BY Richard Rhodes, Editor of the Canadian Art Magazine, January 2008
IT WAS AN UNLIKELY VENUE for top-notch abstract painting—a wood-panelled basement rec room on the northern edge of Toronto—and an unlikely artist too: Bobak Etminani from Tehran.
The visit to the basement was prompted by a phone call a month earlier: “Hello, I am a visiting artist from Iran. Is it possible to drop by your office and show you some of my work?” I said yes, and later that week Etminani, who is 50, showed up with a binder of images that showed paintings he has made over the past half-dozen years. They seemed exceptional, especially a series of recent grey paintings that looked like textured concrete stripped to a lunar sparseness, bearing references to both satellite photos and X-ray images.
I was taken with the paintings even more when I went to see them in person. They seemed to work with the right kind of contemporary abstraction, an abstraction no longer preoccupied with exposing material process, the concern that shaped modern painting for a century. Etminani is moving in the direction of the new abstraction that I have seen in Europe and North America in the past few years. It is a reinvented abstraction that begins with an understanding of the postmodern image world, an abstraction based on our immersion in image-based reality; yet it is also an abstraction that is resistant to the narrative ease of this image world and is resolute in creating a pictorial space within painting where images remain malleable and formative, open to the human engagement that shapes meaning as a negotiation of fact and sensibility rather than as a transaction of recognitions and readymade content.
Painting has always dealt in slowed time, which is why it has returned as a critical practice in contemporary art. The act of painting, and the act of seeing painting, engages a form of extended, structured perception that works against the grain of mass media and information culture. Painting asserts the physical and durational presence of things that can fall from the grasp of speedier modes of apprehension. It is not bound by language, nor is it represented accurately by photographic reproduction. Painting exists in the specifics of direct engagement—the kind of engagement that can jump history and make centuries dissolve when a viewer stands in front of a picture. The new abstraction directs this engagement into awareness of the intrusive image buffer that has come to insinuate itself into physical reality.
Etminani’s paintings clearly embrace this paradoxical terrain. As he says, “It’s like crossing post-painterly abstraction with hyperrealism.” His paintings have a sense of vivid material construction, but they also traffic in associations with the high-tech image making of spy satellites and CAT scans. This latent image field links a fluctuation of macro and micro scales to fluid, granular, monochrome surfaces—infinity in a grain of sand, you might say, but post-Blake and unromantic, with the CIA orbiting overhead, the body carrying cancer and broken cells—subsumed by a sober, leaden atmosphere lit by a harsh, surgical light. When I asked Etminani how much work had gone into creating the rough texture of the surfaces that you see in reproduction, he laughed. “They aren’t textured, they are flat, very flat,” he said. “They only appear textured. It is an illusion.”
Illusion is one of the bad words in modern abstract painting that requires explaining, referencing, debunking. For most of the 20th century good painting involved an affirmation of flatness, an insistence on painting’s planar reality. But paintings aren’t flat. They are objects, with limits and dimensions. They can be filled or covered with all manner of images. They are a prototype of complexity. Illusion is part of their nature, as is materiality, and Etminani insists on both. His paintings embrace physics and metaphysics in ways that seem acutely contemporary. He presents the real at a distance, and also the real that is hidden inside. With the format of his paintings, he also presents a real that faces us squarely.
That the work comes from Iran seems incongruous. For the West, Iran currently represents the face of repression. Its Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s has resulted in a font of angry medievalism. How does progressive new painting arrive from a studio in Tehran? Before the Khomeini Revolution in 1989, Etminani was in England studying medicine and writing poetry. By the early 1980s, he had settled in California, where he attended art school. In 1992, he returned to Iran and settled into studio life and teaching. When you ask, he insists that there is a vibrant contemporary art scene in Iran, but it is invisible to both authorities and the West. On a website that mentions his work there is an image of two young Iranian women standing in front of one of his large abstract paintings. By our measure of art viewers, they too seem incongruous, but also proof of the local audience he mentions. It is a testimony to the cross-cultural strength of his art.