Mehrdad Khataei's practice is defined by an absolutely contemporary creative approach. Born in Tabriz and educated in Tehran - where he himself now teaches, educating Iran's national cadre of artists - he undoubtedly regards himself as a person of Iranian background tied to the Iranian national experience [or the "Iranian legend", as he once called it]. At the same time, Khataei is at the very forefront of exploring concepts surrounding globalisation.
The categories of drawing and printmaking arts are rarely employed in the context of contemporary art: today’s artists try to avoid professional pigeonholing. And Khataei, while participating in specialised printmaking biennales, regards himself. I am sure, as a quintessentially contemporary artist, one whose relationship to materials and techniques is medial rather than narrowly professional. In other words, he strives to 'squeeze' as much as possible out of media to achieve the goals he desires. For him, the choice of various forms of drawing and printmaking [techniques such as aquatint or drypoint are by definition archaic, affectedly traditional] is not a matter of mere taste or expertise; instead, he personalises and internalises these techniques as vehicles for expressing a given content. That is, he uses them as catalysts for cutting-edge artistic ideas: for methods of mediation, for various types of allusion and for a variety of techniques ranging from surrealistic displacement to intellectual montage. Without considering these ‘instrumental-representative functions’ [in the words of Catherine de Zegher] it is difficult to understand the main features of Khataei's authorial world-view, of his individual poetics.
What is the basis of the ‘new relevance’ in drawing, the thing that defines a drawing as contemporary? The new relevance of traditional media has been a focus of discussion in international artistic practice and theory throughout the twentieth century. The Museum of Modern Art in New York for example, has held a whole series of exhibitions such as Drawing Now: 1955-1975 in 1976, Thinking Print: Books to Billboards, 1980-95 in 1996, Drawing Now: Eight Propositions in 2002 and On Line.
Drawing Through the Twentieth Century in 2010, which were devoted to the technical and semantic development of drawing and the graphic arts in our time. Catherine de Zegher, curator of the landmark On Line exhibition, outlines her view of the evolution of the philosophy of drawing as an objectivisation of ‘reality as seen by the eye’ combined with a poetic representation based on the imagination. The next fundamental stage, in her view, is the de-atomisation of the drawing, the realisation that the image possesses its own independent existence and is not always referencing the object of depiction.
This, in other words, is the rejection of the idea of analogue representation based on likeness. As a result, drawing by the 1950s had freed itself from the burden of directly representing reality and was able to take on new commitments. In particular, that of expressing its own hidden meanings and self-references. Embodied in new materials and media, drawing began serving as an interdisciplinary link, entering such new realm such as public art, performance art, dance and digital art.
The formal expansion of drawing affected its content too, of course. Often mentioned in this regard are social challenges arising at that time: political upheavals, the struggle for gender rights, and man-made disasters such as Chernobyl. The works in the Hirshhorn Museum's 1984 exhibition Content: A Contemporary Focus, 1974-1984 are commonly cited as emblematic of art mirroring social processes. At this time, a new generation of art theoreticians advances the term strategy in opposition to that of style. While style refers mainly to formal categories, strategy encompasses those of intellect and planning. 'What does it mean?’ now becomes the key question.
In short, I would like to single out two aspects that most of all characterise the new relevance of drawing as a practice: firstly, its self-referential, self-contained nature, its very physical presence or corporeality, its capacity to physically take root and grow in any environment. One specialist in Richard Serra's work notes that: ‘In their physical, tactile reality, his drawings appeal to life experience as a whole; these are traces of life.’ Physicality gives rise to yet another aspect, the polemical one, for corporeality is really a critical gesture aimed at what we regard as the second main aspect of the drawing’s new relevance. Cornelia Butler, in her article devoted to the relationship between theatre and drawing, formulated this position as ‘the vibration of the body, the rejection of symbol’.
At the same time, the new relevance of drawing was also nourished by the elements of intention, intellect and strategy. It found support in the symbol, in semiology, in an understanding of the significance of communication. It enriched itself with new meanings. It worked with the iconographies of both high art and anonymous art production. It did not shun the lowbrow. And it acquired myriad links to social and political ideas, relationships and realities not shown but existing outside the artwork in its material embodiment. In a word, this second phase of the new relevance in drawing, occurring from the1960s to 1980s, might be termed conceptual and developed alongside the physicality of the practice.
Everything we have said thus far bears directly on the conceptual catalysts Khataei works with. But in his embodied works, his finished products, these retreat into the background and the authorial element, the artist's poetics, come to the fore.
In his photographic works Khataei set out to combine the material plane with an illumination of seemingly otherworldly origin: an impression of overexposure is created, of some ghostly force having penetrated the photographic image from the heavens, through the window or somewhere else. One of these works depicts an old photographic portrait in a frame; above it is a lamp with some sort of ancient open wiring. But the impression is created that the wall is red hot, that some unknown source of energy lies behind it. Another reason the artist's photographic images are important for his development, it seems to me, is because within them he has developed the theme of the dematerialised environment, a motive that would later acquire special significance in his paintings and print works.
There is one more feature I would like to draw the reader's attention to, something also present in Khataei's earlier works: their off-center compositions. It is as if the images seem to feel more comfortable ad marginem. There is a rather hazy reference to the Iranian cultural tradition as a whole here. But a more specific reference is present as well: namely, the problem of structuring pictorial space. As eminent specialist in lranian culture Sharif Shukurov has noted, ‘‘If in the miniatures of the first third of the 14th century pictorial space is perceived as something discrete and hierarchically ordered, in the Muzaffarid miniatures space emerges as a distinctly homogeneous whole, not admitting any additional division into semantic fields.’’ Khataei's practice tends to lean towards the creation of semantic fields, but at times a certain homogeneity is observable in his works as well; possibly the result of the printing plate's pressure and the distribution of its energy over the paper's surface.
In Khataei’s early drawings we can already observe a propensity for the layering of images and meanings, a sort of palimpsest mindset. In a number of works this layering happens almost surreptitiously, while in others it is more demonstrative: a nude figure in the foreground, lightly traced with Matissean arabesques; a row of seated elderly figures in a room, visualised with greater, almost photographic, distinctness; and a barely discernible portrait in the middle ground. Added to these images is a certain coloured substance, a materialised embodiment of time. Gradually the artist adds more coloured patches and inscriptions, seemingly giving voice to his consciousness, to its various states at various moments.
A new prevailing theme appears in Khataei's print works, one he denotes as ‘glassy rooms’. People live in certain spaces susceptible to observation. Seen to the observer [the public], they are visible to each other as well. This state of observation bears a social subtext; a visualisation of certain societal relationships. For the artist, it is important to portray not only images [the outward appearance of people and objects] but also states of mind. How does he do this? Khataei often draws a human figure together with various objects, objects unconstrained by any spatial or proportional relationship to the figure they accompany. It seems as if the objects are trying on the depicted figure, either fitting it or not, thus helping to define its essence. Khataei spoke of ‘doll arrangements’, apparently referring to the common pastime among children of dressing up dolls and selecting accessories for them. But this definition seems inexact to me, as there is little that is dollish in Khataei's work. His objects - shoes, toys, clothing and living beings such as dogs and insects - are visualised with a certain heightened significance. They are nearly three-dimensional, emerging visually from the flatness of the page and almost palpable in their realism. The visual aggressiveness of these figures is such that they turn the artist's compositions from mere settings [as he himself calls them, referring to the procedure of arranging toys and selecting their accessories] into something more like intellectual montage: cause -and- effect relationships are violated, with the individual images living their own, all -too- independent, lives.
While the above are all important points, it is time to turn to the main component of Khataei's poetics: his draftsmanship. The artist is a powerful draftsman - energetic, incisive, and capable of sharp transitions from pathos to caricature. There are national schools renowned for their academic drawing compositions. Russia is one such country; despite all our avant-garde and conceptualist revolutions, we have always valued a well-composed drawing. And it appears that the Iranian educational system does as well.
The academic virtuosity of Khataei's large-scale drawings acquires new meaning in the contemporary context. I am referring here to the theme of materialisation and dematerialisation. Khataei draws a figure, often in perspective, with full-blown, and often morbidly emphatic, psychological characterisation. At the same time, he transitions deftly from three-dimensionality, from articulated voluminosity, to arabesques that complete the image in an approximate way. In addition to lending a temporal, processual tone to the created work, this reveals the artist consciously reflecting on its representational status. Thus we have before us not only striking but intelligent drawing.
Good draftsmanship is fine in and of itself, but the modality of Khataei's art practice depends directly on the degree to which he consciously exploits printmaking's expressive potential. There are several approaches to this. One is to highlight the drawing itself, to continue the hands work, to use the print to amplify effects conceived by the artist. Mezzotint, for example, intensifies chiaroscuro effects and lightens the work's surface. Another approach is to use printing [depending on the chemical process and the method of preparing the plate] as an independent image - and even narrative - forming resource.
The aforementioned principles of drawing and printmaking are embodied to the fullest degree in the series on display in this exhibition at Sophia Contemporary. These are monumental, mixed-media works that combine drawing, painting and a number of printmaking techniques.
The series represents the catastrophic condition of the modern consciousness. The particular threats are not so important: from man-made catastrophes to totalitarian violence, there are plenty to choose from. The images are constructed using a trademark method of Khataei's, but one never before employed on such a large scale: monumental faces in the foreground are rendered with extreme voluminality, with powerful space-forming effect. Like a vortex. the space they create draws in attendant images, distinct symbols of calamity or hope. As a rule, these images represent normality [normal, happy existence] before the event and just as convincingly, the aftermath.
The nature of the catastrophe itself and the moment of its occurrence are not indicated: what interests the artist is not the event but a fundamental understanding of the human capacity for resistance. Heads occupy the main place in these immense compositions, and they bear the marks of catastrophe. Red heads are marked with patches of white. Blots on the foreheads denote ulceration of the skin [these are produced bythickening the resin layer during printing using the aquatint process]. Brought into close proximity with the viewer, the faces are not death masks, on the contrary, they are still full of life, actively observing the disintegration of yesterday's once-whole world. Objects and symbols of normality and catastrophe [they exist in the consciousness simultaneously] accompany the portrait images. Here Khataei uses his purely visual mastery to maximum effect, creating engraved prints that produce a commensurate mental [remembered] impression.
Figures of loved ones, dogs, horses, and household objects are tragically altered in form depending on their ‘before’ or ‘after’ state. A sinister mythology of catastrophe arises - mutant animals. Or maybe they are simply survivors, as the unusually vital images of pigs appear to be. Among them are monkeys too our advance along the evolutionary ladder was in vain, as it turns out. Faces full of life and interested in unfolding events begin three-dimensionally but end in symbolic arabesques, in approximation, bespeaking dematerialisation, the withering of the flesh. Figures in military uniform appear along with others in superfluous gas masks, rescuers offering hopelessness rather than salvation.
I am sure that Khataei’s art, with its palpable sense of social anxiety and masterful artistic realisation, will find a deep emotional response from the museum and gallery going public.
Alexander D. Borovsky [born 1952, Leningrad] is a Russian art historian, critic, curator and head of the Department of Contemporary Art at the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg, Russia. He is the author of more than six hundred publications on contemporary art, photography and art history. Borovsky is also a broadcaster and columnist for several art magazines such as ArtChronika and Sobaka, and a member of the jury of contemporary art prizes such as the Kandinsky Prize and Ars Fennica. He has supervised more than one hundred exhibitions of modern and contemporary art by Russian and international artists and is in charge of the ‘Ludwig Collection of modern art’ at the State Russian Museum.