By Steve Basel
Walking across the exhibition space of Omid Shekari, one of the three artists exhibiting as a part of the Wind Challenge series at Fleisher Art Memorial, one encounters a hard, striking lump. A ring of light brown gravel nestles a concrete dollop with the same dignity as a plop from the conveyer of a cement truck. Stamped into this heavy grey mush are the words “I love my country.” This sculpture presents a grave where all that remains is a branding of allegiance and a plug in the earth. Without any other indication of its origin, its form becomes a question to all graves devoted to country or nation, from those of ISIS to those in Arlington cemetery. Here – even without the title, Should I love my country – the proposition that any patriot’s grave is really, or could be, no more than this forgetful lump calls on us to question and define the values upon which a country is built and lives are laid down.
Patriotism can be defined as love for one’s country, but how does one love a country? What is it that we honor when the term patriotism comes to our mind? This was the prompt for a discussion lead by Shekari at Fleisher a few weeks ago. Arranged in a circle, observing work ranging from the illustrative style of political cartoons to sparse material and text-based arrangements, the audience tried to determine what patriotism means and how it is expressed. Of particular scrutiny for Shekari, an Iranian artist living in Philadelphia, is when devotion to country comes before respect for human life through exclusion and prejudice, when patriotism is blind and rallied in service of war. His statement, which is also printed on the wall, marches out the politics of “us” and “them” and rhetoric of xenophobic nationalism, subservience of life for country and a chosen people ideology into the interpretive atmosphere of Shekari’s episodes of death, charlatanry and waiting. Like his statement, all but one of the works are without reference to any explicit national identities. Though there are times where Omid appears more present as a subject, his story remains elusive and at a distance. Through its generalization he is able to privilege an engagement with broader concepts and give access to the viewer rather restricting its scope to his personal experience or specific nations. This is because, for Shekari, the applicability and urgency of questions regarding jingoism, exclusion and a lack of empathy across national borders is something beyond any one conflict.
In Shekari’s most nebulous work, I was a patriot, a pointed gravestone with a circular hole leans on the wall next to a piece of newsprint paper, both of equivalent height and width. The top edge of the paper is taped to the wall, leaving the bottom loose, its light weight in total contrast to the stone. The light cream paper recedes into the white of the wall while the headstone, signifying an absence, is the emergent form. The paper is printed with a quote initialed D.J.T. that reads: “When you open your heart to patriotism there is no room for prejudice.” This sets up a metaphorical puzzle between hearts, holes and an implicit bias the love of one’s country. In between this pair, a concrete disc with the sculpted relief of a melancholic face, accentuated in charcoal, leans on the wall.
In the painted work to its right, entitled Gathering, there is a similar expression that holds a more complex and boundless grief. A nested bunch of humans hum under a thin post tent and while their bodies seem frozen in place their eyes scurry every which way. Shekari’s style overall brings to mind painters like Mark Tansey and Neo Rauch, with traces of photographic sources and tentative surrealism, while the subject matter is more akin to Ben Shaun’s paintings of the everyday after war. This static sea of chattering bodies crests in the density of painted clothing and dissipates into smudges, drips and contours, exposing the hot and cool ruffles of an abstract wave moving behind them. The impression at a distance is of a filmic collage, with a central floating subject and active background, while close up that divide falls away into line, brush and color. Moving from one face to another, hope, futility, and dread all mingle in silence and take on an unnerving monumentality through the dynamic contrast between stillness and activity. The absence of any clear context or cause permits this scene to unfurl in the trails of violence and deceit left by the surrounding works.
In the painting Irreplaceable Position, a dictatorial mannequin with a halo addresses an unseen crowd. Beside it, in the sculpture Who, a hammer-like arm is poised to strike the inside corner of a freestanding wall with the word, WHO, written on its face. Generally speaking, these works function similarly to a political cartoon that is stripped of its political specificities. The viewer is left with a plain assertion of the reality of violence and political manipulation where what is left to question is who is who. The abstraction of Who, and gestural superfluities in Irreplaceable Position attempt to make these straightforward postures puzzling, curious and open. But the engagement is limited, and rather than becoming sites of scrutiny and catharsis, these works do more to set the stage of the work around it.
Shekari’s works are motionless, like slides plucked from a film real, or an image of a single thought, yet through allusion and implication generate the feeling of a vast political upheaval just out of frame, or off in the distance. Like walking across a stage full of objects after a play, we order these fragments in time. Where cause is unknown in a particular piece, the statement on the wall, its title, or the subject of another work become a script and explanation. What has the group in Gathering, been gathered for? Is it the funeral of the grave in Should I love my country, or are they members of the unseen crowd in Irreplaceable Position? Patriotism, war, and a demagogue hang somewhere in the middle of this narrative constellation and seep into the mundane and abstract spaces on display.
In Shekari’s 2D works the pictorial subjects fade or sit atop a blank background much like the vignette illustrations of fables. This focuses our attention, bringing traces of the real into a space where metaphor can suspend itself in literal form and content can branch out across place and time. In his paintings on canvas his subjects emerge from the raw canvas where dry brushwork surrenders into an arid space like an apparition from within a sandstorm. The qualities of ambience and visual solubility bring to mind representations of memories, with the sharp contours and clean blankness of his works on paper in contrast to this aesthetic. In these assorted works we see a more relational consideration of form and pronounced shifts in scale – from crowds dwarfed by enfolding geometries to centrally dominant figures. Without text, they reach an introspective and imaginative zone of engagement that investigates various states of trance, absorption and political delirium. Especially haunting is Curtain, where four men behind a red theater curtain inquisitively peer out over top, evoking doom, decapitation and contrivance. In another captivating work on paper, which is untitled, we see a green man look at the shadows of his outstretched arms over a green, choppy ground. Eerily, his arms seem controlled by another force, or mind, and express the kind of psychic detachment of a dream where one is both master and slave.
In Jean Renoir’s film Grand Illusion, we follow two French POWs as they escape to the countryside and into neutral territory. We see the divisions of class and nationality between them at times fade away, only to return with more layers of seeming absurdity. At the end of the film two German soldiers fire upon them as they make their way through snow-topped hills into Switzerland. As they cross an unmarked line the German soldier tells the other not to shoot. While Renoir shows us commonality in moments of joy and revelry disturbed by the need to perform given roles, Shekari’s focuses on moments of despair and isolation, and the roles and ideas that perpetuate it. His theatrical ensemble of work gives the impression of little people stirred up and spit out by great forces – what connects them (and by extension ourselves) seems to be vulnerability and a lack of power. When we flip through the newspaper or scroll through images of international crises on our phones, they can seem beyond us, incredibly distant, and larger than our private world. In Shekari’s work we see individual and intimate sites of experience; their scale reminds us that these world events are an aggregate of stories lived, and decisions made one at a time. By making conflict individually accessible, it follows that individual and local sites can also be sites of potential change, where individuals question whose interest their allegiance serves and whether a country’s current being is deserving of love, our honor, and pride.
Steve Basel is an artist living in Philadelphia