Plucking something — anything — out of its original context, placing it in a different setting and letting whatever new meanings or implied meanings emerge from the unexpected juxtaposition: such an “appropriationist” gesture lies at the core of postmodernist art-making “strategies.” Often the results of such moves are new ideas or new aesthetic propositions, the essence of which is almost always, in some way, self-consciously ironic. Get it?
This routine has been going on indefatigably for almost a century, ever since Marcel Duchamp placed his “readymades” — an industrially manufactured, porcelain urinal; a metal bottle-drying rack — in exhibition settings and called such objects “art.” Duchamp’s actions also helped spawn an outlook or attitude, according to which anything one might stumble upon or choose to observe may be regarded not for what it is or purports to be (or say) but rather, when viewed with a certain irony-fueled, “transgressive” sense of detachment, as something bemusingly “other” than what it is or purports to be.
So it is that many a pomo maven savors an encounter with a specimen of authentic kitsch, because the self-consciously effusive shot of sentimentality that is the essence of this genre — in artworks, gestures, poems and more — is so deliciously easy to send up, to mock, to ironically flip.
But what if the emotional character of a work of art is both innocent and self-aware at the same time? What if the results of an art-maker’s expressive efforts are simultaneously matter-of-fact and unwittingly transgressive? What do — or can or should — pomo devotees make of works of art whose supposedly sentimental components are tempered, if not overwhelmed, by their technical bravura and thematic richness and originality, not to mention their all-around strangeness?
Conversation, an exhibition of 11 oil paintings on canvas or board by the New Jersey-based, Iranian-born artist Marzie Nejad, which will open next week at Luise Ross Gallery in Chelsea, may offer an opportunity to put some of those aesthetic-critical questions to the test. That’s because Nejad’s theory-free, spontaneous work defies easy labels. A former nephrologist (kidney specialist), who spent many years working at a well-known Manhattan hospital, she is completely self-taught and also completely unassuming about her art-making, even at its most ambitious or audacious.
Take “Frida” (2012) — please! — one of the centerpieces of this exhibition, a picture of Frida Kahlo, that unibrowed, cult-worshipped saint of Mexican modernism, tranquilly asleep in a Chinese-style canoe as it tumbles over a waterfall, whose high ridge is topped by the ruins of an ancient Roman aqueduct. Or consider “Memory” (2014), with its undulating row of vine-filled flower boxes perched on teetering pedestals, which roll out into the far distance of the pictorial space against a curtain of foggy color that is joyously multi-striped, like a rainbow. Where do such images come from?
Elsewhere, Nejad offers an unexpected answer to Edward Hopper’s iconic painting “Nighthawks” (1942) in her own nocturnal scene, “The Predicaments of Modern Man” (2012), which shows mannequins trapped inside storefront windows as they break through the glass long after the day’s commerce has ended. In “The Blind Target” (2011), a young woman in a bright-red, exuberantly unfurling dress commands the floor in what appears to be a dancehall. The gumption with which Nejad undertakes to realistically render the dark sunglasses-wearing, apparently blind woman’s high-stepping form — there are anatomical irregularities here, quirky wrinkles in the perspective there — is as much the subject of this picture as the human figures it depicts.
Those kinds of perfectly “imperfect” details are, of course, the hallmarks of many forms of folk art and of works created by autodidacts. They impart to the artworks much of their character, edge and charm. So what if a shoulder or hip underneath a garment appears to be slightly out of place or proportion? In such a picture’s self-contained world, the elbow’s connected to the thighbone! Anyway, no one ever stopped Picasso from putting ears where noses should be, or eyeballs just about anyplace he could find to stick them. In Nejad’s image of an energetic, dancing woman, damn it, it’s all about that luminous dress!
“My pictures come more from visions than from my dreams,” the artist, who moved to the U.S. in the early 1970s, told me in a recent interview. Soft-spoken, cordial and sincere, she explained that, while growing up in Tehran, she taught herself to paint by copying printed reproductions of 19th-century Russian paintings. She recalled, “One day my brother brought home some painting supplies to make art but he never really pursued it. I discovered those supplies and became much more serious about it. I loved making art.”
Since a local cultural association made a steady supply of those reproductions available, Nejad found herself copying the works of Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844-1930) and members of “The Wanderers,” an independent artists’ society that sent exhibitions of its realist-painter participants’ canvases out into Russia’s provinces. “Later, in museums in the U.S., I saw paintings by Vermeer, Magritte and Dalí that I really liked,” Nejad said. But it was the work of accidental “teachers” like Repin, who in an 1878 self-portrait resembles a Brooklyn hipster straight from Bedford Avenue, on which Nejad cut her artistic teeth.
Now retired, Nejad had a first-ever museum showing of her work at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey, in 2011. (The artist has said that she retired from medicine in order to devote her time to her art.) Conversation is only the third solo, public presentation of her paintings and her second with Luise Ross, a veteran dealer of self-taught artists’ creations — years ago, she played a key role in bringing the outsider Bill Traylor’s now-emblematic drawings to market — and of unusual, contemporary-art forms. Ross, who founded her gallery in 1983, tends not to shy away from art with challenging features that make it hard to categorize, such as the psychologically intense, hallucinatory drawings of the Texan Thomas Burleson (1914-1977) or the meticulously crafted works (in wood and other materials) of a group of conceptualist-oriented artists she discovered in Iceland a few years ago.
“I’m not following anything; I’m not motivated by any theory,” Nejad explained in her friendly, straightforward way. “My paintings might not be popular because conceptualism or some other way of making art is more ‘in’ these days, but why should I change my style?” She spoke sincerely and she laughed, but with no trace of irony.
Marzie Nejad: Conversation will be on view at Luise Ross Gallery (547 West 27th Street, #504, Chelsea, Manhattan) from April 24 through May 31.