Reviving once great artistic styles can be a fraught pursuit, whether or not they are part of an artist’s cultural heritage. Such styles must be transformed into something personal and contemporary that ideally also survives comparison with its inspiration. In her second solo show at this gallery, subtitled “How Iraqi Are You?” Hayv Kahraman largely pulls off this difficult feat, building on the refined figuration of Persian miniatures that are part of her Iraqi background. In Ms. Kahraman’s hands the delicacy and stylization of the source are writ large and on raw linen — evoking the pages of a Persian album — and complicated with allusions to other times, places and styles. The paintings depict pairs and groups of nearly identical women who may or may not be in a harem. Shown in conversation or listening to one of their number, these women have pale skin, gestures and becalmed features that recall both the female subjects of Renaissance painting and the powdered geisha of Japanese woodblocks. Their articulated hands seem puppetlike. Their largely strapless gowns and black bouffants seem of recent American vintage even as the fabric patterns of their gowns elaborate a veritable lexicon of Arabic geometric decoration. Ms. Kahraman has devised several stylizations of her own, especially in the ways the fabrics drape and overlap while remaining flat, and in details like eyebrows and those dark bouffants (which, for viewers of a certain age may recall Lady Bird Johnson’s hairdos).
As explained in Arabic captions beneath the images, the scenes are from Ms. Kahraman’s childhood, in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and later in Sweden, to which her family relocated when she was young and where the necessity of learning Swedish caused amusing linguistic misunderstandings. Punch lines go rogue in red ink along the borders. The gallery provides English translations of the captions and they are revealing, but it is foremost the sense of a style being reborn and the ambience of female empowerment and intimacy that keep you involved.
Jack Shainman Gallery
513 West 20th Street, Chelsea
Through April 4
From the New York Times website.