On ViewJames Cohan
January 29 – March 6, 2020
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian hops from one foot to the other, weighing the relative virtues of unpredictability and rationalism. On the one hand, she conjures to mind the marvels of Iranian Āina-kāri cut glass mirror marquetry, found in the throne room of the Golestan Palace in Tehran and other places of awe and majesty. On the other hand, she reminds us of the climax of Orson Welles’s The Lady From Shanghai: a shootout in a carnival hall of mirrors that sees already fractured and conflicting images become increasingly disjointed as the violence plays out. Farmanfarmaian creates a truly sublime object, a mirror that one may peer into but which will never reflect what is expected.
Her current exhibition, on view in both the Walker Street and Grand Street locations of James Cohan Gallery, begins with a series of maze works on Walker Street: Triangle Maze, Square Maze, Pentagon Maze and Hexagon Maze (all 2014). All are rigidly geometric forms which dissolve into a pattern of silvery and evergreen enfolding lines. While these works are clearly structured according to a regular pattern, irregularity arises from two things: the fact that they reject our own reflection, and that in attempting to escape from the maze, the eye must take a dead-end asymmetrical meander across the works. Not surprisingly, we are lost in the miniscule changes taking place from facet to facet of Farmanfarmaian’s predictable but intransigent patterns. In cut glass mirror inlay, the interlocking pieces are placed at regular angles and incisions are made into the glass surface itself. These processes are layered one on top of each other, yielding objects that seem initially stable, but on closer observation confuse the eye with their multiplicity. With a few intrusions of red, for example, Untitled Heptagon 11 (2016) plays with wide triangular expanses of mirror placed at gently undulating angles to each other.
Farmanfarmaian’s inspiration for mirrored works came to her at the Shāh Chérāgh Mosque in Shiraz in the company of Robert Morris and Marcia Hafif in 1966. The overwhelming visual power of the prayer room came from the sparkling light and infinite reflections bouncing off mirrored mosaic arches and myriad curved surfaces. In Iran, Āina-kāri is a form of interior design, used to decorate throne and prayer rooms; Farmanfarmaian’s genius was to realize that it could be transformed into an object. In an architectural context, the mirror mosaic is about splendor. When scaled down, it retains a degree of opulence, but becomes personal and visually problematic. A shimmering dome and its vaults doesn’t bring up the question of reflection so much as light and divine energy, but smaller scale wall-mounted works invite us to look for ourselves in their surfaces. The artist’s equivocal mirror seems to be about images more than atmospheres. Farmanfarmaian plays with the notion of regularity, which is central to Islamic notions of design—and her main channel of complexity and abstraction is to move through pattern, not against it.
The works in the Walker street exhibition never stray from symmetry, either along an axis or around a point, and some works expand volumetrically outward from the wall or otherwise engage three-dimensional space. In the series made up by Fifth Family Triangle (2013), Fifth Family Square (2014), and Fifth Family Pentagon (2014) Farmanfarmaian plays with frames—articulating basic form through absence. The artwork is a border, embellished with pointed extrusions, but an empty center presents the wall behind the work as the purest evocation of its geometry. In Fourth Family Pentagon (2013), Fourth Family Hexagon (2013), and Fourth Family Octagon (2013) she experiments most aggressively with three dimensions. The puzzle of interlocking incised mirror patterns lifts apart along a series of fault lines, and each segment becomes a sculptural element in its own right. These pieces unfurl in regimented mathematical choreography, and while for some viewers the objects may achieve a level of finish that is too perfect—like a well-cut gem—it is here where Farmanfarmaian stays most true to the liturgical roots of her art, sticking with the self-contained and self-reflexive geometries of Islamic architecture.
The second half of the exhibition is on Grand Street, where Farmanfarmaian leaves symmetry behind in drawings and her Installation of 9 Elements (2004). 9 Elements employs a relatively simple vocabulary of patterning, focusing on squares and 45 degree angles, except for a radiant center roundel. Each constituent piece is a regular symmetrical form, but positioned in close proximity to each other they attempt to create a balanced composition around a central point. It’s a remarkable game of feints and jabs, but ultimately the differing geometries clash and the assemblage bristles with an electric dissonance. Farmanfarmaian was a great friend of Frank Stella and here one can see the ongoing dialog between their practices: a polite argument over the primacy of positive and negative space, foreground and background.
In the drawings, Farmanfarmaian seems to be experimenting with inserting disruptions in a larger pattern, resulting in pictures that become map-like or resemble circuit boards, as in Untitled (D3) (2015). While the drawings are preparatory to Āina-kāri pieces, they are also a means of re-linking the artist’s practice to its architectural origins: the drawings present asymmetrical matrices, a stand in for space, in which the artist’s forms are embroidered into a supporting fabric. In Untitled (D3), independent circular motifs are held together in a constellation over a square grid by a thick red band that sharply folds in on itself. In Geometric (2014), a looming hexagon pulses, floating on a seemingly endless bed of interlaced scalene triangles. Both drawings make a good case for the imaginary context in which Farmanfarmaian’s corporeal forms exist. While the artist is not seeking to recreate the places of worship and power from which she draws her inspiration, she instead distills what is most human and irreconcilable about those spaces: the act of “containing multitudes.”