Image courtesy of The Third Line
The title of Nicky Nodjoumi’s latest body of work expresses, in just one word, both the technical elements of his practice and the conceptual threads. Fractures refers to the physical process of painting, where he has used found images to make collages, that have been torn apart and put back together with deliberate ruptures and breaks as well as the precarious nature of living under dogmatic regimes of political power that, whether in the East or the West, make playthings of the common man.
Iranian-born, New York-based Nodjoumi has exhibited widely across the world, yet this is his first UAE exhibition since 2010 and his first with The Third Line. Curated by Media Farzin for Bidoun, it is clear in this show that Nodjoumi is primarily concerned with a painterly approach but his subject matter is one that criticises with satire and playful humour, the theatrical nature of politics.
His central protagonists are men. Men in suits from the corporate or political world, some identifiable: George Bush, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and some faceless or dressed in masks, who simply represent notions of power as well as the insincerity of those who wield that power. In most of the paintings, he has sliced his characters up and played with scale and size as a way of undermining them and provoking the viewer to consider his message.
One of the largest and most powerful works – The Oaths of Infidels, 2017 – depicts five men who appear to either be dancing or fighting and grappling with panes of glass. Nodjoumi’s attention to detail means that the layers of nuance in this work are vast. With the pull of a streak of red, he takes the viewer’s eye into the vortex spin of the action and creates an effect of vertigo. The glass suddenly becomes a metaphor for the fragility of the existence that we all embody but at the same time it appears like a shield behind which to hide – perhaps, then it also represents the blindness that we choose to adopt towards the harsher realities of life. In the same way politicians hide behind their masks, the regular person also moves about their daily life unaware of the ruptures that lie under their feet or the corruption that occurs not far from their front door.
The dizzying effect of this painting is grounded by some of the smaller and less frantic works. In Field Report, 2018, we see an oversized and precise botanical rendition of a flowering plant that has been bound and tied by two men in suits. One wears a mask and the other is partly covered in the colourful diamond-shaped pattern of a court jester, referencing the harlequin from the Italian Commedia dell'arte school. These devices serve to drive Nodjoumi’s point home to his audience in a very deliberate way.
“The US has serious environmental problems now that Trump is in power so here, the plant is a giant symbol of the planet and the corporate guys are trying to steal it, trap it and control it. It is just one of the issues that troubles me,” the artist said.
In the centre of the gallery, a display cabinet is filled with cuttings from newspapers and sketches for his paintings. It is just a small example of what the artist’s home studio looks like. He spends long hours not only composing his paintings but working on the content. “Yes, I am criticising the American and the Iran governments but through that, you can also apply my work to any region or regime,” he said.
However, the largest work in the show, and in some ways, the most emotive, is Here is Aleppo, 2017. The ink on paper triptych depicts the bombed-out ruins of Aleppo in harrowing and precise detail. The crumbling city, in black ink occupies the foreground but look closer and you will see the entire image has been drawn over portraits of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin and Ayatollah Khomeini, which Nodjoumi drew and then partly washed away. The effect is that the four politicians whom he considers to be most responsible for this tragedy loom over the chaos.
His messages are hard-hitting, but does he feel it will make a difference? “I am not looking for the impact necessarily,” he said. “I am recording history. The people who I paint will write their own history, but we don’t write our version of it. So, whilst I’m hoping, of course, to leave an impression on my audiences today, I am also painting for our future. So that generations to come will know the reality of what happened, at least the reality as I see it.”
Fractures: Nicky Nodjoumi. On view at The Third Line until 31 July.