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born: Tehran 1963
and living Tehran / IRAN

Khosrow Hassanzadeh. The Man Who Gets Away With It.

One hot summer afternoon in 2004, I was writing a Frieze Magazine “City Report” on Tehran, and decided to visit Khosrow Hassanzadeh in his studio in the hope of assembling some professional gossip and collect a soundbyte or two, something that could sum up the Tehran art scene in a fittingly journalistic manner. I remember leaning back on his late 19th Century Ming Dynasty chaise longue, which decorates the far end of his workspace, eyeing the display of splendid Safavid spittoons and Qajar embroideries, sipping on Hassanzadeh’s favourite Vanilla Darjeeling and wondering how I could work all this scenographic detail into my article. Some would say arts journalism is superficial as well as sensationalist by nature, being a market lubricant more than a serious tool for critical contemplation, but it has the benefit of allowing for sociological detail as well as formal analysis without being obliged to tediously investigate the relations between the two. Moreover, it encourages wanton, brutal value judgment over gracious restraint, contrary to artist catalogues, which, much like wedding speeches and obituaries, call for cordial ovation and acclaim, rather than polemics of any kind.

And surely enough, Hassanzadeh, on that particular summer afternoon, perhaps because he has published widely in newspaper columns himself, gladly obliged, by summing up the local art circuit in words that were as condescending as they were perceptive, brilliant, and extremely funny. This was the kind of intellectualized arrogance, notabene, that you have to “pull off”, that you need to “be someone” to get away with. To utter words of such violent perspicacity, you need to be a downright icon, the type of person of which they say he “inscribes itself within the dialectics of inside and outside even as he tests the limits of those dialectics”. This is not just a matter of local-and-global, of Frequent Flyer aroma checked by neighbourhood know-how. Nor a mere question of conflicting engagements that are played out against each other, without granting any particular project – be it a personal engagement, a show, or a new piece- priorities of any kind. Nor it is simply an issue of a George Clooney chin and a streetwise swagger. But a combination of all those things and more.

Since I am not that kind of man, being a mere art world seasonal guest worker, a typical freelance curator without any neighbourhood links or streetwise authority of any kind, I cannot possibly repeat what Hassanzadeh told me, as relevant as it was to local art and global culture as we know it. Particularly within the context of this catalogue. But instead, I shall limit myself to roughly informed speculations on what difference it would make if the artist at hand was writing this essay himself. In simple terms, the question that seems relevant to me is: if Hassanzadeh is a Tehran-based artist who engages with popular traditions (as he says he is), how can this engagement travel beyond a “popular” context, into the confines of European shows with ethnographic subtexts? Even if we were to disregard the international venues, how to account for the fact that the Hassanzadeh environment consists not only of popular painting traditions but also of an art scene that it is deeply bourgeois in temperament, fraught with careerist competition, terrifying nose jobs, self-righteous gallerists, and old-school critics who cannot tell the difference between reading a painting and imposing an annoying grid of symbolic correspondences, “I’m old enough to tell you that this-means-that and this-here-actually-means-that”.

If in literature, the authorial persona has – in some ways at least – withered away into critical insignificance, in the arts, it seems the artist is still standing strong as an authoritative figure on the hermeneutic horizon. This becomes obvious when we consider how both one’s provenance as well as one’s professional status and curriculum vitae form the crucial criteria that decide on an artwork’s interpretation. But to be perfectly honest, it is also patent when we meet the artist, be it over Vanilla Darjeeling, or over cashew nuts and cheap champagne at an opening, this radically changes one’s approach in ways that would not affect the interpretation of a movie or a novel. Art’s inherent ambiguity leaves no alternative but to accept the near impossibility of separating these things.

Transcultural occurrences, where artists come to embody societal realities, simply help make this anthropomorphic approach to shreds of paint and paper, glass and celluloid, more visible. But the ventriloquy of artistic intentions exists absolutely anywhere, whenever curators grapple for easy solutions to tricky questions of audience response, and even in extreme cases of formalism, when the is artist perceived as an idiot savant, the intention of whom must be unearthed by a Greenbergian analyst, motivation and intentionality persist; “while the off-grey is an allusion to the early X, the recurrence of triangular motifs underlines the artist’s anxiety of influence with respect to Y, and please note that artist decided to frame this particular piece in fake mahogany only in 1966, when…” etc.

The authorial question is perhaps all the more complicated when it comes to painting, seeing as painting is increasingly expected to justify itself as a medium. For better or for worse, “Why are you still painting?” is a question with more zeitgeistian weight these days than “Why are you still doing installations?” No doubt Hassanzadeh’s early portraits are spectacularly strong, his War series grippingly morose, and his later forays into pop psychedelia intelligent and seductive. But aesthetic mastery aside, what, one might ask, is the motivation for painting in an age of the spatial, the photogenic, the Found Object, and the rule of concept over technique? Perhaps, one might say, there is such a thing as the wrong question, the kind which corners the interviewee in a lose/lose situation. Perhaps this line of reasoning only recognizes the potentials of painting with respect to a High Art narrative of medium-specificity upheld in select socioprofessional circles that aren’t the most exciting people to discuss art with in the first place.

That said, no matter how we would inscribe Hassanzadeh’s work within any international traditions whatsoever – as a shrewd reinvention of Magical Realism, a reinvention of Pop Art ready-mades, an example of activism or artistic critique, the vague notion of asking-the-wrong-question persists. Is this, too, a matter of this artist’s particular persona? In the aforementioned Frieze article, for example, I very much succumbed to the interlocutor’s aura. “Not everyone,” I blustered, “sees the Islamic revolution as a disadvantage for the arts. Painter Khosrow Hassanzadeh has a biography so dramatic and allegorical it is bound to satisfy any postcolonial enthusiast: from Islamic militant and war soldier to fruit bazaar vendor to an international career in the arts. ‘It was a tabula rasa, a degree zero,’ he explains. ‘Art used to be exclusively for local elites and New York galleries, then suddenly everyone was claiming to be a painter – including myself. It was democratic chaos.’”

So instead of saying, ‘Hassanzadeh uses a variety of different media, including copper and wallpaper, paint and photography, silk-screens and Photoshop, and counts Baselitz and Aghdashloo as influences,’ and so forth, I reconstructed him as some kind of icon, my only excuse being that it would be easy to sensationalize Khosrow even more than I actually did, and my one merit lying in the fact that I refrained from doing so. For I did not even mention Khosrow’s impressive forays into movie acting and Land Art, his passion for water polo and bareback horse riding, the tattoos on his forearms (“Mother” and “Metallica”), nor even his rumoured affair with Tabriz millionaire heiress Masha Laa. Nor, indeed, did I refer to his 50 Cent machismo, his notorious candour towards political decision-makers – “did you win your PhD in a raffle?” – and towards friends and colleagues, including myself, whom he regularly accuses of Orientalism and worse.

Interestingly, over the last few decades, the notion of artistic autonomy, of the artwork partaking in an aesthetic genealogy that transcends local context, has persisted alongside newer notions of art as a historical reflection of an ideological context. As various critics have pointed out, autonomy and context are in stark contrast, yet the tension between the two needn’t be as dramatic as some would like to have it. Particularly once we assume, for example, that “autonomy” needn’t imply an abstract, shimmering totality, but a strategic attempt to temporarily disregard the pressures of mainstream ideologies and financial pressures, as in, for example, even a simple conversation between colleagues, over, perhaps, a simple cup of Vanilla Darjeeling.

The current crisis in painting and the interpretation thereof has led to what some call a positive opportunity “beyond self-evident justification”, a situation that could provide painting with a “renewed conceptual basis”. This makes all the more sense when we consider the widespread, sneaking suspicion that artistic autonomy had better not be abandoned completely, lest we regress into ethnography altogether. After all, if notions such as autonomy or artistic intention have been around for so long, they cannot be disregarded as intellectual superstitions, arbitrary abstractions alone. For in this case, abstractions such as “nation”, “religious folklore” or “class culture” – all relevant in Hassanzadeh’s case – would need to be thoroughly debunked as well.

Surely, if art is never an attempt to minimize misunderstanding, an artist cannot be expected to be see-through, sincere and streamlined either. In other words, an artistic intention or an artist’s biography cannot be a mere reflection of a particular context, nor a heroic “transcendence” thereof (nor, as it happens, a combination between the two – a dialectic of the kind would lead to Kunstwollen- the artist painting High Art with his blood – which actually haunts all sorts of internationalist approaches to this day). Rather, one might define an artist’s link to context – whether this context is defined as “a bourgeois art scene”, “war”, “murdered prostitutes”, “aunts and uncles”, or “religious pop” – as a rupture that is unavoidably ineffective. An incomplete rupture or fissure – a fissured fissure, if you will – which will not offer informative data, but conveys narrative splinters and conceptual shifts that do tell a story nonetheless.

On the said summer afternoon, after my Darjeeling at Hassanzadeh’s studio, we made our way to an uptown opening on his Suzuki motorbike, and I was for some reason reminded of a series he’d once started and then abandoned, called Orientalist, a study of the figure of the Western explorer, juxtaposed with motifs from ancient Persia. I asked Hassanzadeh whether, as a matter of fact, rather than wag the finger at Western explorers, he shouldn’t concede that many locals were Orientalists themselves, in the worst sense of the word, upon which he answered that he was, actually, if anything, an “Occidentalist”, studying the patterns of his Western admirers rather than anything remotely Oriental. So in other words, most of his work, although an exploration of popular techniques, was ultimately a play on the phantasmagorias of the West. But he may have said something entirely different altogether, because at that precise moment, his Suzuki was dodging a construction site on Ferdowsi Avenue, and moreover, Hassanzadeh does have an annoying tendency to mumble, particularly when he has a cigarette dangling suavely over that George Clooney chin of his, so there really is no way of knowing what the man was saying. Perhaps the answer is somewhere else in this catalogue.

Tirdad Zolghadr

khosrow Hassanzadeh 's current location:
Iran,Tehran England,London , Iran

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