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Tala Madani, “Smiley Clean” (2015), oil on linen, 16 1/8 x 14 1/4 x 3/4″ (photo by Josh White, image courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, purchased with funds provided by Anousheh and Ali Razi)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Men are dogs, but their shit grows into trees and their urine forms the sun as they defecate themselves in Tala Madani‘s oil paintings. We should be grateful for these men’s gifts — nay, we should see right through their gifts, for in “Tree” (2015), Santa pees right through a present to water that pitiful gray Christmas fir with a few streaks of watery yellow.

When the phallus becomes just another dribbling blob, when man begins to fornicate with a pile of his own shit in stop-animation (“Ol’Factory,” 2014), it’s difficult not to pity Madani’s subjects, currently on display in First Light at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. But is her deeply cynical work also necessary to remedy some anguish? Does it gesture towards offsetting the millions of canvases depicting honorable men throughout the history of art?

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Tala Madani, “Love Doctor” (2015), oil on linen, 16 x 14 1/4 x 3/4″ (image courtesy Collection of Christina Papadopoulou, photo by Josh White) (click to enlarge)

Dripping with not only sarcasm but also humor and muddy pigments, Madani’s series ridicules that all-powerful human who was, in her version, born bearded and unsmiling, and who will be haunted by the glowing white halo of a smile in whatever afterlife he may find. There is no glory in these canvases, only false brilliance — like the flashlight illuminating a sandbag head in “Becoming Brilliant” (2013). Without grace, within these humiliating scenes, Madani is uninterested in allowing her pudgy, cartoon-like human subjects to learn from their mistakes. Three stand together, nude, watching three happy yellow smiley-face stick figures. The men clutch their noses, noticing the smiley faces’ lack thereof — a comic castration — but not recognizing the larger significance of the confrontation.

Then again, even the viewer might have trouble understanding why these men are so disturbed by (or clearly distinct from) sunny optimism. And for laughing alongside Madani, one does not escape attack. In “Ol’Factory,” a lone man frantically reshapes the aforementioned pile of shit. With great hostility, apparently noticing the audience, he lobs a clump of this dung at the viewer from his cave, which is full of it.


Installation view of ‘Tala Madani: First Light’ at MIT List Visual Arts Center (photo by John Kennard)

When, in the video “Eye Stabber,” another man finds himself alone in the dark, he begins cutting his bodysuit to bits, revealing dozens of blinking eyes emerging from his skin. At first they are painted eyes, but then they morph into collaged videos of real human eyes. The cartoon man struts, admiring his surreal body, but as soon as the lights flick on in the video to reveal his environs to be a parking lot, he realizes he is being surveilled. With the scissors he’d used to cut the suit, he stabs the eyes infesting his body — simultaneously injuring his critics and himself. Stripped bare and crippled in pain, he walks into the distance, eventually disappearing to leave behind only the pool of blood. Madani’s paintings soak up that blood, extrapolating upon an inevitable moment of man’s decline. Though one could search for a more specific sociopolitical argument in the work, Madani’s cartoon forms beg for a more universal reading. Judgment, it seems, by the artist as well as viewers, is the ultimate harbinger of both violence and humiliation. Man is ready to be illuminated.

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Tala Madani, “Eye Stabber” (2013), stop-motion animation, color, silent, 01:35 min (image courtesy the artist and Pilar Corrias, London)

Tala Madani: First Light continues at the MIT List Visual Arts Center (Wiesner Bldg, 20 Ames St, Cambridge, Mass.) through July 17.

Mira Dayal is an artist, critic, and curator based in New York. She is interested in questions of value, color, and embodiment in video, performance, and installation-based works.