The White Passion Gholamhossein Nami

Gholamhossein Nami’s works are the fruit of a critical quest for an answer to the question “What is art?”, and a restless search in the realm of painting as a medium. His artistic experience is based on exploring and re-exploring painting to reach an ultimate definition for this medium. Instead of raising a variety of subjects in his paintings, he has shown interest in exploring the novel structure in the art of painting and therefore has employed his talent to discover new things at its core rather than the context.

More than that of any other Iranian artist, his endeavors are focused to critique the art of painting and its original contents such as shapes, colors, compositions, materials and structure as opposed to subjects on the outside. This makes him a real modernist whose art and teachings have played a key role in developing the values of modern aesthetics in his home country.

Apart from his intermittent creations – inclusive of a number of quite noticeable works – his most prominent experiences can be categorized in three main periods.

First comes the period known as artist’s “White Creations” which includes monochromic paintings with projected forms depicting orderly or random occurrences against a white, unified background. This is regarded as the artist’s most significant period, particularly as his legacy from the point of view of the Iranian history of modern art, which in the meantime comprises most of his active years.

The next epoch known as earthen plaster signifies those of his works with cracked textures on a plain background like that of an arid desert – a repeating exploration using a specific material with an intimate texture creating a metaphorically poetic context. These surfaces – plain and abstract at times denoting the ground and architectural surfaces – have a naturalistic quality to them as well as visual effects.

Eventually, the third period – almost begun concurrently with the other two – is the artist’s works of calligraphy. These compositions comprise of floating surfaces created through fine, brief strokes conceptualizing written letters. The opulence of calligraphic insignia in these creations represents the curves in a number of letters on the Persian alphabet without the intention to signify a certain letter.

From the critical point of view, Nami’s white paintings are classified as the most modern among those of the Iranian artists’. With no emotional effect or metaphoric perplexity, his works focus solely on aesthetic principles and the world of shapes and forms. He is the only Iranian painter who has challenged the canvas frame in several of his monochromic masterpieces whose main concept is the transformed, rather eccentric shape of the framework. To begin with, he crossed the boundaries buy breaking free from the rectangular-shaped canvases. This in turn, led to the non-proportional practice of placing one in four frames across a vast panorama eventually ending up in a circle which relieved his paintings from the rectangular borders of the canvas in an unprecedented experience ever.

His rather personal, distinct choice in transforming the art of painting moved beyond the frame of the canvas to reach other territories such as composition, color, context and material. Through his artistic journey, the artist has constantly tried to constructively criticize his inner understanding of painting and in doing so he has employed the fundamental elements. However, he has remained loyal to indispensible basis of aesthetics namely order, proportion, abstraction, minimalism which are embraced as the very core of modernistic values.

In the next phase, certain entities or 3-dimentional objects projected from the surface of the canvas. These projections whether geometric or oblique occurred in a orderly or random manner and challenged the 2-dimentional surface of the canvas taking a shape between a painting and a sculpture – 3-dimentional works that hang like paintings.

There is more to these projections into space than being merely an idea of a form. They represent an important event in the vastness of the art of painting like when a sprout rises from the surface of the earth. These events rise from a non-painting conception and relate to the basic perceptions of the viewers. The artist has meant to attract the attention of the viewers to the canvas itself rather than the image or the visual effect thereby making them connect with the existence of the canvas for the important part instead of its pictorial attribute.

In this existentialistic process, the art of painting presents itself in the form of a physical verity. Beyond a merely illustrative experience, the creations in fact make us aware of the canvas in its existence as a white fabric. This has been done to drift the viewers’ attention away from the paintings’ imaginative nature and introduce them into the world of physical shapes and their actual existence.

Such non-imaginative, existentialistic approach possessed by no other Iranian artist has made Nami a resolute modernist who inclines towards minimalism and naturalistic aesthetics.

Formerly, Italian existentialists like Piero Manzoni with his stretched, twisted colorless canvases and Lucio Fontana with his stabbed or slashed monochrome canvases had adopted a similar approach with the aim of creating an incident on by which to draw the viewers’ attention to the canvas rather than the painting. A canvas with twists, creases, slashes or scattered wholes. In such a process, the viewers go past the painting and step into the world of visible objects displayed in a minimalistic manner.

Nami’s most acclaimed works are his monochromic white canvases which are not actually about whiteness. There is no metaphor or allegory associated with the white color and therefore we might as well call these works colorless or “achromatic” like those of Piero Manzoni’s. These collections are the height of the artist’s minimalism in his critique of the structure of painting in his quest for the value of white color. The achromatic feature accentuates the spatialism and facilitates a better display of protrusion thereby allowing the game of light and shade happen for real as opposed to the unnatural quality of light and shade in painting.  This fact underlines the importance of projections in how they affect light and shade rather than their shape and composition. They are neither images nor signs, but physical incidents which introduce us to the reality of the created piece to drift away from imaginative side of painting and focus on the existentialistic aspect of the works.

Unlike conventional paintings, the concept in these creations is spatial. Instead of creating an imaginative world lying within the connotation of images, the artist has formed 3-dimentional shapes to represent physical presence, candidness, visibility and texture. These concepts should not be construed as artist’s being irrespective of the basics in forms and composition. Instead, it is obvious that he has remained truthful to the basics of aesthetics and modernism. This is obviously seen in the strong symmetry in his works, as well as in the right-angled surfaces, strict order and integrity of visual elements. This is particularly outstanding in Nami’s purely abstract pieces as opposed to his landscape and nature paintings in which there are relatively less symmetry, use of minimalism and diversity of materials and medium.

Nami’s achromatic (monochromic) abstract paintings which are unrelated to architecture or nature are known as his ultimate manifesto of art. Works of this category do not hold a secret, nor do they incline towards romanticism. They are not chronicles of every-day life or a call for tragedy. They are simply about painting and its realm – about order and disorder, incident and accident, substance and thought, object as opposed to void and finally presence versus absence. They are of more analytic nature and deal with the inner world of the art of painting and its structure. The elements used in these paintings do not reflect the artist’s state of mind or emotion and there is no sign of attempt by the artist to imply lyrical or poetic story telling through this collection. They are strictly paintings of a solely visual quality. They are the very outcome of precise observation free of any dramatic effect or expressionistic behavior – certain objects of specific forms, colors and textures which present paintings in their pure visage.

After the period of achromatic paintings, which was a research into the heart of modernism, Gholamhossein Nami proceeded with two of his other influencing creations – paintings with a mixture of earthen plaster & straw and abstract calligraphy paintings– to achieve what is known to be an Iranian avant-garde movement. This was an experience in which all other contemporaneous artists like Nami were keen on. Their attempts were focused on reaching an Iranian interpretation of modernism in the global forum of modern art. To do so, they needed to blend the Iranian elements and motifs with the very spirit of modern art as was then known across the world. We may now see some ultimately successful works from artists at both ends during this epoch.

Cobb – the mixture of earthen plaster and straw – which is the common material in this series of works is a material associated with a vast array of literal metaphors and cultural references in the minds of the Iranians. Employment of this material has never been seen among European or American artists and therefore it is what gives these works their traditional quality and a reference to the vast desert situated in the heart of Iran. The paintings with cobb are a composition of simple surfaces of different textures which portray the earth and desert or the tall enclosures of fortresses. In a horizontal position in which the cobb is meant to depict the earth, the layer is totally geometrical and integral. In a vertical position, however, it is multilayered and non-geometrical to portray enclosures. In the former, the composition is strictly abstract, whilst the latter is a figurative representation of half-collapsed walls with the sky in the background.

In a number of abstract specimens, the plaster coated surface is merely a stretch of painting with its particular color and texture without making a reference to the desert or an enclosure. It then blends with other surfaces of simple texture in brown, black and white to create a textured, non-expressionistic, abstract painting. The outcome is seen as a formalistic composition of non-geometrical surfaces which introduces the concept of balance and moderation in organizing elements without underlining the metaphor of the black and white colors or the cobb-coated surfaces. The only element which gives these works their Iranian identity is the texture of cobb which is a material native to Iran.

What is worth noticing is the skillful workmanship of these cobb surfaces which in contrast to their fragile looks and cracks seem quite sturdy and standing.

Even the non-geometrical, 3-dimentional objects are solid and sit well on the canvas. On the whole, the combination of the artist’s modernistic idea and his masterly execution has given birth to strong paintings with the solidity of a sculpture.

Nami’s calligraphy paintings are his most expressionistic creations and in the meantime the most famous ones in the art market. More than his other works, his calligraphy paintings remind viewers of semi calligraphic paintings of the expressionist followers of New York school such as Jackson Pollock, Sam Francis and especially Mark Tobey. The composition comprises of a floating stretch of well-ordered strokes; integrated in form but variable in colors which as described by the artist himself they portray a galaxy of stars and heavenly bodies. These stretches cover the entire canvas like huge clouds and twist like a funnel-shaped tornado. They seem like a planet of particulates finishing into the deep, infinite universe reminding viewers of repeating calligraphic lines, in the meantime.

The calligraphic elements in his paintings possess no emblematic quality or meaning, but are a show of reverence to calligraphic symbols and therefore may benefit the same attractions as conventional calligraphies’ in the art market.

The various compositions in these creations are different expressions of one idea which are at times geometrical and irregular at others. In any case, they are an illustration of forms and compositions. In geometrical compositions, a perpendicular figure imposes itself on a fluid texture. This is while the artist’s non-geometrical works convey the visage of the heaven, fluffy clouds, and galaxies to the minds of viewers. In these particular oeuvres, the sides of these calligraphic motifs gently blend into one another, but there are also instances where the sidelines are absolutely straight and thus are not in conformity with the fluidly bending forms of the calligraphic textures. Naturally these straight lines and right-angled geometric shapes diminish the visual dynamism and expressionistic power in a number of these calligraphic surfaces downgrading them to a level of merely a decorative motif on textile or wall covering.

Another important aspect in this category of Nami’s art is the process in which  they are accomplished. Throughout the process, smooth strokes of brush similar to playing a minimalistic piece of music with one certain note have resulted in creation of these oeuvres.  In these series the repetition of more or less similar motifs in multiple layers differentiated only by their colors is reminiscent of recurrence and therefore construed as a form of meditation. The countless strokes in an unchanging manner seem like a mantra being repeated by a Sufi. In their visual form, however, they resemble a wave or a storm of floating elements in the air. Of course, the naming of these works indicates the artist’s interest in canopies of stars forming galaxies more than the idea of mantra, meditation, storm or wave. This may be due to his preoccupation with the visual characteristics of painting rather than its conceptual interpretation of the process. From any point of view, it is obvious that the visual aspect of the works in their concept of accumulating particles ending up in huge masses along with the technique by which they are portrayed form the two sides of a coin in Nami’s calligraphic collection.

Through his White 3-Ds, Gholamhossein Nami has been determined to reach an ultimate point in creating modern art. The employment of cobb as a traditional material in his later works is to serve two goals; modernism and developing the Iranian version of avant-garde art. He ultimately achieves a personalized form of modernism through his calligraphic works which are important in their visual aspects as well as their technical features – creating a deep space and an overwhelming atmosphere in his paintings which are also aware of contextual signs. In his fifty years of artistic life, Nami has always remained truthful to modern aesthetics and a critic of his own creations so much so that in every period of his activities he has critiqued his previous period in his works. He has managed to stay away from romantic obsessions in his art and create paintings that deal with painting in its pure form more than anything else.

Alireza Samiazar

Date of Exhibition
Starts: January 17, 2013
Ends: March 8, 2013

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