Of the two shows of the Iranian born painter Nicky Nodjoumi displayed at Helena Anrather Gallery at 28 Elizabeth, this current offering is much more moving than the first, slightly less than two years ago, a nonetheless enjoyable gathering of paintings rendered on New York Times covers in the late 1990s. That show was reviewed by the New York Times, the New Yorker, Boston Review, and Art in America, with the coverage uniformly focusing on how the Islamic Republic made it impossible for Nodjoumi to practice his socially critical art in his native country. Until the Brooklyn Rail chimed in on the current “We the Witnesses” late in the run, I was witnessing what seemed like a comparative lack of witnessing. At one point I counted 100 “Must See” New York shows on ArtForum but, alas, not Nodjoumi’s, which they only said “features recent paintings and works on paper.”
The title painting and the collage that it derives from are indeed recent, but the show spans works over a five year period, including the 7’x11’ ink triptych “Here is Aleppo,” painted in 2017, the second work of art I’ve seen in New York that tackles the Syrian War. Of this work on paper the Rail writes of “our perceived powerlessness within a system of abstract power and indecipherable policy that is completely disconnected from majority interest” and the gallery press release adds “a fallen building serves as a shibboleth for a city, country, and region suffused with political instability.”
|Nicky Nodjoumi, Here is Aleppo, 2017, Ink on paper, 88 3/4 x 133 inches framed|
As it would happen, it falls on me then to witness on the world wide web at this late hour who the figures are that hover over the architectural wreckage, left from right: George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It was difficult for me to recognize these ghostly likenesses but staff helped out. In a discussion with Syrian expats at the UN in 2016 leaked to the New York Times, then-Secretary of State John Kerry, an advocate of US force in Syria, said “The problem is that, you know, you get, quote, enforcers in there and then everybody ups the ante, right? Russia puts in more, Iran puts in more; Hezbollah is there more and Nusra is more; and Saudi Arabia and Turkey put all their surrogate money in, and you all are destroyed.” That generations of civil society in Syria have been set back and displaced by a brutal proxy war shouldn’t be a controversial notion to grown-ups in 2021, and Nodjoumi's inclusion of three countries’ leaders isn’t taking sides or singling anyone out.
Indeed Assad foes Recep Tayyan Erdoğan and the House of Saud should feel left out of the portait, especially as the Saudis went to the effort and expense to arm ISIS with Obama’s full knowledge. The New York Times article didn’t mention that Kerry also said that day “The reason Russia came in is because ISIL was getting stronger, Daesh (ISIS) was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus and so forth. And that’s why Russia went in. Because they didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad. And we know that this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage, that Assad would then negotiate.” On February 2, 2012, the current US National Security Advisor told then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “AQ (Al-Qaeda) is on our side in Syria”. Israeli ambassador Michael Oren responded to a question of backing ISIS in 2014 “From Israel’s perspective, if there’s got to be an evil that’s got to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail.”
Julie Mehretu, Epigraph, Damascus, 2016, Photogravure, sugar lift aquatint, spit bite aquatint, open bite, 98 2/5 × 226 2/5 in
The only other work I’ve seen on the Syrian War was Julie Mehretu’s series shown at Marian Goodman gallery in the fall of 2016, with works on paper referencing Aleppo. The centerpiece of that show was the photogravure, aquatint, and etching “Epigraph, Damascus,” a six panel print with a similar format to Nodjoumi’s. Mehretu, described once again as “post-colonial” in her recent Whitney retrospective, continues to avidly support Obama and Hillary Clinton, who tried to persuade Obama to send even more arms into the country and openly gloated about the destruction of Libya. Prints of "Epigraph, Damascus" have been sold for millions of dollars to collections at MoMA, The Whitney, LACMA, Dallas Museum of Art, and the Saint Louis Museum of Art, documenting the tears shed by these institutions for the suffering of the Syrian people, which continues to be exacerbated by crippling US-led sanctions that have plunged 80% of the country into poverty, food insecurity, and lack of medical supplies.
A highly recommended visit to the show today can be combined, heading east, with the last day of George Mathieu at 130 Orchard (also uptown), and a Wallace Berman show at 183 Stanton for another week that includes a photo of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Oswald with a quickly rendered 1964 handwritten poem by Michael McClure. Heading west, Artists Space offers the NYC iteration of the Mark Christman-curated Milford Graves tribute, which allows Graves' anatomical sculptures to be seen close up and individually rather than be grouped into a circle of wonders as at ICA Philly, then it's on to Paul Thek at 47 Walker, the Brazilian Marina Reingantz' canvases at 39 Walker, contemporary vernacular scenes depicted in marquetry inlay at 48 Walker, Gauri Gill pix at 52 Walker, and 1960s Georg Baselitz prints at 17 White. Further north at 35 Wooster is the first "take" on the Jack Shear drawing collection until November 7; if you see the first you will want to see the next two.
|Marina Rheingantz, Horse, 2020, Oil on canvas, 75 x 107 in|
In Chelsea, it's worth checking out the last day of the motion activated sound gizmos in the back room of the Janet Cardiff/ George Bures Miller installation (531 w 24th), with architectural high rise models that "portray a mini-dystopia, civilizations that have been eerily abandoned" which hasn't kept the rents from going up. I wanted to see it a second time one morning upon opening but there seemed to be a mechanical malfunction, and then the alarm went off, with the staffer popping her head out seeming vexed so I couldn't bring myself to do the "that alarm.. late 90s Cardiff! I must have it." Predictably I am on board with all the critics that thought MoMA bestowed Philip Guston a posthumous honor by postponing his retrospective on the grounds of unacceptable social relevance after the Floyd protests, directing folks to the paintings at 542 w 22nd.