What a world it would be if Nicky Nodjoumi's artworks graced the covers of leading newspapers and magazines instead of the original photographs on which the artist models his compositions.
Barefaced, satirical reactions to current political drama, Nodjoumi's compelling canvasses and impassioned ink drawings tell it like it is, while fragrantly evolving an absurdist parallel existence. His current solo exhibition at The Third Line in Dubai, Fractures, feels significant – because it is. Nodjoumi has been a vital force in contemporary painting for decades, yet has had meagre showings in the UAE to date: one gallery show in 2011 and limited exposure at fairs.
It's happened now thanks to Sunny Rahbar (The Third Line's director), Taymour Grahne (who held critically acclaimed exhibitions of Nodjoumi's work in New York) and Media Farzin of Bidoun (who was brought on board as curator of the show, selecting works with the artist in his Brooklyn studio).
It's a brave selection. Some works are startlingly timely given our volatile world. Stage Performances (2017) acts as a forewarning: two men sit in suits as if on a chat show debating the nuclear deal, seemingly oblivious to the grey smoke rising in fumes from the table that divides them. Here Is Aleppo (2017) is an exquisitely executed monumental ink drawing made up of three layers: the core image copied from a published photograph, but integral is the under-drawing of four world leaders, as well as violently dripped splatters on the surface, which appear like bullet holes.
Nodjoumi has always pushed boundaries – opposition to his work means that he hasn't been to Iran in more than a decade. He has a difficult relationship with both his native and adopted countries, yet ironically Iran and the US are the only places he has really been exhibited. Grahne is planning a show in London next year, which will be the artist's first in Europe. Now seems the right time for him to be given a fresh start in the UAE. The new work certainly packs a powerful punch.
Power is a word that repeatedly comes up talking to Nodjoumi. "If I have one subject, it's power relationships. It can come in many forms: sometimes politics, sometimes between men and women, sometimes between animals or a combination of all these things," he says.
Such dichotomies and balancing acts run through much of his work. Two-Faced (2017) comes from a series exploring reflections. A man is crawling; a fantastical figure with a cockerel's head and harlequin patterns on its lower half floats a little too closely behind or above him – below, what should be a reflection of these instead is an inverted cow. The Long Day (2017) is also suggestive of a mirror. US President Donald Trump and a balding, suited buddy don't have the luxury of trampling their shadows underfoot. Instead, they are faced head-on with terrifyingly lifelike apes brandishing weapons, crowned by a messy red halo.
Steady research and experimental preparation occupy most of Nodjoumi's time. Once that's done, the paintings come quickly, with splashes added later as a destructive, protesting element. He has a substantial collection of clippings that he cuts and shifts on a grid to create his compositions: sources range from that morning's New York Times to 19th-century lithographs of Iranian history or photographs taken of historical sites. A selection is on display in the centre of the gallery.
Such seemingly random manipulation of found images gives the artist control, he says. "I cut out the figures from the newspaper clippings. These politicians have the power to change the world, but to me they are vulnerable; you can cut them somehow."
There is an element of cubism here, in a formal way. It is these fissures the title Fractures refers to: breaking down and re-configuring the human form is a major preoccupation. Easy Enough (2017) presents one grey, suited male, a contemporary Vitruvian Man or a character from X-Men, his eyes fixed to a hand-held device – the distortion created by his patchwork form and elongated legs makes him monstrous.
Landscapes are threatening spaces in Nodjoumi's paintings, and natural forms are re-scaled at times, too. A new body of work focuses on environmental concerns. In Field Report (2018), the protagonist is a monumental plant, its form taken from a book on herbal histories. It is being tied up, kidnapped perhaps, by two men in suits. One has the familiar harlequin checks, the other a mask; both connect to the commedia dell'arte tradition. References to previous histories are prevalent – the artist claims a central work in the show The Oath of Infidels is modelled compositionally on both David's Oath of the Horatii in the Louvre, Paris, and Matisse's The Dance in MoMA. All five fantastical figures seem connected by either a cat's cradle or a mirrored screen, while confetti falls from the sky.
Ambiguity and drama are key – most telling of all is when Nodjoumi admits that “most of the works look like they are happening on a stage; I spotlight them. They are scenes I have directed.” As the sages say, a picture speaks a thousand words.
Nicky Nodjoumi’s Fractures is on at The Third Line in Al Quoz in Dubai until July 31