Several men on horseback ride amidst a gold backdrop as they proceed on their hunt. A few lone warriors on the ground raise their hands with their weapons ready to slay their prey. This triptych by Iranian-American artist Reza Derakshani is entitled Gold Hunt (2019), and is made of richly applied gold paste coupled with oil paint on canvas. At first glance, its subject matter and abstract figures recall those of the famous 11th century Bayeux tapestry— a medieval embroidery depicting the Norman Conquest of England. Yet Derakshani’s has hints of Eastern mysticism stemming from his Persian origins — the painting’s intricate detailing nods also to the elaborate hunting scenes on Persian Qajar period (1794-1925) tapestry. The work is part of Emanations, Derakshani’s latest solo exhibition at Leila Heller Gallery in Alserkal Avenue, and includes works from the artist’s personal collection, the Garden Party series, and the Hunting series, the latter to which Gold Hunt belongs. The works on display, which combine to make up a sort of mini-retrospective for the artist whose art has been the subject of numerous exhibitions worldwide (including at the British Museum, London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the State Russian Museum; the Museum Gunzenhauser, Germany; the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art) recall the forgotten tales and symbolism of Iran’s cultural heritage during a time when the beauty of those very traditions are under threat and often prohibited.
The Hunting series in particular recalls the rich iconography of medieval Persian miniature painting, poetry, literature, and sacred architectural sites that remain to this day laden with meaning. “Originally, I was inspired by a small manuscript painting I saw during my childhood,” says the artist of the Hunting series. Born in 1952 in a small village called Sangsar in the North East of Iran, Derakshani says he was raised in a “nomadic family”, and remembers growing up in a big black tent on the top of a mountain from where he would watch the moonlight, the stars, the horses, and fields of beautiful flowers. It was from these early years that Derakshani derived his everlasting kinship with nature. “My father and my older brother, who was also my first art teacher, were both horse riders and hunters,” he says. The works in the Hunting series are some of the largest that Derakshani has ever made. Moreover, Derakshani has long included horses, painted in his signature style, with their long, flat bodies, and thin legs and mystical rendering of intricate colors, in his work. “The horses are made in many variations and styles, and it seems people connect to them well,” he says. “Over the years, the initial concept of the horses has found new meanings and themes, including Hunting the Hunter, Hunting the Light, Hunt the Night, Hunt the Color, and so forth. In a way, there is no end to the hunt. The men are always hunting!”
Reza Derakshani, The Green Grass Hunt, 2019, oil on canvas diptych, 200 x 240 cm
The young Derakshani was a child prodigy. He received his first art commission at the age of nine and had his first solo exhibition at the age of 19 at the Ghandriz Art Gallery in Tehran. From an early age he was destined to paint. In 1976, he graduated from the University of Tehran, and then continued his studies at the Pasadena School of Art in California, returning to teach at the University of Tehran and the School of Decorative Arts. In 1983, following the Islamic Revolution, he left Iran and moved to New York. He now divides his time between the US, Iran, and most recently, Russia.
The visual tenets of magical realism, as one can witness in this recent exhibition, have long been a part of Derakshani’s work. In New York, he was influenced by abstract expressionism and the paintings of Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock. The expressive brushstrokes, coupled with his vibrant use of colouring, are nods to the inspiration he found in the US. Then there’s a gentler, sweeter use of intricate detailing that subtly weaves a magical tale through his figures and natural forms painted with texture and luxurious metal paints—tendencies that harken back to the mystical lands of his Persian homeland.
“For me, creating art is a necessity,” says Derakshani. “It’s about expressing emotions. I know it’s fashionable today for an artist to be a philosopher or a political activist who supposedly changes lives through art. But my main goal is create work that is unique and timeless.”
Hanging on the walls of Leila Heller’s vast space in Alserkal Avenue are works that merge the beauty of nature with recollections of Derakshani’s Persian past, and also, hints of his recent time in Russia. He recently staged a retrospective at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. While there, he immersed himself in the country’s natural landscape.
In Indigo Hunt (2019), a large work of 120 x 200 cm in size, incorporates Derakshani’s graceful warriors on an indigo backdrop. The warriors are more faintly rendered here; instead the midnight blue hues and subtle flecks of colours to depict their garb appears heightens the painting making it seem akin to a luxurious piece of fabric. In Hunt the Blue Night (2019), the warriors and their riders are more recognisable. They emerge against a black backdrop as if from the night. The works become even more abstract in Garden Party (2019) and the diptych Spring Garden Party (2019) where the natural world is diminished into its energetic substance of glistening shapes, colours and forms—all pleasing to the eye like a walk in an enchanted garden. There’s also Exiled King and Queen (2013), a slightly older work that seems to comment on Iran’s modern history and its current state of woe. A series of golden cage-like octagonal forms cover the painting. They are akin to crowns but also prison bars as if referencing Iran’s heightened present moment of surveillance.
“I say loudly that creating beauty is nothing less than the political screams we hear through art today, and perhaps, I believe, even more difficult to achieve. Creating works of beauty is my aim.”
(Cover artwork caption: Reza Derakshani, Hunt the Blue Night, oil on canvas, 120 x 200cm.)
About Rebecca Anne Proctor
Rebecca Anne Proctor is the former Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar Art and Harper’s Bazaar Interiors, a role she held from 2015-2019. She has written prolifically for publications including The New York Times Style Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, Canvas, Artnet News, Frieze, BBC, Galerie, The National and The Business of Fashion, as well as written several art catalogues on Middle Eastern art and culture.