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Hessam Abrishami

in Absence of color

In the three decades of Hessam Abrishami’s career, the Iranian-born painter, trained both in his native Shiraz and in Italy, has made an international reputation for himself as a colorist. Indeed, Abrishami’s lively renditions of the figure derive much of their easy appeal from their bright, juicy palette, a palette he has wielded richly and distinctively. READ MORE


But such genial images with their fructose coloration belie the darker aspects of our world, aspects that have long troubled Abrishami’s soul. With the series “In Absence of Color,” Abrishami puts aside his skill as a visual entertainer and practices an even more powerful skill, that of storyteller and moralist. And he does so by eschewing paint and charm, but by maintaining, even heightening, his dramatic way with line, gesture, and the figural image.


It’s a telling title, “In Absence of Color.” The slightly skewed syntax in English, dropping the expected article before the word ‘absence,’ ironically but forcefully makes a presence of absence. Rather than acting on “Color“, “Absence” becomes an equally powerful force. Color is not entirely absent from the works in this series of inks and acrylics, but the occasional flash of red or yellow serves only to emphasize that Abrishami has effectively hewn his images out of pure gesture, squalling, sprawling brushstrokes and agitated notations coalescing into apparitions of men and (especially) women who seem to vacillate in their poses and expressions between rumination and agony. These figures are engaged in a choreography so highly expressive that it bursts through its stylizations and shakes us awake.


Abrishami has painted these drawings, and drawn these paintings, breaking down any difference between painting and drawing by working broadly, on relatively large scales, and yet by maintaining faith that the impulses of his hand will result in pictorial cohesion as well as imagistic urgency. If drawings relate to paintings as poems relate to stories, these are epic poems, or stages in an epic cycle that straddles the narrative and the existential – John Donne retelling the Thousand and One Nights as a meditation on human cruelty and human endurance.


Certain of the “Absence of Color” works derive from specific contemporary conditions or even incidents, and, as an Iranian in self-imposed exile, Abrishami always has current conditions in his homeland somewhere in mind. But if the grotesqueries of intolerance and the injustices of tyranny result in an “absence of color,” so do the horrors of war and the insults of famine and disease, catastrophies that fester more at Iran’s borders than at its heart. In Abrishami’s eyes, color has drained from the world, not just from his world.


Indeed, the ongoing cycle of visual cris de coeur that comprises “In Absence of Color” presents itself if anything as a universal legacy of graphic protest and incomprehension. Whether the cycle will endure the way Goya’s or Picasso’s or Kollwitz’s has, for example, remains to be seen. But “In Absence of Color” issues from the same place as those did, a place buried deep in an artist’s heart. That place exists in all our hearts, that place that cannot abide inhumanity; but while bureaucrats and demagogues manage to deaden that part of the muscle, artists exercise it with particular vigor.


It is not as if Hessam Abrishami has allowed himself the luxury of breaking away from his “normal” artwork. He has answered, almost without choice, to the necessity of speaking truth to power. Actually, when Abrishami puts “In Absence of Color” before us, he is speaking truth about power, and inviting us to go back into our hearts to find our own centers of righteous indignation. If and when the painting-drawings of “In Absence of Color” are shown in Iran – or Sudan, or Zimbabwe, or Burma, or even Beijing, Moscow, or Washington D.C. – then they will speak their truth to the powers that be. Abrishami’s fury is not inchoate, it is not personal, it is not directed at childhood tormentors or abstracted ideas of “evil.” He aims his anger at the preventable, arbitrary cruelties of our age, and we can see shadows of ourselves in the figures that struggle in this colorless half-land.


Still and all, “In Absence of Color” is not simply a powerful visual statement, it is a strangely beautiful one. These painting-drawings reveal a graphic deftness on Abrishami’s part that the seductive color of his other work has served until now to obscure. He relies on dynamic, even tumultuous compositional rhythms and stark contrasts between black and white areas that excite the eye. The textures are as sensuous as they are agitated. “In Absence of Color” provides great visual satisfaction even as it poses great visual challenges. It is not pleasant art, it is compelling art – and the more exquisite for it.


Written By Peter Frank

Los Angeles, June 2008


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