Negar Ahkami recently opened The Consumption, her second solo exhibition at Leila Heller Gallery. Negar, an Iranian-American artist who works between sculpture and painting, figuration and abstraction, brings all of these modes together in new canvases and pseudo-ceramic sculptures that erupt with content.
Negar’s paintings depict narrative, surreal, and female-centric scenes and this show offers several versions of a central theme. From painting to painting, women struggle in water. They either pump their limbs underwater, or they flail above the water’s surface, clamoring for terra firma – or some other stable buoy. The particular arrangements vary, but “head above water” is an insistent marquee for Negar’s imagery.
A striking variation on this catastrophe occurs in two paintings: The Ecstasy of Doris Duke and Surround Sound. Here, Negar takes a bird’s eye view as her women become disembodied in coruscating vortices. Doris Duke, in particular, wields a mesmerizing depth; the eye combs through flurries and brambles of white-limned water currents – or some other element. What is the role of these spiraling sinews? Could it be that Negar identifies with and beribbons Duke, the legendary and Western collector of Islamic art and architecture? Or does this painting’s web contemplate the complicated layers of culture, history, and thought between today and the days of Shangri La?
A consequence – or a cause – of Negar’s juggle of control and expression is that her paintings exude a purposefully decorative exuberance. She unrelentingly accounts for every inch of her heterogeneous surfaces. Blankets of patterns cross each other, matte meets gloss, and pictorial elements rise up in tactile relief. There’s no doubt about Negar’s sincerity when she credits Iran’s lusterware and molded-relief ceramics, which, as described in the press release, “carry the potential for a Persian-Islamic art that can be as emotive and personal as the exaggerated gestures and drips of Western expressionism.”
“I always felt that there should be an Islamic expressionism,” Negar said to the New York Times. “I especially wanted Persian art, which is so exquisite and refined, to be less removed from the angst that so many people there were feeling.”
Is Hasan Rowhani listening?