Totems from one half of the globe rest adjacent to those from another
Farhad Moshiri has been producing exhilarating, waggish, deft and joyous art over decades and across continents, from his youth in his birthplace of Shiraz, Iran; to his education at Valencia’s California Institute of the Arts; to the present, when he divides his time between Tehran and Paris. Despite his considerable body of work, he’s never had a solo museum exhibition prior to The Andy Warhol Museum’s Farhad Moshiri: Go West, organized by the Warhol’s chief curator, Jose Carlos Diaz. Viewing this comprehensive and diverse collection, that barely seems possible: It reveals Moshiri as an electrifying artist generating work both stimulating and reflective.
The pieces in this wide-ranging assembly fall into three categories. In one, a handful of three-dimensional sculptures are created by embedding unexpected objects into supporting backdrops: a board mounted upon the gallery wall, and sometimes the gallery wall itself. In the new commission “Mountains and Rivers,” keychains tacked to the wall compose a range of peaks and valleys, and just below spell “rivers.” Chosen for their omnipresence, found on nearly every person at every moment, keychains are as unique as they are ordinary, and one can get lost in perusing the symbols people choose to carry — sports insignia, brand logos, religious paraphernalia, cartoon characters, totems of luck and good fortune — to connect them to what’s theirs.
Firmly implanted in its surroundings is “Tranquility.” From a distance, the work spells out its own title, and perhaps suggests the idea of that title. Up close, however, it gives the word the lie: Each letter is shaped by knives of various sizes and purposes piercing the wall. Knives are utilized again in a series of three works on canvas on board. This trio does not employ the blades to form a word or picture, but rather finds them traveling toward an unseen target beyond. In two of the three, run-of-the-mill wood-handled kitchen tools are frozen; the third engages daggers multi-colored and fancy. It’s hard to determine which is more dangerous: the rustic and straightforward, or the decorative and refined.
Another category comprises Moshiri’s jar paintings, large-scale works in oil, tempera, acrylic and glue. Moshiri began making paintings of these traditional vessels when his searches for their physical subjects led to false accusations that he was collecting protected artifacts. His interpretations are rooted in the depth and gravity of ancient history, yet hum and resonate with vivid color — bright teal, in-your-face pink, DayGlo orange — and the vitality of the present.
While both Moshiri’s object sculptures and his urn imagery are undeniably appealing, it’s the third category of work which dominates this exhibition, not only through sheer quantity (it occupies most of the museum floor dedicated to it) but by its ability to render the viewer spellbound. Fashioned with beads, crystals, sequins, glitter and pearls, these pieces, quite literally, shine. The shimmering, sparkling images draw from pop art, advertising, children’s books, comics, decorative design, symbolism, the cultures of the various environments Moshiri has inhabited. A bathing beauty in a mid-century, atomic-era Western pin-up pose is coy in a swimming costume that would have been seen on stateside shores during Prohibition. In a trio of self-portraits, the artist represents himself underwater in a diving helmet, atop a flying carpet, scribbling furiously with tongue clamped between teeth a lavintage Dennis the Menace, envisioned as a child every time. In multiple works, totems from one half of the globe rest adjacent to those from another, hallmarks of Persian folklore juxtaposed with cartoony bits of Americana in quilt-like patchworks of emblems and icons — side by side, but decidedly separate.
Perhaps the No. 1 showstopper in a gathering full of them is “America.” This enormous, wall-sized piece depicts a scene straight out of a 1930s Hollywood oater, set in the Wild West in the middle of the 19th century, as rendered by Mad magazine’s Sergio Aragones during the 1980s. It’s all there in this saloon scene: a nervous piano player; a barkeep thoroughly over it; cowboys swinging from chandeliers, tumbling down staircases, crashing through balcony railings, shooting, punching, and drinking; barrels and bottles and bullets; and the arrival of a swaggering sheriff followed by a skeptical horse. It’s comical on the surface, until you consider the name of the work, the artist’s origins, and the implication that that is how we’re thought of.
It’s taken an unreasonably long time for Moshiri’s oeuvre to be so thoroughly represented, and it’s likely that this particular exhibition will live beyond its time at The Warhol. Its lifespan here is fleeting; see it now and have time to see it again before it moves on.
For the Pittsburgh City Paper website.