Images courtesy of Carbon 12 and artists
Big Brother by Amir Khojasteh
Mutter Tiberio (L), Mutter Napoli (R) by Philip Mueller
Carbon 12 founder, Kourosh Nouri
Portraiture isn’t always about depicting a subject realistically. It’s more about capturing an essence or visualising personality. Good portraits often give viewers a sense of the subjects’ character or persona.
Wealthy families and figures of state understood the power of the portrait, commissioning artists to paint them not so much as how they were, but how they wanted to be remembered. Take the example of Winston Churchill’s famous portrait by Graham Sutherland, which was burned by Churchill's wife because it made him look “half-witted”. With a portrait, the artist has the opportunity to paint not just a face, but a soul.
This idea of portraiture going beyond accurate representation is given a contemporary twist in Good Face and Incurable Flaws, an exhibition at Carbon 12 featuring the works of Tehran-based Amir Khojasteh, and Philip Mueller, who lives in Vienna.
Khojasteh’s expressionist portraits show distorted, and even slightly smudged, faces. His oil canvases are small, but the brush strokes are bold and thick, which gives the faces a heavier texture. Although the works bear little likeness to the real-life subjects they are based on, a viewer can tell who they are meant to represent.
Next to Khojasteh’s surreal faces, Mueller’s portraits look like classical European works. You can see the countenances of Greek and Roman figures, including Alexander the Great and Tiberius.
Both painters use uniquely divergent styles, yet they come together so well in this exhibition. This synthesis originated from the mind of the gallery’s founder, Kourosh Nouri, who started Carbon 12 with Nadine Knotzer, in 2007.
For Nouri, creating unique show concepts is part of what a gallerist does.
“As a gallerist, you become a chess player. You make those combinations,” he said. “It’s a very challenging and exciting mental exercise. Generally, we [Carbon 12] like doing duos and we have been quite successful in the past.
“A duo show is basically a solo show with a curatorial link. You have to make sure you select the right works, in every sense: curatorial, composition, and dimensions… The work of Khojasteh, which is contemporary portraiture, comes along extremely well with this new series of work that Philip is doing.”
Looking at Mueller’s and Khojasteh’s works, Nouri found a way to put a modern twist on an established art form. “In the history of painting, portrait played an extremely important role. Napoleon didn’t have a selfie stick or iPhone. He needed Jacques-Louis David to paint him. It’s fun to go back to the most traditional way of painting and have such a contemporary art show on it.”
Nouri first encountered Khojasteh a year and a half ago; he has known Philip Mueller since 2008. “Mueller is a homegrown Dubai and Carbon 12 artist,” he said. “Each time he does a show for us, it’s like the prodigal son’s return.”
According to Nouri, Good Face and Incurable Flaws presented an opportunity to show Mueller in a new light: “It’s also exciting for viewers to see an artist like Philip who has been shown so often, suddenly in a small format and just portraits. It’s also interesting for Mueller himself to be shown in a different context.”
As for Khojasteh, it’s the Iranian artist’s first international show, and Nouri says this could be a career-changing moment for him.
Khojasteh’s pieces definitely draw attention. The subjects of his portraits range from pop culture icons like Michael Jackson to artists like Frida Khalo and Vincent van Gogh. There are also more polarizing figures that resemble religious leaders from Iran and US President Donald Trump. The latter is depicted in a series of 27 portraits titled Big Brother, a title taken from George Orwell’s novel 1984.
It’s important to note that Khojasteh has not named any of his subjects. It is up to the viewers to determine if their guesses are correct. “The artist himself doesn’t want to fall into naming things by name. The twisted characters all have a different title,” says Nouri. “We want to give the pleasure of discovery to the person.”
In Mueller’s universe, his Mutters (mothers) series include Ahnen, fictitious ancestors who have had influence and power over society and history. Describing the series, Nouri says, “It’s a universe that goes back almost 10 years. It’s characters from Faust to Beethoven meeting white trash and common contemporary people.”
If you look closely, he subverts the traditional portrait by adding details that are completely contemporary. For example, the subject in Mutter Casati has a neck tattoo, and Tiberius in Mutter Tiberio sports a shirt that says “Beach Resort Tibero”, with an olive plant and martini glass behind him.
There are also cartoon shapes of ghosts in at least three of his paintings. Perhaps Mueller, who is Austrian, is building on the idea of Ahnen, depicting how their influences loom over society and culture to this day.
With these faces on the wall, entering Carbon 12 is quite an experience. Walking through the gallery and inspecting the works, you come across the same questions you would ask of a framed photo in someone’s home: “Who is this person?”; “What are they like?”; and, “What lies beyond their gaze?”.
Good Face and Incurable Flaws is on show at Carbon 12 until 31 October
All images courtesy of Carbon 12 and the artists