Whitehot Magazine

Naeemeh Kazemi at Leila Heller Gallery

Naeemeh Kazemi, Untitled, 2023, Oil on canvas, 150 x 200 cm


By JONATHAN GOODMAN October 1st, 2023

Naeemeh Kazemi is a painter living on the outskirts of Tehran. She travels to Dubai so regularly, the artist considers Dubai a second home.  As it now stands, Kazemi lives in a small, three-room house some distance from the city; her studio is a drive away from home. Kazemi is an artist of high competence, mixing and merging a broad array of cultures by varying her  influences.  Flora abound, often displaying strong reds as the dominant part of the paintings’ color. But the scope of hues Kazemi employs is broader than that. Other copies of Western art, including historical figures, such as St. Sebastian and portraits of younger women whose demeanor and style  of dress lead back to the European art historical (Netherlandish) period. The mixture of bright, mostly sharply defined plant forms, along with the artist’s use of art historical figures, leads to an understanding of art as far more open than the situation might seem to an untrained eye. 

All the paintings on show are untitled, and all were made in 2023. In one, the details are nearly overwhelming: an egret, standing off to the right side; underneath the placement of the bird is a beautifully rendered younger woman in profile, who looks across the airy densities of space and imaginative weight that are an integral part of  the picture. In the upper right, a group of daisies flourishes while deep in the bottom left, a handsome young man, his demeanor, presenting great energy, displays an outlook very much alive–even if we see only his left eye, uninhibitedly gazing at the audience. The flowers, berries, and leaves, too many to enumerate or describe individually, create an atmosphere of fecund disorganization, forcing Kazemi’s audience to make sense of something that vividly seems out of control. The way she solves the problem is to define the forms she uses in a manner that emphasizes the homogeneous disposition of the image, incorporating visual discipline into work that resists such discipline– at least at first glance. 

In the second painting too, the emphasis is on nature, scattered randomly in close to anarchic fashion. But also in this work, a figure wearing ornate clothing and a long, thick yellow beard sits close by to what is pretty certainly a cockatoo, with a sharp crest. The bird is eating a brown bug, which seems to be slipping from the fingers of an anonymous hand. The image, simple enough at first glance, is not without a sharp suggestion of violence–thus becoming an illustration undermining the rich beauty of most of the painting.This is chiefly brought about by the remarkable skill of the artist–a skill that separates her from the often deliberately disorganized, more conceptually considered art of Americans. They tend to leave craft behind, while the art of Kazemi and other Iranian painters is usually driven by figurative skill. The rest of this explosion of flowers, too crowded in their variety to be easily categorized, takes us by surprise via their numbers–and the sharp beauty of the flora that are so dense and colorful. Examples from the garden include small, delicate, intensely blue flowers; there are also animals sometimes difficult to recognize. And leaves spread across the width of the composition offer thick cover–for example, a set of white fronds dominates the upper register of the painting. 

Naeemeh Kazemi, Untitled, 2023, Oil on canvas, 150 x 200 cm 

For this writer, one of the strongest pieces in Kazemi’s outstanding group of paintings is the one that concentrates quite ornately on nature--a wide range of red plants and flowers on the left and an equally broad spectrum of white flowers or, perhaps, mushrooms–it is hard to tell–on the right. In the middle, red flowers take over the painting. Then, in the lower left, a man covers his mouth with his hand. Tacit, mysteriously unspoken, partially hidden from the audience by all the plants, he really is not so much part of the scenery as he is its guardian. In this painting, the thick array of flowers is so rich in its effect, speech is lost to its overall demeanor. The garden thus speaks for itself.

This show is an exciting attempt to merge the non-historical life of nature, its endless repetition eroding the advance of history, much slower and more mechanical in its progress. The garden is intuitive; the mechanical, not to be found in these works, is not. The innovative decisions Kazemi makes in her idea to combine flowers and figures of people, which include colors bright enough to stand independently of other hues equal in strength of hue, and the contrast between items set in history and those that are contemporary are in fact highly innovative. The combination results in works that are both ancient and of this moment. This is an advance not only for the artist but also for the audience, who can  appreciate Kazemi’s considerable skills, as well as the original use of her intelligence in settings known for their age and those known for youth. What happens as a result? A highly estimable show.

In the long run, Kazemi’s supposedly traditional approach is anything but that. Today, there is an active return to figuration throughout the art world. Second, this figuration is, in Kazemi’s case, shaped by excellent craft. Her work manages to challenge and entertain at the same time. Collections of flowers, plants, and painterly memories transform what might be confusion into a nicely arranged production of effects. Thus, the work is changed from a free-form improvisation into a pattern that lingers because it is so well made. The pattern not only represents the arrangements art is capable of; it also demonstrates a sense of continuity we expect from concerns larger than we might first acknowledge.  WM


Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 


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