Thursday 20 February 2014

Tala Madani


Tala Madani, at Nottingham Contemporary.

Seeing the exhibition of Iranian-American Tala Madani's paintings was one of those rare occasions where I did not know what to make of the work, and I still don't. Scatological humour has furthermore, never appealed to me.

Her paintings are cartoonish, irreverent, provocative, surreal, disturbing, bizarre, and after careful viewing, thought-provoking. Making men her exclusive subject, she connects the political with the personal to focus on issues of sexual identity. Her work reflects on masculinity, group dynamics, sexuality and power play, exploring these with humour as well as cartoon violence. She deconstructs gender relations, making male behaviour and violence her main subjects. She turns the often-subliminal perception of the male point of view as gender-neutral, against itself, revealing the inadequacies in human, and stereotypically male relations.  She is staging a feminist critique of patriarchy.

She has said that she uses humour to 'bring everyone's guards down', reducing competitive violence to an absurd impotence, using so-called feminine colours or patterns to apply to macho activities. Drawing from her Iranian heritage where strict social etiquette creates a division between the sexes, she turns a mocking gaze on the cloistered world of male-only get-togethers picturing these male domains in all their stereotypical glory. Using her position of 'other' she drafts her own elaborate fantasies, detailing a riotous underworld.

Her style ranges from lush painterly expressionism to loose, almost comical line drawing, while art historical references abound, from Action Painting, (Jackson Pollock), to Colour Field painting,  (Morris Louis), undermining the above with references to slapstick, chorus lines, underground comics  and graphic novels. 'Her paintings are informed by her medium's history, but she destabilises its authority by her use of pictorial and narrative devices that have no place in Modernist painting'. (from exhibition write-up).

Action Painting Room, 2012 (oil on linen)


Wall Painting, 2008, (oil on canvas)

Spiral Suicide, 2012 (oil on linen)


Red Stripes with Stain, 2008, (oil on linen)

'I see every mark on the canvas as a kind of character. Not to humanise, say, the drip in relation to a character, but each mark is loaded equally with meaning and play. The interaction between the figures and these signs usually creates the narrative of the painting. Using tropes of American Abstraction or Minimalism for instance, I'm interested in staining their respective mythologies'.

Open Mouth with Fire, 2011, (oil on linen)

Cupid Piss with Goggles, 2011, (oil on linen)


Ding, Boom! 2012, (oil on linen)


Piss Smiley, 2012, (oil on linen)

Chinballs with Flag, 2011, (oil on linen)


'I was always interested in figuration. When I focused my subject on men, my imagination became very activated. Men as phenomena! To think exclusively about men was much more engaging. I also became interested in the qualities that create stereotypes. I wanted to play with those qualities and introduce a new and perhaps different relationship to them.

Tree Decoration, 2013, (oil on linen)


Rear Projection: Soft, 2013, (oil on linen)

'In something like Reading Light the obvious phallic reference becomes a joke on light and vision. I've been playing a lot with the idea of a torch and the figures wanting to see inside their bodies. In the Reading Projection paintings they have a torch light up inside, a play on the idea of becoming brilliant, literally to have the light shine out of you'.

Rear Projection: Form, 2013 (oil on linen)

Rear Projection: Grand, 2013 (oil on linen)

The Dispenser, 2013 (oil on linen)

Set Dressing, 2013 (oil on linen)

 Brown Christmas, 2012 (oil on linen)

'The idea of play in relation to painting also became very important to me. Play opened up to slapstick. The manner in which the paintings are done, their looseness, gives space for these interpretations. Of course there is the funny funny and the not so funny funny. Humour and satire are certainly effective forms of approaching difficult subjects. I'm also very interested in the physical sense of release that humour can give us'.

 Dancer, 2012, (single channel stop motion animation)

Grand Entrance, 2012, (oil on linen)


Glass Roof, 2008, (oil on wood)

Blue, 2008 (oil on canvas)

X-Men, 2013, (oil and marker on linen)

Projector, 2011 (oil on linen)

The Whole, 2011 (oil on linen)

Fundament, 2013 (oil on linen)

Waiting Enema, 2012, (oil on canvas) 

Guts, 2011, (oil on linen) 

Light Balance, 2012, (oil on linen) 

Caution, 2012 (oil on linen) 

Lit Up, 2013 (oil on linen)

Popular Toys, 2013 (oil on linen)


The exhibition write-up


  1. Hmmn. This is the kind of art which needs its supporting and explicatory text it seems. I always think that unless the viewer 'gets' the meaning such pieces have more power to put folks off - well, it can put me off. Political work can of course be difficult to understand, but someone like William Kentridge who also uses graphic work is much more universally accessible, without necessarily having to have textual explanations.
    I also am not a fan of scatological humour - I find it puerile, and nothing more in this case without any further specific explanation. It is nonetheless interesting to have such work nudge one's thoughts from time to time, so thank you.

  2. Yes, hmmm - that was my initial reaction Olga, and in a lot of ways still is. I am glad we went to see it though, and it was fascinating seeing people's reactions: some were taken by it, some laughed out loud and kept doing so, and some were bemused. One of the stewards came up and talked to me at length about the work, he was obviously very taken by it, and he kept explaining his interpretation of the paintings to me.

    On one level the political message is quite clear: she was brought up in Iran where the sexes are segregated, men hold all power, and all of public life is male only. So, she is turning the tables and saying 'you are just silly in your power games, just like kids playing with their toys'. Similarly, scatological humour is very much a male province I think, so again, she is turning this on its head.

    But, there is more to it than that, and the Saatchi gallery link that I have provided at the end has some interesting analyses of some of her paintings that were not shown in this exhibition.

    When in Nottingham we always visit the Contemporary, and this is what we did this time without knowing what we were going to see. The other exhibition that was on was equally quirky, if that is the right word to use. They always have unusual exhibitions.