A Requiem for a Befallen CalamityBy Samila Amir-Ebrahimi
Shock, that’s the name Hossein Maher chose for his fish series, which was first shown in the winter of 2009 at Etemad Art Gallery in Tehran. The collection included 21 large paintings of mutilated fish flesh. Aptly titled, paintings in Shock were amongst the most lurid and expressive in Mr. Maher’s oeuvre.
What do these flayed carcasses have to say? Are they telling us how they were caught, cleaned, gutted, cut, and broiled before ending up on our plates? Are their lacerated bodies only an excuse for the painter to study form, color, and texture, to better force realism into abstraction? Or perhaps they speak of a condition, an accident, a fate, a human tragedy?
Fish are cold-blooded, seafaring creatures whose bodies even many dedicated vegetarians find palatable. It is perhaps due to their graceful and studied comportment that they have come to represent life and movement, purity and innocence. As a motif they have been used in works of Iranian craftsmen and women of different eras and millennia. Mr. Maher has also made use of the fish motif in his works, expressively or ornamentally. But in Shock his fish are used in an entirely different manner. They have become creatures of flesh, bone, and skin. They have acquired a human aura.
In some canvases, fish carcasses shine brightly against a dark background. The painter has been able to use the form and texture of his subject matter to emphasize a metaphoric presence, one that invites viewers of his works to move into a different plane of understanding. Free style and excited brushstrokes, the red of blood and the pink of raw flesh, transparent layers of paint that moves from the flesh and skin to bones, veins, muscles, and the innards, popped up eyes that have frozen life in its track, grotesque heads hanging frighteningly, precipitously from their bodies, as if they wanted to hang on to dear life at all cost, all these submerge the viewer in the dark waters of death. The choice of large canvases increases the unpleasant and disturbing effect on the viewer. The strong and violent contrast between positive and negative spaces, the use of glaze on oil and acrylic, has infused these paintings with renewed vigor. The fish are no longer the white and silver trout that we fry to eat. They are kin to deformed and hitched bodies in the works of Rembrandt and Bacon, or bunnies and fish in paintings of Soutine — they speak of the innocence and bewilderment of the “victim” and the violence inherent in the desire to kill.
In the later works of this collection, once the initial excitement of describing the calamity has subsided, the painter brings us from the depth of realism back to the surface of abstraction. He flattens fish carcasses and in this way simplifies their form on canvas. His controlled brush attends to the formal relationship between parts. At this level, we no longer see eyes, body parts, head, or tail. The red and black of the calamity has given way to the blue, white, and gray of memory. Form and texture acquires an abstract quality and anemic patterns similar to the flesh and bones of the fish sit next to geometric and abstract forms. The fish are no longer and cannot even be imagined. It seems as if only a memory of the befallen disaster lingers. This collection, as such can be regarded as a requiem for victims of a calamity.