Over a decade ago Kamrooz Aram set up studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn, long before the area was host to many artists. The decision afforded him the space to develop a practice that encompasses painting, collage, drawing and installation. When we meet his studio is sparse. Most of his works are already en route to the Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens in Belgium for what will be his first European museum exhibition. Responding to Mexican architect Luis Barragán’s call to make “indifferent architecture” emotional, Aram’s latest show probes the power of decoration to enliven architecture and its interiors. This mission has found Aram out of step with many of the contemporaries he trained with at Maryland Institute College of Art and Columbia University. “I found that much of the painting discourse became reduced to one question of how do we deal with this problem of painting as commodity and that was not so far off the problem of American modernists post-war trying to solve the technical problems of painting,” explains Aram. “In a way as radical and progressive as it seems it ended up doing exactly what they were critiquing.” Releasing himself from the anxieties of painting’s seeming lack of radical potential, Aram was free to think more closely about the content and the relationships his works have with the spaces they inhabit and the histories they encounter.
Aram characterises his work as “constellations” saying “I don’t think of progress as linear necessarily. I don’t think when I finish a body of work it is the past and I will never go back to it.” Using a small mock-up of the Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens’ gallery space, Aram talks me through the works that will be on view. A sense of common purpose, of ideas that weave through material, content and form is clearly deciphered. Take A Monument for Living in Defeat (2016) which was most recently exhibited at Recollections for a Room, his 2016 solo show at Green Art Gallery in Dubai. It unites two lines of inquiry, the relationship between modernism and ornament with the politics of museum display. In the piece a large, smooth textured painting provides a backdrop to a terrazzo floor on which two unidentified ceramics are mounted on wooden and brass pedestals. White triangles provide a neat formal connector between all of the elements while the fragility of the mise-en-scène is palpable. Constructing the piece was a challenge “everything was so complex to me, how do you make a movable terrazzo floor, you know?” says Aram. “I love working with the fabricators, I have my hands all in there, which is why it is not perfect.”
Ornamental Composition for Social Spaces. 2016. Oil, wax and pencil on canvas 228.6 x 198.12 cm.
A precursor for this work is Ancient Through Modern: A Collection of Uncertain Objects, Part 1 which won the Abraaj Group Art Prize at Art Dubai in 2014. The installation pooled together a variety of objects – found and fabricated antiques and replicas – to comment on the ways values are ascribed to material culture. While the piece seemed like new territory for Aram, the inter-related and on-going nature of his work is apparent through titular resonance. The artist has been compiling a series of collages since 2010, also called Ancient Through Modern. In them images taken from mid-century books of ancient Persian art are applied and framed against linen backdrops. Collectively these works call attention to the multiple mechanisms that create expected reactions – of awe and wonderment – when singular artefacts are encountered in the vitrines of encyclopaedic and ethnographic museums or on the pages of art books. He neutralises the power of presentational architectures such as vitrines, spotlights, or texts, and leaves viewers to experience the formal relationships between the objects he presents.
Unlike much of the discourse around decolonizing the museum and the objects it houses, Aram does not take what he describes as a “predictable stance against the museum for their historical looting practices.” Instead, his installations unravel the relationship between seeing and knowing enshrined in museological practice. This witty institutional critique is also aimed at audiences. “This is an interesting way to raise questions about how we assign value to the objects as well especially when we go to the museum and we are in awe as our glorious past, especially as Iranians and we think oh, we did this,” he says. “We say ‘we’ even though it was someone who was around 2-3,000 years ago. That way of identifying with the past is really fascinating to me.” Here the processes of evaluation, in terms of dominant Western art historical narratives and collective emotional response, are under investigation. He is also keen to point out his aim is not to “trick the viewer” but for him the origins of the objects he displays are incidental. Much like his painting practice which Aram describes as “deeply intuitive”, at the heart of this output is a negotiation between emotion and its constituent elements. His extreme focus on the mechanics of exhibition design and display meant the Green Art Gallery installed new lights for his most recent exhibition. In contrast the Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens is filled with natural light, presenting new optics through which to view the works.
Ephesian Fog. 2016. Canvas: Acrylic, oil and pencil on linen. 127 x 101.6 cm. Wood and brass pedestal. Oil on ceramic vase.
In 2014 Aram also mounted the successful show Palimpsest: Unstable Paintings for Anxious Interiors at Green Art Gallery. In this series a grid, the structure that undergirds any carpet design, and extracted floral motifs are covered with thick layers of paint, later scratched out and removed to reveal a hidden language beneath. They engage a particularly urban visual code – the marks made to cover up graffiti. The paintings are personal, a conscious rendering of an unconscious archive of visual languages, signs and symbols that Aram has encountered at various junctures during his life, between early years in Shiraz, Iran and a life lived in American cities. Never employed as a crude identity marker, Persian carpets photographed in New York have consistently been woven into Aram’s paintings for a number of years, see his 2011 show Negotiations and his 2010 show Generation after Generation, Revolution after Revelation for evidence.
Back in Aram’s studio two imposing white canvases rest against a wall painted a shade of green somewhere between aquamarine and duck egg. They are part of a series of five paintings that will be hung together for the first time in Belgium and borrow their name from the exhibition title Ornament for Indifferent Architecture. More subdued than Palimpsests, the washed out hue reveals a similar grid subtly embedded underneath, while white triangles travel up and down, red flowers float above both geometries. By showing the five paintings side by side Aram draws connections between the decorative potential of the paintings and the repetition of ceramic tiles that covered entire rooms and buildings in the ancient Islamic world. “These parallels between painting and what are considered the decorative arts are interesting to me because I think those distinctions are historically a bit more rigid than they are in actuality,” explains Aram. “I think a lot of that history has to do with Orientalism and other aspects of the idea of the individual artist as opposed to a tradition where everyone follows suit and does as their mentors or masters does.” Aram’s close attention to the spatial relationship between his pieces work to underpin lineages already present in the individual artworks.
A Monument for Living in Defeat. 2016. Oil, wax and pencil on canvas. 152.4 x 274.32 cm. Tile Platform: Terrazzo and Brass on panel; Pedestals: Solid walnut and brass pedestals; Sculptures: Soapstone and alabaster.
Early on in his career Aram learnt to avoid the neat bracketing of artists the art market imposes and the “binaristic language” that he felt was being used to define his work. Instead he has mastered the ability to show subtle connections between artistic traditions and complicate historical divisions between the abstract and the ornament, the singular artistic genius and collective craft. Assembling his many projects has meant that Aram has become an unlikely collector over the years. Some of these objects are now to be encountered in his studio, providing both inspiration and comfort. A crumbling turquoise tile is mounted on one wall, “as perfect as a monochrome painting,” he says. Visiting New York antique dealers is a favorite past time Aram indulges in rare spare moments, which he might finally have a few of. After a busy year he is looking forward to a rest.
“I thrive on deadlines and projects. So now I say it’s great that I have this open space but when there is nothing on the calendar I have a hard time saying no, I am working on that a little bit.”
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