May 6 – June 26, 2021
Time and again, across the body of artist Ali Banisadr’s work, a viewer witnesses in his paintings a thing that might approximate a real thing, or a being, or a one, which might resemble a someone, or a body, or a person. But then again, upon a second look, maybe not. This initial perplexity is in part due to the artist’s vast accumulation of references—from the art historical (Hieronymus Bosch, Lee Krasner, Persian miniature paintings, to name a select few), the cinematic and pop cultural (both Star Wars and Akira Kurosawa come to mind), and the literary (The Epic of Gilgamesh and Dante’s Inferno have been sources of inspiration)—that surface in his work. The title of his current exhibition at Kasmin Gallery, These Specks of Dust, is itself an allusion to a Goya etching from the 1799 “Los Caprichos” series. Banisadr’s process may also contribute to the viewers’ frustration in their attempts to conclusively define, or name, what they are seeing. He composes his works through a form of listening: every color, shape, and brushstroke relate to a sound for Banisadr, resulting in a finished canvas that is really a virtuoso orchestration of paint. In taking bits from across time and genre and processing them through his own synesthetic technique, Banisadr ultimately shucks convention, rendering paintings that are entirely new. It is a deeply intuitive process.
Nearly all the works at Kasmin were made over the past year, when Banisadr, like most of us, was living under lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Red (2020) stands out in the gallery for its urgent color palette, the top half of the canvas awash with a tomato-hued sky, speckled with white marks. Below this sky is a thrash of indeterminate energy compacted into the lower half, a spatial turbulence that recalls those earliest, bewildering days of sheltering in place. In fact, the painting was completed in March 2020, just as the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic was becoming apparent, and one can’t help associating these dots with the aerosols and droplets we’d all so soon come to fear. Elsewhere, a painting titled Only Breath (2020), though much smaller in scale, conveys the heaviness of the moment in the somber, downward thrust of Banisadr’s brushwork and the deep shades of purple from which the nebulous, trembling creature at the center is constituted. Not only does Banisadr’s title reference respiration (the bodily function most directly under attack by coronavirus), it also alludes to a poem of the same name by 13th-century poet Rumi, selected lines of which include: “I am not from the East / or the West, not out of the ocean or up / from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not / composed of elements at all. I do not exist, / am not an entity in this world or in the next … / My place is placeless, a trace / of the traceless. Neither body or soul.”
The Messenger (2021), the epic nucleus of a painting that centers the show, creates a milieu that somehow feels simultaneously both familiar and alien. An array of ghostly figures whorl across the two-paneled work (Banisadr’s first diptych in six years), befogged presences that nonetheless orchestrate a brisk, definitive energy that anchors the painting. Helical shapes float amidst them, and one can’t help but confer the work’s title upon these forms, whose structure mimics the messenger RNA (mRNA) of which our COVID vaccines are constituted. A deep red sun presides over the painting’s entirety, though whether it rises or sets remains unclear. At the lower center, a green-clothed creature breaches the divide of the diptych, as if this wraithlike character is in mid-journey, leaving behind one world to enter another.
For the past year, much like the specter crossing the demarcation line of The Messenger, we have all been leading a liminal existence. Banisadr’s works seem to form a narrative that we are just on the edge of grasping, which might be an especially apt allegory for these strange days of tentative reentry from our bedrooms and backyards back into public life. His paintings of accretion synthesize into something we feel we understand bodily, though the mind may not fully grasp it intellectually. The brain always desires to take over, trying to organize. Perhaps better to encourage it to rest, and allow for the thrill of being swept away as we emerge from the world we’ve just left behind to enter another.