BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — “I’d be OK with someone rolling up my work and smoking it,” laughs artist Taravat Talepasand on the eve of her opening at Beta Pictoris Gallery in Birmingham, Alabama. “Are there drugs in your work?” I ask. “Oh yeah,” she replies, “did you see the bust of [Ruhollah] Khomeini in the other room? His eyes are LSD. And the yellow paintings on paper; those are hash oil.” At this point a collector approached her and I went to revisit the works, checklist in hand. The yellow paintings in her exhibition Not an Arab Spring, from the LIONINOIL series, do possess a resin-y texture, while the eyes of the Khomeini bust roll with something between religious fervor and intoxication. What I’d taken to be portraits interpreting the artist’s own Iranian features and caricaturing the deceased leader are also art as drug mule.
Talepasand aims to provoke at many levels. Her portrayals of Muslim leaders are knowingly flippant — a gesture that would surely be censored in Iran, though in the US the risks are fewer — but her inclusion of illicit materials takes the provocation further by both parodying the image of Khomeini and making his image complicit in contraband activities, all at the hand of a woman no less. The choice of medium becomes crucial. A portrait made of drugs confidently declares “not only do I have the power to recreate your image” — to own it, in some way — “I will also consume it” — adding insult to insult — “and get high off it.”
The drug artworks, however, are noticeably less refined in tone and technique than the other works on view, perhaps a knowing trick by the artist to further undermine the dignity of her subjects. The other pieces in Not an Arab Spring are less burdened by both substance and politics, and allow Talepasand to exult in her fine technique. Exquisite egg tempera paintings on linen bear the weight of history in their wielding of both Eastern and Western references and modes of art making. “Khomeini” (2015) is a trompe l’œil painting of a poster of the leader rendered in yellow and orange tones but, aside from the palette, it’s a much more traditional depiction than the nearby bust. The poster is seemingly weathered, as if its tattered edges are curling and its bottom portion has mostly flaked off. Around the rips Talepasand created a layering effect that suggests older posters and bits of cement — the shallow archaeology of city walls. The real beauty of the painting is in these trompe l’oeil layers. Abstract painterly notes reside in the soft pinks and fine crosshatching of colors, suggesting that, as Khomeini’s influence wears away, Western ideals — represented by abstraction — will surface.
Another strong painting, “Andarooni, Birooni, Lies and Man (Insider, Outsider, Lies and Man)” (2011), weaves culturally specific art historical styles with nods to religious iconography. The subject of the painting is a classical bust of a bearded man who looks Western, bald like Socrates, but the artist explained to me he is a mullah, or Muslim man, painted with an eye toward marble busts of Greek philosophers. In this depiction, he’s a mullah whose turban is slipping off. The bust’s integrity is threatened both structurally and symbolically by exquisitely rendered flowers that seem to sprout from within and are carrying off the figure’s headscarf. This flora — much of which is heavily stylized in a nod to Persian miniature painting — emerges from the bust’s sides and orifices, covering the figure’s mouth with leaves and filling his ears with brilliant petals as if to render him mute and dumb.
While the aforementioned paintings provide much of the delight in the exhibition, Talepasand’s depictions of women hold the most intrigue, particularly two works on paper. The drawings, spare in composition but thick with dramatic force, feel potent and subtle. In “Sanctioned II” (2014), a woman wearing a headscarf stares out at the viewer. We see the top of her chest — flat as a youth’s, with two faint circles for areola — and shoulders sans arms, a shape that mimics the Greek-style bust of “Andarooni.” The figure’s face is heavily shaded, adding mystery but also drawing the eye to the way her headscarf morphs into a skeletal jawbone at her cheek. In “The Corrupt Minority” (2015) we see a Western version of the woman — both figures are likely modeled on Talepasand herself — hair loose around her shoulders, a wide-brimmed felt hat on her head. The shading is velvety, sumptuous, a stark contrast to her flesh, which appears to ooze off her face. The tone is appreciably gothic, the graphite work surefooted and refined.
Talepasand’s face appears more explicitly in one of the show’s loveliest paintings. An updated version of the bust painting, “Andarooni Birooni (Insider Outsider)” (2015) unabashedly positions the artist herself as its subject. Talepasand, wrapped in a vivid, embroidered headscarf, looks out from a canvas shaped like an Iranian arch and streaked in shades of blue. Lit like a Bollywood actress from the 1950s in tones of vivid green, her confident gaze refutes the conservative void in which she’s placed. Talepasand’s works confront ideas of Iranian heritage head-on, vacillating between portraits of recognizable leaders and male archetypes. Though many of these artworks are superbly executed, the pieces that make her own face and its discerning gaze the main focus carry additional strength and conviction.
Per the exhibition’s title, this work does not constitute a major political event, it does not have the weight of a mass uprising, nor is it directly connected to any conflict. What we see in these works is a record of one Iranian-American woman’s attempts to grapple with her difficult legacy, to transform it visually, to make something both beautiful and uncomfortable of this condition. It is the personal aspects that make this work sing. Whether it’s the party-drug wrinkle she brings to the faces she paints or the searing stare conjured in the portraits based off her own image, Talepasand is strongest when she’s playing off herself.