New York-based artist Kamrooz Aram’s practice walks a painterly line of restraint and structure in its gestural interpretations of tradition. While his body of work incorporates paintings, sculptures, and collages that gently toy with spatial boundaries and the constraints of 2D and 3D form in contemporary tribute to modernist painting and ornamentation, there is further depth to Aram’s formalism.
Embedded within the layers of his oft luminous, tinted palette is a discourse that tackles appropriation, functionalism versus expression, and Eastern and Western art historical ideals. Though addressing values, hierarchies, and intents that seem dichotomous in their pairings, Aram’s works in Arabesque challenge this, positioning them as dualities that exist harmoniously. More broadly, this exhibition reinforces that the deft maneuvering between non- and Western modernist tropes—Aram’s ‘shifting modes’, as he describes it—sees nature versus nurture likewise coexist, possibly even interchangeably.
While Aram’s successive bodies of work typically draw from specific influences—Persian rugs, as an example—he explains that Arabesque follows a more intuitive route guided by a desire to focus on solely painting. Characterised by borderline melancholic dark blues and teals with brief, precise pops of red, the textures of the oil, oil crayon, wax pencil, and pencil works dominate the simplified compositions on linen. However, despite moving away from the unmistakable and intricate art historical interjections that pepper his gridded swaths of colour, Arabesque still speaks to Aram’s long-honed visual language—much akin to muscle memory.
Kamrooz Aram, Orange Blossom, 2019.
Though thinner, the colours are still delicately layered, and the brushstrokes remain aggressively incomplete as they adopt larger sweeping forms. These works are performative in their construction—Aram explains how pieces like Endless Arabesque (2019) resulted from the ‘arabesque’ movements of his arm’s natural range of motions—granting the canvases a more organic, rather than restrained, geometry. The marks of Aram’s hand are still vigorous and imbue the ornamental feel with expressive intent, but the gestural cacophony is softened by the expanded curvilinear forms; a subdued, almost monochromatic palette; and a greater sense of minimalism in his interpretation of arabesque.
The focus on ornamental elements such as arabesque throughout Aram’s career has meant that he has reached a point where directly referring back to source objects is no longer necessary. Rather, the fusion of that visual syntax with his own has become imprinted, he explains, clarifying however that he prefers to avoid adherence to stylistic categorisation. It appears instead—as exemplified by Arabesque—that the result of repeatedly honing into a specific set of visual references has produced a creative output that is a naturally nurtured expression of painterly tradition and investigation into the Orientalist gaze.
This exhibition, Aram’s third solo at Green Art Gallery, is the largest step away from previous bodies of work, which focused more on meticulous curation, grid-locked execution, and fresh takes on ornamentation versus the decorative. Arabesque may abandon the grid, but what is ingrained is hard to shake: the grid remains, peeking at you from behind layers of paint (Ibn Sina, 2019).
But Aram’s grid also lingers conceptually. Structure—or perhaps control—resonates through Aram’s entire outlook, yet Arabesque loosens the obvious hold, using it in a new way that “traverses the canvas rather than organising it compartmentally”. Recently, he has read about Matisse, an artist who feeds deeply into Aram’s fascination with the exoticisation of non-Western cultural elements. “It pushes you away, but it also pulls you in,” he says, colloquially noting that the means through which Matisse explored what the epoch deemed aesthetically “exotic” or “primitive”—people or objects, as per some of Matisse’s contentious letters home—was more sensitively handled than contemporaries such as Gaugin, but still raised a problematic between depiction and reality.
Kamrooz Aram, Arabesque, Installation View at Green Art Gallery, Dubai, 2019. Photo by Sebastiano Pellion
Aram separates the artist from the man, implying that, in this case, artistic intent and execution need not exist in tandem. Matisse’s 1910 oil painting Dance, commissioned by Sergei Shchukin for a decorative panel in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, exemplifies this by illustrating how its initial ‘superficial’ purpose has been surpassed by its contextual gravitas. Further still, it sheds light on the dilemma of the Fauvist use of colour and unrealistic perspective for the four dancing nudes in that it exemplifies how exoticising and objectifying the unfamiliar had a push-and-pull effect. It was simultaneously a liberated approach to painting and a troubling understanding of otherness.
Despite being a century later, Aram’s practice dialogues with this through a more literal embracement of figureless ornamentation, and a markedly more aware understanding of diversity. Arabesque is his vehicle in which to tackle the phenomenon of exoticisation and its construction. If arabesque—'Arab-like’, Aram explains—is a vague visual construct, he plays with this mode of visual assumption in how he patterns from memory and instinct. His works are like ornamental canons, not mimetic—an amalgamation of the learned and the innate. “Arabesque is part of an exoticist lexicon that now belongs to the exoticised,” he declares in his artist statement. “It occurs to me that I am Arabesque.” But as an artist who grasps both Western and Eastern angles, “It occurs to me that there is no such thing as Arabesque.” And when propositioned with whether it is more natural to embrace a nurtured visual language and means of producing works, or this new liberation from the grid with intuitive arabesque-like forms—the answer is equally, and understandably, unclear.
Though contradictory, each methodology coexists in that strange harmony. The dark hues and blocked out patterning of the works may read a step away from precision and towards the organic, but the darkness that encloses the forms (Shadowboxer, 2019) produces a new, different framing device: an abstracted, enlarged grid. Arabesque is still filled with the grids—albeit obscured—that serve as the deliberate vertebrae of Aram’s practice. Despite momentary belief that the works have been freed from their typical formats, Arabesque indicates that nurture may guide you one way, but nature brings you home.
Kamrooz Aram's Arabesque is on show at Green Art Gallery in Alserkal Avenue until 5 May 2019.
Kamrooz Aram, Arabesque, Installation views at Green Art Gallery, Dubai, 2019. Photo by Sebastiano Pellion