Iranian painter Ali Banisadr’s canvasses are at once compelling and unsettling, grabbing the viewer’s gaze and refusing to relinquish it

Painted at a vertical angle, Iranian artist Ali Banisadr’s canvasses appear as aesthetic avalanches of accident and incident, in which fragmented figures are contoured into chaotic spaces, the tormented dreams of the artist’s imagination. Rich colours are whipped up into a frenzy, providing a wild backdrop that forces his characters to come to the fore. Banisadr says his work aims to place viewers “in the middle of the action,” even as the work is “slowly unfolding itself and unveiling its content to you.” In this sense, his work is reminiscent of a still from a film or a frozen tableaux from the middle of a complex play.

Individually, Banisadr’s works demand a level of attention beyond that of most visual experience. Works like We Haven’t Landed on Earth Yet (2012), History (2012) and Foreign Lands (2015), recall something of the foreboding spirit of Hieronymus Bosch’s painted prophecies, with the advanced brushstrokes of American painter Willem de Kooning. Banisadr seems to understand, as these great artists did, that there is an alchemy to applying colours to a canvas in order to create a scene that is as deserving of our attention as the edgy melodrama of our lives.

It is as if in works like Age (2015) Banisadr is merely the messenger for an unspeakable act that as the painter he simply codes and decodes, in order that everything can return to a more amenable silence.

Ali Banisadr, History, 2012, oil on linen, 20.3 × 25.4cm, (AB 2065)

Ali Banisadr,
History, 2012, oil on linen, 20.3 × 25.4cm, (AB 2065)

“For me the works have always been between abstraction and figuration,” the artist explains, “and I think it is because I want to get as close to my own imagination as I can… In dreams and hallucinations things are always sort of slipping out of your hand. You can see something but it is not static, it is moving and it is changing all the time. Even your memory of a person or your memory of a place is always changing. So I am really interested in that state of flux. And I want to show that the paintings work the way imagination works.”

Banisadr exhaustively recalls and records a whole series of events as raw details meshed together in a violent sea of paint. The resulting works are strangely compelling, arousing curiosity even as they kindle revulsion. Successfully creating these carnivalesque spaces that enjoy their own atmosphere, Banisadr applyies dashes of paint onto the surface that drive an element of flatness back into the painting, creating compositions that control and corral the viewer’s gaze.

“I always like contradictions between deep space and flatness,” he explains. “I mean to say that you can be working on a canvas that is flat in order to create a deep space, but then I also want to show that there is a fight going on between the deep space and the flat surface. So, usually towards the top of the painting, where the deep space happens, I want to create certain elements that flatten the painting but also compositionally it brings the eye back… I create barriers in different parts, so that the eyes can keep moving, but they always stay within the rectangle of the canvas. They never manage to escape from the scene.”

Like the twisted wreckage of a car crash strewn across a concentre carriageway, Banisadr’s paintings are intended to grip us when we encounter them. As such, they appear as much emblems of euphoria as the harbingers of our end.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The One-on-One Issue #35, pages 56-59.