Ali Banisadr speaks of the fantastic colourful figures that populate his canvases as if they were independent beings, born into his creative world out of a chaotic cacophony of sound and colour that slowly comes together as a symphony. It is not often that I get to meet an important contemporary artist, and I feel very lucky to have been able to attend the artist talk at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna with Ali Banisadr, art critic Nina Schedlmayer, art critic, and Julia M. Nauhaus, director of the Academy´s Gemäldegalerie.
Gradual emerging, gradual immersion
As Banisadr describes it, he begins his paintings without a particular plan, letting moods drive his creative process, painting bits and pieces on the blank canvas, sometimes painting over the same spot repeatedly, at other times content with the initial impulse. And so parts of the canvas become thickly layered, while others stay open and light. He thinks of it like an orchestra that at first plays many different sounds and then starts working together to make a beautiful piece of music. The comparison is not coincidental — Banisadr hears sounds in colours and figures. Synesthesia is what this rare phenomenon is called, where the stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic experiences in a second sensory pathway. (There are actually several famous creative people who are known to be synaesthetes.)
Not only do colours evoke sounds for Banisadr, he also has to feel with his own body what the figures he paints are trying to do when they start to come to life. Sound helps him to know which way to go, the movement of the paint brush provokes a sound for him, and he feels a definite flow. He also composes his paintings with a view towards guiding the eye of the viewer around the canvas. The colours slowly emerge as he paints, much like a photograph being developed. Are you thinking about Polaroid now? Well, it takes just a bit longer for Banisadr to finish a large painting such as the ones in this exhibition: somewhere around 1.5 to 2 months, he says.
And you may want to take your time with this exhibition, even though there are not many paintings. If you just rush by Banisadr´s large canvases, what you will see at first glance is an apparently abstract sea of colours. But if you take your time, immerse yourself in them, over time these figures will begin jumping out at you. Or at least this is what happened to me as I was sitting straight across from the painting that gives this exhibition its name: We work in Shadows. Because I was listening to the artist talk, I had ample time to let my eyes roam across the canvas, and the longer I sat there, the more I saw. And there was this one figure that really drew my eye repeatedly, painted in flaming orange and deep purple hues.
Correspondences: Bosch & Banisadr
Ali Banisadr talked about once, some years ago during a visit to Vienna, staring at the – very famous apocalyptic 15th century triptych of the Last Judgement by Hieronymus Bosch for a full two hours (and getting his mother annoyed in the process), because it spoke to him. The age of a painting is irrelevant to him, even if a painting is 500 years old – if it speaks to you, it is contemporary, he argues.
The Academy of Fine Arts curator came up with a series idea of “correspondences” between contemporary works of art and the Bosch triptych. Surprising connections can be made between the 15th century painting and different modern arts and media. Bosch & Banisadr is the first museum exhibition of Ali Banisadr´s works in Austria.
Asked if any of the other art now on display at the museum has inspired him, Banisadr smiled and referred to the etchings by Rembrandt that are currently hanging (until 22 September only!) just around the corner from his own paintings. He has recently begun experimenting with etching and is finding it quite challenging. So he finds the fine details in Rembrandt´s etchings quite astonishing.
Banisadr was born in Iran before the revolution and lived through the Iran-Iraq war as a child, but left with his parents and now lives in the United States, where he became the artist he is today. His highly expressive paintings are of course influenced by his experiences, but asked if he is depicting war, he negates this. There is, he says, tension and conflict definitely present in parts of his canvases, but at the same time good things are happening in other parts. There are reference to myths, and to current and past events. It is like life, he says, there are a range of different things happening at the same time, some good, some not so good.
Ali Banisadr´s work has been exhibited around the world in famous museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, or The British Museum in London, to name only a few. I highly recommend visiting this exhibition, and of course the other art on display at the Picture Gallery.
The exhibition Bosch & Barnisadr: We Work in Shadows runs from 6 September to 1 December 2019.
Regular guided tours take place on 29 September, 27 October, 24 November at 10.30 a.m. There will be a special guided tour with the curator and director of the gallery, Julia M. Nauhaus, on 17 October at 4.30 p.m. (space is limited, sign up ahead of time).
The Academy of Fine Arts is currently hosted by the Theatre Museum. If you have a membership card for the Kunsthistorische Museum Wien, entry is free!
P.S. If you want to hear Banisadr speak about his art, the Blain Southern Gallery of Berlin has a video interview on its website, or you can find him in several instances directly on YouTube.
The exhibition Lebenslinien. Rembrandt in den Kunstsammlungen der Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien only runs until 22 September 2019. I have a few impressions of that one for you too.