paint from life?” And one day he said, “I am going to the countryside to do landscape; do you want to come with me?” I said, “Of course.” So we packed up our easels and went off one early morning to the countryside and started painting—I didn’t know what to do! He said, “Just do it!”
Rail: Like the Impressionists!
Nodjoumi: Exactly. You know what happened? By the end of the day we would look at the painting, which was quite crude, but he would always say, “This is it. This is what Cézanne does.” Then, the next year—it was 1962—I went to Tehran after graduating from high school to participate in the general exam in university in order to get into the Faculty of Fine Arts. It was difficult to pass the general exam, but I did it, and that was how I got in the program at the Tehran University of Fine Arts.
Rail: Was there a teacher who gave you a push towards self-realization? I mean enough that you would trust that being an artist would mean a lifetime commitment.
Nodjoumi: Yes. Although he was not my teacher, Ali Asghar Masoumi taught me how to approach painting differently. And he looked just like Gauguin. He was tall and tough. And the way he talks, like: “What the hell are you doing? You should stop copying.” His work identified with a traditional style of painting in Iran, which is called qahveh-kaneh, meaning “the paintings that hang in the coffee shops.” You could say that we were practicing post-qahveh-khaneh school of art, which didn’t interest me that much. So by the time I got to the Faculty of Fine Arts I began to paint in the style of, as you call it, Western painting. I did all of the requirements and I got my B.A. in 1967. And soon after I had a scholarship to go to Paris to study at Beaux-Arts. But tensions rose in 1968 due to the uprising in Paris, the Algerian and Vietnam War, and student strikes everywhere, so everything was canceled, and by 1969 I came to the U.S.
Rail: Did you come directly to New York?
Nodjoumi: Yes, and the main reason that I came was my congenital heart condition. The doctors in Iran couldn’t operate on me. So they recommended that I go to the United States and look for Doctor Denton Cooley. I ended up having surgery at a hospital in the Bronx, which no longer exists. But when I first arrived in New York I didn’t speak any English, so I went to study at the New School.
Rail: I don’t want to project my own sense of displacement, but I’ve always had this feeling about those who have grown up in their birthplace and come here as grown-ups: they try to assimilate different things, take wide interests, and allow experiences to change them in the process. It’s very hard to negotiate between your past and your present. How did you negotiate yours when you were here?
Nodjoumi: I had a hard time. You know, after my heart operation, I immediately got involved with the Iranian Student Association, which was a political association working against the regime of the Shah, for democracy and freedom of speech. And this was a time when the Vietnam War was at its peak. And the New School was the center of all the political activities among the universities in New York, especially downtown in the Village; so I was studying English while participating in all of the protests, demonstrations, and everything that was happening.
Rail: Was it for Iran or for Vietnam——?
Nodjoumi: Everything! [Laughter.] Black Panthers—whoever had any cause, we would get involved and support them. Actually, I stopped painting, for a couple of years, partly because I thought that painting was not able to convey the urgency of political situations. So I made posters and focused on other forms of activism instead. Around 1973, I got married, and my then-wife, Nahid Hagigat, was also an artist. She had studied art education at NYU. Meanwhile, one of us had to be a student in order to stay in the United States. So I decided to go to NYU to study filmmaking. I thought that filmmaking would be the one medium that would reach a larger audience, especially with political content, but I couldn’t do it because it was too expensive. So I went to CCNY—City College of New York—for my graduate work, where I earned my M.F.A. During this whole period I did not want to stay in the United States. I just thought that it was important for me to go to Iran and be there and participate in the struggle with the people. But when I finally went back to Iran, SAVAK, the secret police, had all my files of activities in New York City. They interrogated me for three months. They would ask me to go two or three times a week to sit in an empty room with just two chairs. By the end of each day, two people would come and sit, and they would write the question, and I had to write the answer. No talking. After three months they wrote, “Why are you here?” I said, “I finished my education and I want to teach at the Faculty of Fine Arts of Tehran.” A couple of days later, they said, “You are not allowed to teach in any cultural institution in Iran. The only thing you are allowed to do is show your work.” After that, I had one show every year until the Revolution. In 1978, I took a bunch of paintings that I did here in New York with me to Iran. I thought that the situation was good, so I asked my family—my wife and my daughter—to join me. But we didn’t know what was going to happen: the Revolution. I was, as you can imagine, participating in every demonstration, every sit-in against the previous regime. Needless to say, they closed down the museum during the Revolution, and when the museum reopened, in 1980, I had my second show in Iran, which was a retrospective of my work including over a hundred paintings, drawings, and monoprints at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Included in the show was a numbered series of 10 large paintings titled “Report on Revolution.” One of the paintings depicted several chaotic scenes of death, dying, and demonstrations with a central image of Ayatollah Khomeini leading a group of prominent clerical figures against a backdrop of traditional Persian miniature mountain-scape. Actually, I didn’t even go to the opening, but a couple of days afterward, the Islamic Republic printed an article in which they criticized the show as being anti-Revolution, anti-Islam, and anti-the-leadership-of-Islam. It was really a personal attack on the painting and me. The museum staff was notified by the “neighborhood committee” that a mob was going to attack the museum in protest to the anti-Islamic content of the show. They were able to take down the previously-mentioned painting and stop the mob from damaging the rest. However, the show was taken down within a couple of weeks despite my official protests. Anyway, two weeks after the show, I left Tehran right in front of the United States Embassy before the hostage crisis on November 4, 1979, which lasted until January 20, 1981.
Rail: What happened to the work? Does the museum still have them?
Nodjoumi: Interestingly, 20 years later, when I finally went back to Iran to see my mother and my family, I went to see the new director of the same museum, who is a very nice guy. His name is Alirenza Sami-Azar, and I told him, “Let me tell you this story. I don’t have any claim. I know it happened during the Revolution. But I’m interested to know what happened to my paintings!” [Laughter.]
Nodjoumi: He was shocked. And he said, “It’s a shame for the museum that so many paintings have been lost. Let me have some time to investigate and find out what happened.” “That’s fine,” I said. Then two weeks later, just before I left for New York, I went to see him. He said, “You have had a nightmare. This thing did not happen here. There is no documentation that such a show has been here.” But I told him, “I have saved the article that criticized the show, and I will send it to you as soon as I get back to New York,” which I did. Years later, before he was fired from his job, or he may have resigned, he sent a message saying that 40 of the paintings had been found. “But you have to prove that they belong to you.” [Laughs.]
Nodjoumi: Now he’s resigned and this situation made it worse. [Laughing.] So I can’t do much. And I let it go. I mean, I saw the new huge catalogue from the museum, which includes two of my paintings and it notes that they were purchased in 1977, which means they were bought before the Revolution. And it was simply a total lie because I know what the museum bought from me not those two paintings. That means they wanted to attack the two paintings that were done at that show.
Rail: Well, unfortunately, Nicky, the same thing happened in my country, Vietnam, during the war as well, in a variety of similar forms. In any case, to another front: I’m not sure whether there is a choice in the matter, but increasingly in the last two decades, ever since the globalization of art became more of an accepted norm in the ’90s, there has been more willingness to understand deeper implications of art that really comes from a synthesis of cultures, and the subtleties that really lie below the mere physical appearance of the imagery. An artist like Ardeshir Mohassess is a good example. In fact, you and Shirin (Neshat) curated an exhibit of his work for the Asia Society two years ago (2008). I mean the clarity and his emphatic use of lines make no apologies for their references toward Western artists, including Daumier and Jacques Callot, particularly Callot’s famous 18 etchings called Miseries and Misfortunes of War, which undoubtedly influenced Goya in his own version during the Napoleonic war. There is also a presence of James Ensor as much as Mohassess’s interest and admiration of Persian miniature and primitive arts, particularly Rousseau. Similarly, one can say about your paintings that there is an intricate balance between Persian metaphor, Iranian iconography, and as much as, I would say, Neo-Expressionism, which more or less emerged at the time you were in New York in the mid to late ’70s. What was your impression of that period, coming somewhat from the outside looking in?
Nodjoumi: I struggled with it, even though I knew when I left Iran, for the second time in 1981, that this was it, this was a new beginning for me. I had to adjust myself to the situation. I went through a lot of changes. I even did minimalist work, non-figurative work. I remember taking it to some of the galleries, including John Weber gallery, and they liked the work but were hesitant to show it. But that wasn’t really what I wanted to do; it was rather an attempt to adjust myself with what was going on in the art world at the time. That was the only reason. At the same time I was doing semi-abstract and figurative work combined. I went through a lot of changes; I used some of the iconography that you mentioned earlier from the Persian miniature writing and calligraphy. At times the paintings are just horrible, with thousands of things happening at once. I essentially put everything I was thinking of in those paintings. But it was alright that I didn’t go much further, because at the time Minimalism was the dominant form with conceptualism coming up in the tail end, and my kind of work wouldn’t make any sense in relation to either. Finally I decided to throw everything out and clean it all up, telling myself, “let’s just paint one figure at one time and not place it anywhere, just a barren landscape.” The first interesting thing happened when I showed them to Joe (Amrhein) at Pierogi. He really responded to them well, leading to the show (1999), which was a breakthrough show for me. None of the paintings had any Iranian iconography, all showing more influences from Western arts. You could say the concept behind it could have been Iranian because it is about the relationship between art and politics. Slowly I began to develop it more and more, incorporating the conceptual idea of having not a political message but a political situation in the painting.
Rail: That makes sense. We had already talked about your compositional application of still life-like structure and that you wanted the figure to be life size, and other things, but I also feel that, increasingly in the new works, there is the sense of a theatrical/stage-like construct in which the artificiality of motion lends itself to a kind of ironic and satirical display of men of power in the politico-religious sphere, or simply men who have genuine curiosities in all things. For example, in “Loose Comedy” (2010) or “Searching for a New Experiment” (2010), the two paintings evoke a sort of medical examination that has no real purpose, except for this strange cryptic dialog between those being examined and the examiners; it makes no sense, there is no actual rapport. You mentioned that you had tried to make films, but have you any training or interest in theater?
Nojoumi: I am interested in the picture of theater mostly because the process of the development of my work was a slow and gradual build up of story over time. I normally use a smaller size paper and cut out images, changing their situation and making them out like they are on stage. I make them to play with each other even though the play could be absurd because there is no relationship between the characters whatsoever. But the point is to make some kind of interesting situation that at the same time could surprise the viewer.
Rail: Right. Are you an admirer of Artaud and his Theater of Cruelty?
Nodjoumi: I’m an admirer of the situation he presents as the cruelty of reality. So any picture, any newspaper clip that I find could resemble that situation, I use it. Then maybe the answer is yes.
Rail: The reason I ask is because some artists, like Nancy Spero, whose work I admire, identify with Artaud’s work insofar as the spoken word is identified with various fragments of the body. Whereas in your work one somehow sees the similar language caught between thoughts and gestures. For instance, in “Expanded Rules” (2010), the man in the middle standing on a rock with his right hand is about to slap the baby’s behind though he is distracted by the upside-down dog below the horizon. Or you can read it differently: his hand gesture has already been made while the other two figures, on the left a naked woman, on the right a dressed man, are connected by a straight line through their gazes. But what ultimately connected all three figures together are the four straight lines drawn from their dislocated bodies.
Nodjoumi: That’s right.
Rail: Not to mention the shifting back and forth between parts that get painted in color, against segments painted in black and white, which only amplifies the greater dissonance of imagery. But I wonder whether your occasional use of the diamond motif, otherwise known as motley, refers to Picasso’s rose period from 1904, which signals the transitional work between blue and rose tonalities that stemmed from his admiration for the theatricality and the agility of the performers in the circus.
Nodjoumi: First of all, Picasso is one of my favorite artists and I love those harlequins, especially in his classic painting, “Family of Saltimbanques” (1905). But at the same time I worked on that painting (“Expanded Rules”) for a couple of years and had used different images. If you look carefully, the man in the middle resembles Bush. It was made during the time when Bush attacked Iraq and beating up the baby is kind of a reference to the relationship of power between the U.S. and Iraq. The first version wasn’t working out so I added the elements you are talking about later on. Then I painted the two figures on either side with two dilemmas in the same story even though there might not be any story, but I just had them there because it kind of resembles the rose period of Picasso. The dark section actually, at least to me, represents the dark side of what the middle guy on top of the rock is doing; that goes back to the two views representing two different realities.
Rail: What is the function of the dots?
Nodjoumi: I play with the dots as a decorative element. It was meant for a sort of surprise; but I also wanted to break down the figures and enter a different reality.
Rail: Yes, it can also be read as a spatial discrepancy, which is nice for the eyes to rest upon. And however diverse the repertoire of your imagery may appear, there is a resistance toward verbal configuration. This reminds me of Magritte and his own insistence on his paintings being a form of poetry, not literature. In other words, his images are to be read as metaphors rather than constituents of narration. To put it differently, to him the art of painting thus becomes the art of describing thoughts that lend themselves to being made visible, thus to evoke the mystery of experience. You talked about the two realities coexisting in your work. Is there a dialogue with Magritte?
Nodjoumi: Absolutely. Again, he is one of the painters whose work Ardeshir Mohassess and I admire. We both, when he was alive, would talk about his work constantly. And I agree with Magritte in that I can’t verbalize the work. I think the painting is the visual conceptual act and should come together by itself as a painting. I’m not able to describe the painting; I wouldn’t be able to say it well.
Rail: True, but we’re both trying very hard. [Both laugh.]
Nodjoumi: I mean the poetic part and visual part should be there. It’s true that I would love to show the cruelty and vulnerability in the painting; but at the same time I want those other aspects in it too. So if it is sometimes read as poetic, I like it.
Rail: Can you describe the relationship between the drawing and the painting? I have seen many drawings of uniform size and was able to detect a few that were made into paintings with a few elements taken out; then there were others with elements added in while many remained as drawings independently.
Nodjoumi: I love drawing. I guess all artists love drawing. Years ago I was painting directly right on the canvas without any study or preparation, which, to say the least, caused a lot of problems in the making of the painting complete. Finally I realized I should change my method of working by making small studies before painting.
Rail: When did this happen?
Nodjoumi: Probably 20 years ago I started thinking about it and 15 years, ago I actualized it. I made very small preparations, I did everything I needed to construct a small version, and then when it was okay I enlarged it to the size of paper that you saw. In this way I don’t lose much. I know the image, I understand it, and now I am able to control it on the canvas. Sometimes I eliminate some of the figures or motifs as the painting actually dictates what it will be next. I will have the original idea in it but through this dictation I will allow any changes to take place.
Rail: What is the significance of the frog image? I mean, most of us think of the frog as a universal symbol of fertility, because frogs normally lay enormous quantities of eggs.
Nodjoumi: There is one painting with the Ayatollah sitting and somebody is offering him a frog and he says, “I am hungry.” This probably refers to that part of what you said of frogs. At the same time I’m not going through symbolism as it is meant exactly. I was interested in the absurdity of the situation, of it being funny in a bitter way to see the Ayatollah sitting there and someone offering a frog.
Rail: So there are three steps to your process: a smaller sketch into a mid-size drawing, then once the drawing is selected it will finally be made into the painting. Could you talk about the biggest painting in the show, “Caught in the Way?” What was the genesis of that image?
Nodjoumi: This was done last year and, as you know, the election in Iran was a fraud, causing a big uproar there and abroad. You could see the violence and despotism happening during this demonstration, and I was really heartbroken by the situation. Because since I’m aware of myself I’ve been struggling to push a kind of democracy in Iran where all of us could be living easily and expressing whatever we wanted to. There was a big hope during the revolution that was devastated by the despotism of these religious people. I thought, “this time it might make my heart really broken.” So I have these heavy things to work with. What happened was I saw a picture of four guys walking with determination, you know what they are doing, so I changed the composition of the men and put the head of Khomeini in it among other people. This was to say that this was the whole group prevailing in this horrible situation. So I did only a small drawing because I knew that I had the image with a clear idea. The change happened while I worked on the painting, just to clean it up, but the idea crystallized immediately.
Rail: The other painting, which may have been painted around the same time, was “I’m Burning.” It shows a woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot on June 28, 2009, and became the most televised image, probably since the Vietnam War. Can you talk more about that context? Did the painting come right after or before “Caught in the Way?”
Nodjoumi: It was done simultaneously but I saw the killing and I was sad and maddened. But I didn’t want to do a portrait of her, nothing sentimental. The idea was with me until I read more about Neda. In one of the writings her last words were “I’m burning.” When I read that one, the image suddenly popped into my mind so I started working right away. I had the Ayatollah on one side, I had the Basiji on the other side, and underneath is just the skull. I didn’t go for a deeper meaning; I just wanted to kind of hallucinate “I’m burning.” I could see she is like a burning statue on a pedestal.