Shadi Harouni: Paved Over and Other Stories
155 Plymouth Street
April 21 – May 22, 2016
by Avi Alpert
Shadi Harouni. “When I got ill…” 2015. Monoprint on paper, 44 x 30 inches
In Jerry Saltz’ widely-read attack on the “new abstraction,” there is a subtle hint that good works in that category are still out there to be found. Saltz writes that once upon a time, a vanguard of artists made great work that was later diluted by followers. He avers that this has now been reversed: “In today’s greatly expanded art world and art market, artists making diluted art have the upper hand.” While many have taken umbrage with Saltz’ critique, few have looked to those artists who are making abstraction but do not have the upper hand. There are in fact many artists who are using abstraction in serious, committed, and aesthetically meaningful ways. We should be less concerned with defending or debasing those at the top, and more invested in engaging these profound practices.
A case in point is Shadi Harouni’s recently-opened exhibition at A.I.R. Gallery (Dumbo): Paved Over and Other Stories. Working in print-making (notably not painting), Harouni gives us four unsettlingly beautiful works about histories of violence, oppression, and denial in Kurdistan and Iran. I mark their beauty first and foremost because some of what is at stake in these other works of new abstraction is precisely the relationship between beauty and violence.
These are not the zombies of abstraction, as Walter Robinson put it. These are exorcists, undoing abstraction’s erasure of history. It is well-known that Barnett Newman, for example, found spiritual meaning in Kwakiutl sculpture and the Fort Ancient mounds. But the history of genocide that gave him access to this spirit is erased in his works. New abstract work like Harouni’s returns to the beauty of abstraction but in order to render its violence, not wash over it in a spiritual baptism.
One of Harouni’s techniques here is to make her titles mini-narratives, such as the one I have reproduced here: “When we got ill in my childhood, my mother would take us to the Qazis’ (the leaders of the Independent Democratic Republic of Kurdistan, executed in 1947) grave in order to heal; it was a shrine and my mother told us that they were martyrs.
“This probably led to the decision of the Iranian government to remove the graves. They did not say, of course, that they wanted to remove the graves. They called it a ‘forestation’ project at the foot of the mountain where the cemetery lay. Thus they built a footpath a few meters off the graves and removed many tombstones, including those of the Qazi’s (I do not remember the exact date but it was either in 1959 or 1960). I took the pictures after the tombstones had been removed. When taking the pictures, I was cautious to pretend I was photographing the landscape, not the graves. Also, I did not give the film to a local photo shop. It was developed and printed in Tehran.”
The image that results is “When I got ill…” (2015) as seen above. The three dots could be graves; they could be mourners; they could be trees in the new landscape; they could be developer ink; they could be three people praying to martyrs or pagan gods. For all we know, they could be bombs on their way. Abstraction allows Harouni to show how all of these things co-exist in the landscape, and how there is beauty and violence and erasure and healing all available in one thickly-layered space.
And it further complicates our perspective – are we looking straight into the horizon, or is this a vertical view, as if from a bomber plane? It is precisely in this vertigo of perception that abstraction is produced, that the clear lines of truth are blurred, that the official attempts to pave over history begin to crack even as they hold firmly onto power. Abstraction here emerges in all its ambivalence: it is the tool of the repressive state to paint over martyrdom with placid nature as much as it is the tool of the artist to recover the palimpsest of pain and beauty at the site.
Part of the trouble with the recent critiques of “zombie formalism” has been an abstraction of abstraction itself. Abstraction in these critiques is treated as a commodity of the art market. But you do not need to go to Kurdistan to know that techniques of abstraction are at the heart of hegemony everywhere – whether that is in the collection of data by governmental spy agencies or the abstraction of person into consumer through various anonymous search algorithms.
One of the key but overlooked points of David Simon’s The Wire was precisely this: that cities go to hell when people become statistics (of capital extraction, of murder stats, of educational test scores). It is also telling that the first and last things visitors to Laura Poitras’ show at the Whitney see is abstraction: first as a series of surveillance data, and, on exit, their own bodies as sensory-heat images. James Hoff’s making of abstraction via computer viruses, as well as Anthea Behm’s coerced abstraction to avoid copyright infringement, are also part of this counter-history of contemporary abstraction. They are not using abstraction as zombies of a bygone era; they are entangling with its pernicious use in our present.
Saltz may be right about Lucien Smith and company, and he may not be. But if criticism is to be critical of the market, it shouldn’t merely replicate an interest in the market’s artists, even if negatively. We should also be seeking out those practices of abstraction that do not vindicate life as it is, but nevertheless produce beauty from this damaged world, driving us mad trying to understand how such divergences are possible.