For three hot days, a show of street art by artists of Iranian descent, Made in Iran, is up at the Openhouse Gallery in Little Italy. Created by a team of two brothers, known as Icy and Sot, it’s a show of high impact stencils that pack a punch with just a few symbols.
It’s refreshing to see work shown in New York from artists proud of their West Asian heritage that isn’t explicitly about being Middle Eastern. Walking through the packed opening, what appealed to viewers was the intense visual impact of the stencil style and a symbolism that hits notes of irony, nostalgia for childhood and a good dose of angst. Themes that viewers can dig whether they are from Brooklyn or Tabriz, where these brothers grew up in northern Iran.
Icy and Sot’s style maximizes the effect of stenciled spray paint. Stark silhouettes, a few bright colors and economic compositions that focus on the figure and leave the background mostly white and blank are hallmarks in this show. The works resemble tattoos — and tattoos for walls is not a bad metaphor for street art.
For example, “Blindness” (2012) depicts a young man’s face with black stencils against a white background. The red blindfold screams out visually. “Forbidden” (2012) portrays another monochromatic boy with red eye wear. He sees right through the forbidden signs put upon him like glasses and grins. It’s a clever take on how teens see so much through the lens of what is forbidden.
A red heart was a motif in several works, playfully literalizing the metaphor of a broken heart. A red heart is a deflated balloon dragged on the ground by a disappointed little girl “Broken Heart” (2012), held on a stretcher by a boy-girl team that doesn’t look very excited “Lorn Life” (2012), or falling down from a man’s chest with a black heart shaped hole suggesting where it once was “Torned Hurt” (2012). The little girl in “Broken Heart” was an obvious reference to Banksy’s famous girl distressed that her heart-shaped balloon is flying away, but closer to home the red iconic heart also appears in the work of street artists Chris Uphues and in a whole series of works on New York’s streets in 2011 by Franco-German street artist L.E.T. (Les Enfant Terribles). It’s a potent symbol that never disappears.
In Renaissance art, one speaks of attributes, which are objects that reveals the identity of a figure. For example, keys dangle from St. Peter’s hand, arrows pierce St. Sebastian or fur skins clad John the Baptist. Icy and Sot also use objects to tell us about their figures, to reveal their psychology and emotions by how they interact with objects. It’s a clever strategy for building up layers of meaning without the help of a caption or other expository text. These artists are familiar with the conditions imposed by street corner where there is no press release to explain what we’re seeing.
Icy and Sot are toying with the benefits of economy. With a just a few colors, a handful of silhouettes and shapes, and a figure interacting with an single object instead of a cluttered background, the have found a way to hit some loud notes. One gets the sense that although they’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these compositions, they could be executed very quickly while still managing to get the point across. Such a swift and exacting approach undoubtedly has its uses on the streets.
Icy and Sot: Made in Iran will be on view at the Openhouse Gallery (379 Broome Street, Little Italy, Manhattan) until August 25.