Ardeshir Mohassess: Art and Satire in Iran at the Asia Society

Ardeshir Mohasses, A Letter For Shiraz (1982), ink on paper, 11-1/2 x 18″; courtesy The Asia Society

Iran’s worrisome prominence in world events can’t help but cross your mind while viewing Ardeshir Mohassess; Art and Satire in Iran, an exhibition on view at the Asia Society. And not only because Mr. Mohassess hails from Iran. His brand of satire is, to put it mildly, skeptical of his home country’s political convolutions. Would Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suffer Mr. Mohassess’ uncompromising art gladly?

Organized by video artist Shirin Neshat and painter Nicky Nodjoumi, Art and Satire in Iran is Mr. Mohassess’ first U.S. retrospective. As artists of Iranian descent, Ms. Neshat and Mr. Nodjoumi consider Mr. Mohassess a national treasure, not least because (to borrow a shopworn phrase) he speaks truth to power.

Born in 1938, Mr. Mohassess came of age under the regime of the Pahlavi Shah. He received a degree in political science from Tehran University in 1962 and applied that knowledge to an already established career as a popular artist. His drawings—“cartoons” is too coarse a word—appeared regularly in the Iranian press and gained an enthusiastic fan base.

They also garnered the attention of Savak, the Shah’s secret police. Mr. Mohassess’ drawings were often featured as illustrations for articles, the implication being that they were relatively objective in stance. This was belied by the hard-scrabbled intensity of Mr. Mohassess’ pen. Whatever ambiguity the work possessed was tenuous at best. Mr. Mohassess had plenty to say.

Savak thought so, too. After receiving repeated warnings to tone it down or, more likely, cease and desist, Mr. Mohassess left Iran for temporary exile—or so he thought. Plans to return were quashed by the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The theocracy was likely to think even less of Mr. Mohassess than the Shah did. The artist has lived in New York since 1976.

There are only a handful of drawings on display predating Mr. Mohassess’ arrival in the U.S. A sketchbook from 1960 features the bureaucratic dismemberment of a bound man—think William Steig minus the ramshackle charm. Elsewhere, ink drawings of fairly obvious import are wrought in dense accumulations of scratchy lines. There’s an illustration that accompanied a 1977 Times Op-Ed piece titled “U.S. Policy, and Israel’s.”

These pieces are reproductions. The originals are lost. Much of Mr. Mohassess’ pre-exile drawings are, or so it’s assumed, deep in storage or have been destroyed. Any hope of collectors in Iran loaning pieces has been thwarted by the U.S. embargo and possible repercussions by the Iranian government. Sometimes art criticism, as it were, can have dire consequences.

Mr. Mohassess’ arrival in the U.S. diminished neither the work’s power nor its bite. If anything, geographical distance led to greater clarity in critical outlook. The resulting drawings are devastating and strangely lyrical. Subtlety of means, both pictorial and political, simultaneously subsumed and bolstered outrage. Mr. Mohassess became an unlikely poet. His touch became lighter and more incisive.

The main body of the exhibition is dedicated to a suite of drawings collectively titled Life in Iran (1976-1978). Mr. Mohassess’ cast of characters predates the Shah and the Iranian Revolution—the pictorial settings are from the Qajar dynasty, which ruled Iran between 1794 and 1925. Wearing exotic and often absurdly elaborate raiment, his walking cadavers and bloated autocrats, with their crumpled and burdensome flesh, stand stiffly and pose as if they were the subjects of an official photograph.

Supplanting contemporary events with the pomp and circumstance of outdated conventions may seem an evasion of sorts, but it only goes to reinforce Mr. Mohassess’ great theme: The arrogance of power. By traversing history, he reiterates the universality, continuity and ineluctability of untrammeled oppression. This is a well-trodden truth, but the best artists shade, enlarge and redeem cliché until it achieves the force of revelation. Mr. Mohassess is one of them.

There are thematic constants in Mr. Mohassess’ art: The anonymity of mob consensus; the ubiquity of violence; cruelty as entertainment; and the paranoia engendered by uncompromised power. The “people”—demonstrators, imams, judges and citizens schooled in birth control—are riddled with bullet holes. “Peace, justice, truth, brotherhood and freedom” are humiliated before being sent to prison. Execution is the king’s birthday present. Mr. Mohassess oversees these mordant tableaux with curious detachment.

Mr. Mohassess’s line is elegant and irritable. Flesh is rendered meaty and worn. His caricatures are pitiless and unsparing, whether they be of oppressor or the oppressed. (“Perhaps,” he said, “I see both as equally responsible.”) Mr. Mohassess can be compared to Daumier, Thomas Nast, George Grosz, Sue Coe and his work contains some of the whimsy, albeit darkened by sociopolitics, of Saul Steinberg. Persian art is predominantly gleaned from precision of means.

Among Mr. Mohassess’s gifts is how deftly irony invalidates and elaborates on his titles. The rift between description and image is at once broad and all but imperceptible. The most close-to-home drawing may well be “the royal court’s greatest painter accomplishing the most important assignment among his artistic activities”—that assignment being the decoration of a leg cast worn by the king. Concision of touch brings to fruition ugly slapstick worn lightly.

Mr. Mohassess was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the mid-1980s. (The most recent drawing dates from 2000.) Since then, he’s reiterated Dadaist collage and made oddly endearing, New Yorker-type drawings of mullahs. But “Life in Iran” is his gift to the ages. Ms. Neshat and Mr. Nodjoumi have done much to guarantee that this accomplishment will be as inestimable for and relevant to world culture as it is for the Iranian people.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 3, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

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