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In February, Bruce Checefsky, director of CIA’s Reinberger Galleries, interviewed Nicky Nodjoumi, the artist whose solo show is on view in Reinberger from March 28 through May 2. Here is the transcript of their conversation.
BC: Do you think of yourself now as an Iranian Painter?
NN: I am a painter. Most of my life was in New York City. I grew up painting in New York City. I am as much as an American as I am an Iranian you could say, as a kind of a hybrid.
BC: Do you find that people talk about you in terms of that context, not that you’re misunderstood, but that you’re restricted or restrained?
NN: Unfortunately, there is timing. Because Iran is a country that is problematic and there are lots of problems happening there, and the painting is becoming problematic. I’m not sure if that wasn’t the situation how the painting would be received. Now because of the content of the painting, I am becoming an Iranian artist. But it’s not only content; it’s the painting that is really dangerous besides the content. But I am mostly aware and conscious of what the painting should be.
BC: One of the things I wanted to ask you about is just that, the relationship between these histories and the images you’re creating in your work, the political history of Iran. Your [paintings and drawings are] very beautiful but they also have that political punch to them. If you could talk a little bit about that...
NN: When I finished my bachelor’s degree at Tehran University I wasn’t that involved in [any] political situation; and I knew a little bit about what was going on in Iran. I participated in one demonstration against the Shah. It was only in the United States, when I came to the United States in 1969, and especially after 1970, I got involved with the Iranian Student Association. That was a politically active organization against the Shah’s regime for the freedom of political prisoners, and freedom of expression basically. It was an umbrella group of different student political organizations. So this was really how I was getting my knowledge of what was the political situation and history in Iran. Not only that, but it was also during the Vietnam War. At the time, New York especially, as well as the school where I was studying English, was very anti-war. So combine these two things together and I was becoming active in the political situation.
What I did at that time, I did a lot of posters. I had a workshop with the Iranian Student Association; we printed a lot of posters for political prisoners in Iran, for Bobby Seale, and Angela Davis, emancipation for the freedom of black people. Every group that was fighting against tyranny we would do something for them; including Palestine. Probably we were the first ones to try and organize Palestinians in New York City to do something. So that was my awareness of political situations, and that was why I got involved with them, then I decided to go to Filmmaking at NYU; but that was too expensive.
BC: Did you end up making films? It’s interesting because your work is very filmic in some ways; it has that sort of cinematic quality to it.
NN: No. I did a one-minute animation in the School of the Visual Art, which is not finished yet. (Laughs) Still working on it; but it wasn’t for me. It was too expensive and I couldn’t go for it, but that was the time 1972, I felt I really had to be a student so I went to study at City College.
I would have loved to have been a filmmaker, but I thought at that moment, that I might be able to express the ideas through filmmaking, but after I finished school I started doing my own painting. I started combining the making of posters and the other ideas that I had in the painting, in a very crude way.
BC: Did you always see yourself as a painter in a way?
NN: I think for that couple of years I thought that, you know, painting wouldn’t do much; painting is not enough; I need something stronger to express the feeling. But when I looked around and I was kind of disappointed with the political situation and the organization, I couldn’t go to the filmmaking, I don’t know whether I would have been a filmmaker, my temperament is a painter. So I went back to the roots.
BC: Has it always been figurative?
NN: In school I did a lot of minimalist work. I had a project that I had to do, so I did a lot of really technical, really good drawings. (Laughs) Amazing, the teacher loved it. But it was mostly abstract. So I started combining the figurative and the abstract and I thought through combining the figure with the abstraction I could come up with a new form. At that time the form was really more important than the content and by the time school was done I was becoming much more figurative.
BC: Did you always feel like the figurative work served your political interests better than the nonfigurative work?
NN: Right. As I said, I experimented some with the abstraction. The abstraction was all dark; just Rauschenberg hatching all around. It didn’t make any sense; you couldn’t read it.
BC: Did you feel that doing the posters and the figurative work was a way to reconnect to your cultural history in a way that you couldn’t find here?
NN: While making the posters I did this kind of political cartoon work, so these two things together really made sense. It gave me an idea of what could be done. But still I was in love with painting, and the quality of painting. I wasn’t sure I could make a caricature and make it into a painting. I was kind of a realist painter, that was my interest really, a realist with ideas.
BC: First a painter.
NN: First a painter. I loved de Kooning’s work, Arshile Gorky’s work, a lot of artists’ work who were first generation abstraction. I loved them. But I couldn’t do work like them (Laughs) and if I did, it didn’t make any sense. There was nothing for me to say; it wasn’t me anymore. I wanted to do figurative work with abstraction.
BC: And of course they contradict one another.
NN: In the middle of the 80’s and 90’s I did a bunch of work that the background is really abstract, there’s a different thing going on. And the figurative is on top, there’s really multi, multi, layers of paint. I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to go further and further to find another way. So finally I got tired of it and said let’s throw everything out and pick up one of the figures and put it in the ground and put a sky behind it and see what happens.
BC: But you didn’t pick up just any figure.
NN: (Laughs) No-- but that’s what the idea was. I started from throw everything out, keep one simple thing and see what happens. And that’s really the answer. A lot of people when they look at it, they got it. I didn’t have to go through all these things to make a statement. That one figure is both simpler and suggestive.
BC: I think that the painterly quality of the work is absolutely amazing.
NN: The contradiction between these two, the content and the good painterly quality, is not easy. It’s very difficult to combine them.
BC: So how do you do it?
NN: Just work on it, and find the solution. For example, the slicing these colors, these different motives come together to get into the painting to make it work, to not be only the content, the content is underneath it, and those are the things that formalistically I am trying to maybe take the tension off of the content and say, “this is a painting.”
BC: What’s the conversation that you have with the paintings?
NN: (Laughs) The thing that I said to you just now. I always have this contradiction. I have these ideas, but I don’t want to have this clearly political content or narrative content in other words. I want to formalistically be acceptable first, then try and say this and that. What’s really interesting for me is if someone would say this is a great painting and then if someone says there is something else involved.
BC: So actually you have found a way to combine the abstract with the figurative. Abstract in the sense that your paintings are very accessible because they’re very painterly. So if you understand the language of paint and painting you can access your work in an abstract sense, and then figuratively, they’re I wouldn’t say popular culture icons, but icons in the media that have been seen.
NN: Right, right, so that part is easy. So most of the time people today, they see that one first. Which is ok, the figurative part, which is fine. I mean it, I meant it, but what is the struggle, is that a painting is a good painting. It’s ongoing. Every painting I start is like the first painting I ever do; I’m as confused as ever.
BC: I wanted to ask you about the size of your paintings because they’re uniform. You’ve found a size that works for you. I have some ideas about why that might work for you, but I’m curious to how you found that size and why it’s so important to you?
NN: I think 1970 something, when I saw a show of Francis Bacon’s work, it was all the same size. That really appealed to me and I liked that uniformity of size. I don’t have more than three sizes. I’m beginning to have smaller sizes. But I like that uniformity. It was closer to Bacon at the time, to his size, but I’ve made it smaller for transportation and all these things. Then the longer one that you have, when I was in that studio, some of the people wanted to leave and they had the stretcher already made, so I said I’d take it and I thought it was a little bit narrow, which was a problem, people don’t go for that kind of narrowness. But if you put them together, you get the two together that is really the size and for my place that would work because I do sometimes do a diptych or triptych together for a size.
BC: I like that they kind of confront you. So they have a physical presence. They really demand your attention. And I also like the figures inside your work at that scale. Sometimes the figures are slightly larger than normal scale and sometimes they’re smaller. And then with Francis Bacon’s work they tended not to be one to one human scale, but there was some consistency to that, and that allowed you to kind of forget the frame and deal with the content.
NN: Right. I love that physical thing, and when I work, I kind of like dancing on the canvas. That would be the place where you can go around and do it.
I recently looked at him [Francis Bacon] again and it’s too empty around it. The attention goes right to the figure at the middle or in the corner. There’s not much structure. Some of the paintings have this line going on, but mostly it’s empty, except for the main figure.
BC: What’s your relationship to Iran now?
NN: A lot of young artists want to see what I think about them, they want direction. I don’t know them, but I would answer them, I would help them. They are a young generation that I don’t know. But the older generation, my generation, they’re doing their work. I’m in touch with them; they always complain, but they have a life, there’s a kind of normal life, they never got involved in any trouble with either regime, they are teachers, they built up the life around it so they have followers, they are working. They are good.
BC: Can you go back?
NN: I went back the last time in 2005 or 2006. There are a bunch of galleries in Tehran that wanted to work with me. I do send them work sometimes. One of the galleries, the owner, used to come to New York and he bought a bunch of work from Iranian artists in New York. He had a show called Iranian Artists Living in New York Thinking of Being Iranian. A newspaper came out against the show saying that it was anti-Islam, that the donor was anti-Islam, that the painting (especially my painting) is bad and that I am a corrupt artist living in New York. Since then I am scared to go. But recently, a publishing house, which publishes great Iranian artist books was here and said they would love to publish my work but they said they can’t do it because they don’t have permission from the Ministry of Culture to do it.
BC: Well what would happen if they print it, or is it just not possible?
NN: They cannot print it without permission. You need permission, but he suggested a solution. It was not my recent work; it was a project I did before revolution that I did for a ministry that worked with the queen at that time, a project of 5 illustrations of the original Iranian religion with contemporary artists. There’s a prophet in Iran called Manichaeism, Mani, which was kind of a sect in Iran which was about good and evil fighting with each other all the time and the duty of the followers was to free the light out of darkness. He is the only prophet that his book is a painting. So later on he was persecuted, he was killed. I think his followers went to south of China or something like that and whatever remains of the painting is in China and some other places too. So I did that book and I did 280 drawings for the book. And this was before revolution, and I worked on it for one year until they decided they would take 80 to 100 for the print of the book and then revolution happened and they couldn’t do it and they couldn’t pay the money and they couldn’t do it, so the guy said, “come and pick it up or otherwise it’s going to go.” So I went and picked it up and put it in the basement of my mother’s house. It stayed there for the last twenty years and then finally, I went there and somebody said from the 280 there remain 40 that I have access to; the rest are lost. So recently we talked about it and he suggested we find them, and that they’ll find a way to print the rest of them. This was a couple of weeks ago and he said the only way we’ll be can do it without permission is to make a sketch book with blank pages and in between some of this work with some quotes from the Mani. There would be no name “Nicky Nodjoumi” on it, but at least this way people can see it. Very interesting, so I said fine, this is a great idea because you can buy the book and sketch in it and still see the work.
BC: And you were ok without the authorship credit?
NN: Yeah, because at this time you can’t claim it. You know they wouldn’t let you print it. This is the only way to do it, without the name, and without the permission, underground.
BC: It’s so interesting, because we don’t really have those kinds of experiences here.
NN: (Laughs) No.
BC: We complain about censorship and so on, but it’s not. We have a bigger problem with self-censorship.
NN: He’s ready to print the book, and I’m sure he would do a fantastic job. I’ve seen his book, beautiful paper, beautiful printing, and I need to have a book, but in Tehran I can’t do it. I would have loved to go, but it’s too unpredictable. For no reason they will arrest you and put you in jail for nothing. My mother died two years ago, but I couldn’t go. Lots of family members, they get in too many troubles they would rather I don’t go.
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