I’m writing in response to the recent review by Ian Cofre of Amir Nikravan’s exhibition Rational Design at Nathalie Karg Gallery. In the interest of transparency, Nikravan is a good friend of mine. Cofre’s review is thoughtful; he is clearly engaged with his subject. His analysis of the formal ambiguities in Nikravan’s hybrid painting/sculptures is insightful. However, I’m writing because I was disappointed by the conclusions Cofre draws at the end of the review.
Cofre characterizes Nikravan’s approach as split between two impulses, in which the artist both wishes to “out-modern Modernism” by producing controlled, formal works with “clean execution” while also insisting on the connections between modernist form and social meaning. In the end, Cofre concludes that Nikravan can’t have it both ways, that the formalism of the work overshadows its politics. He suggests that Nikravan would be better off embracing an “excessiveness that would make these ‘things’ truly unfamiliar, especially in the context of contemporary art.” The terms of this argument are frustrating. Cofre conflates “excessive” form and the performance of marginalized identity (including feminine, queer, and non-white subjects) in which the good political artist makes messy, irrational, unruly or decorative forms that neatly oppose the masculinist, “rational” forms of modernism. Cofre poses the solution (more excess!) as the road to producing something “truly unfamiliar, especially in the context of contemporary art.”
In fact, the opposite is true. This formula, which mobilizes excessive or ornamental form to resist modernist formalism, has been applied by artists many times over. Look at the Pattern and Decoration Movement, or Eva Hesse’s post-minimalist sculpture, Mike Kelley, Lynda Benglis or really, almost anything in the art history survey from 1970 on. Cofre claims to want something unfamiliar, when, in fact, what he seems to want is a performance of the same.
This re-affirms the binary that Nikravan is trying to destabilize, in which form and function, or ornament and structure, are defined as mutually exclusive categories. The logic is essentialist, in which the marginalized artist is asked to perform their marginality according to a set of pre-ordained rules (ornament/excess = other). Nikravan’s work doesn’t conform to those expectations. Instead, formal strategies, appropriated from modernist, hegemonic, art historical narratives, are re-envisioned as structures for mapping social relations. This work isn’t activist, it’s conceptual. In it, the self-enclosed language of formalism opens out onto the field of politics.
One of the ways that Nikravan achieves this effect is through the relationship between artwork and title, or image and text. Cofre’s review misses this completely. In referring to the title of one of the works, Rational Design (Pre-Exposure) he says it “immediately confuses the subject-object relationship—whose exposure, and to what is unclear.” In fact, this reference isn’t unclear at all, a simple google search of the term “Pre-Exposure” reveals that Pre-exposure prophylaxis refers to a drug that prevents HIV infection. This isn’t hidden information; it’s the first search result. Cofre asks to be confronted with something unfamiliar, but when actually presented with unfamiliar information he is unable to recognize it, and assumes it to be ambiguous, or deliberately opaque.
Cofre is clearly a thoughtful writer. If we believe in the political potential for art production, which I think he does, then we have to be open to an encounter with real difference. This entails looking up phrases we aren’t familiar with, and suspending some of our expectations about how critique ought to function.