Art In Conversation
Kamrooz Aram with William Corwin
On ViewPeter Blum Gallery
September 17–November 11, 2022
During our conversation at the Peter Blum Gallery, Iranian-American artist Kamrooz Aram joked, “When you're identified as an Arab long enough, maybe you become kind of arabesque.” It’s a pun that embraces the many double entendres in the artist’s practice. Aram plays with and debunks notions and structures that we think we know—we being victims of received wisdom. The artist revisits many recognizable forms—the problematic arabesque being a focus of his efforts, but others tropes and gestures as well, pulled from antiquity (Islamic and otherwise), carpets and textiles, and the works of modernist architects such as LeCorbusier. Aram imbues these forms with alternative readings; or sometimes just plays with the idea of removing what we thought we knew and instead leaving an enigmatic lacunae. His project at the Arts Club of Chicago exposed the vestigial gendering of spaces in modernist architecture, and his current exhibition at Peter Blum, Elusive Ornament insists that we do the work to move beyond dismissing beauty that we can’t contextualize as merely decorative or ornamental.
William Corwin (Rail): In her essay “Radical Ornament,” written for your new monograph published by Peter Blum, Lauren O’Neill Butler says you received a “somewhat traditional education in painting,” akin to the Hans Hofmann school, which I thought was interesting because Hans Hofmann was very radical in his day. But that raises questions about a painter's training. What was your training in painting?
Aram: Well it has been a while since my undergraduate education, and much longer since Hans Hofmann was considered to be radical. Before attending the MFA program at Columbia, I studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art, which has always had a reputation as a good painting school. Traditional, in this context, might refer to a more technical training. I only started painting when I was about seventeen years old, and while I had an intuition for it, this technical training was invaluable for me. The foundation program at MICA also taught the modernist tradition of color by way of Albers and Itten.
Rail: Have you always drawn?
Aram: I was never particularly good at drawing until I started painting. I became proficient at figure drawing and painting through a lot of really hard work rather than what seemed like an innate ability that some of my peers had. After a couple years of focusing exclusively on observational painting, I began to gravitate toward some of the abstract painters teaching at MICA.
Rail: What precipitated that transition from a student fascination with figuration to abstraction?
Aram: At some point in my undergraduate education, painting seemed to have been reduced to an exercise, I did not feel I was making art. I had studied closely with a painter named Timothy App, who I connected with first on a musical level. We would have long conversations about Bob Dylan, improvisation, and how Dylan seemed incapable of performing a song the same way twice. He also introduced me to the music of Keith Jarrett. And after listening to Jarrett’s music, I started to connect with Timothy’s own work more. He makes quiet, geometric, abstract paintings. Timothy lived in New Mexico for a while and knew Agnes Martin, and through him I became more and more interested in Martin’s work.
Rail: O’Neill-Butler also writes that you’re a self-described formalist in the same way that Amy Sillman calls herself that. That’s exciting right now for painting because there's such a move towards figuration. I’m curious what definition of Formalism you are talking about; are you talking about Roger Fry and significant form? Are you talking about Greenberg? Where do you draw your formalist credentials?
Aram: It took me a long time to admit that I was a kind of formalist. In order to come to terms with what that means, I had to recognize that I might define formalism outside of the conventional art historical understanding of the term. Much of my problem with formalism had to do with Greenberg’s idea of pure form and the myth of the self-referential art work. It is impossible for a painting to only offer the viewer what is contained within the parameters of the canvas. Almost all paintings are installed in an interior space, the context of which has a significant effect on how we understand them. A Rothko painting, for example, is a very different painting hanging at the Met in 2022 than it was when it was shown at a gallery in 1953. Something as simple as the height of the ceilings or the quality of light alters the painting much more than one might think. And today, the painting is no longer contemporary and is understood to be a part of a very specific history of image-making. We now view the “heroicism” of abstract expressionism in a different light than in the decades following WWII.
My understanding of how form could function radically also came out of music. I had come to the realization that Nina Simone was a kind of formalist. In Nina Simone’s first record, which we now know as Little Girl Blue—initially it was called Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club—there’s a song called “Love me or leave me,” which is basically a love song.
But while she’s using the format of a love song, she is also doing something else. In the piano solo, which she begins playing as a typical jazz/blues solo that fits in comfortably with the song, she seamlessly transitions into something familiar, but from another tradition altogether. While the band is still swinging behind her, the piano stops swinging and transitions into what sounds like a Bach fugue. There’s this moment where she—a person who was denied an education in classical music because of her race—defiantly performs classical music, effortlessly integrated into a jazz record. And then of course she later goes on to perform at Carnegie Hall, a place associated with…
Rail: Elite and institutionalized culture.
Aram: Exactly. A very different kind of exclusive club. While she did eventually write songs that engaged socio-political content directly in the lyrics, she was also, early on, using form as a way of engaging this content. I saw echoes of this in my own work and began to understand the possibility for form to function critically, a sort of radical formalism.
Rail: Can you talk about Beatriz Colomina’s Privacy and Publicity and your approach to the show at the Arts Club of Chicago last year?
Aram: I returned to Privacy and Publicity as I was considering the role the Arts Club of Chicago as a private club that also functions as a public art institution. The history of the Arts Club and its role in bringing modern art to the United States is a unique one: It was founded a few years after the 1913 Armory Show, and was the first American institution to show modern art, even before MoMA. Marcel Duchamp was involved and brought Brancusi to the Arts Club. The Arts Club’s second location was designed by Mies van der Rohe and the architect of the current space, John Vinci, actually transported the stairway of the Mies building to the new space. So the Arts Club’s history is steeped in modernist art and architecture.
In her text, Colomina talks about the gendered space of the modernist home, specifically in the case of a house designed by Adolf Loos. It reminded me that the gendered division of domestic space was not unique to the traditional Iranian home. In the exhibition I made several references to this division of private and public space.
The exhibition was organized loosely around the composition of the traditional Iranian home, with its entry garden and public and private quarters. When you enter the space, one of the most striking features of the Arts Club’s galleries is the shiny terrazzo floor, which appears more like black tile or stone. Initially it presented as a problem: how do I address this distraction? I am interested in how each exhibition functions as a whole, and the challenge for me is to figure out how to work with the existing architecture, rather than making architectural alterations to suit the work. So rather than looking for a way to cover the floor, I made some dramatically tall, narrow paintings that I installed very close to the floor allowing them to reflect into the ground as trees do in a still pond. When you first enter the space it felt a bit like you were entering a garden with a pond or a pool.
Rail: I had a conversation recently with an artist named Bahar Behbahani. She talked about the importance of the Persian carpet—she paints and deals with the Persian garden. She said that for a lot of Iranian children one of the first images you remember is crawling across a carpet. Do you have a similar kind of personal connection?
Aram: When I was in graduate school, I started to go into Persian carpet stores around the city and photograph carpets. This was around 2001–02. I had been thinking about carpets as a parallel to painting. They are made from very much the same components of painting and yet they are considered to be decorative objects. In those days I would photograph the carpets in the carpet store—on slide film so I could project them onto the canvas. I would draw very loosely on the projection with charcoal or oil crayon, and that would be the beginning of the painting process. My thesis show at Columbia consisted mostly of those paintings.
Rail: I was looking at some shows like Night Visions and Revolutionary Dreams in 2007, or—
Aram: That’s the more iconographic work that I was making shortly after I finished graduate school. There was a lot going on in the world at that time, especially in New York—I started graduate school a week before September 11, 2001. That was followed by the invasion of Afghanistan, and then the invasion of Iraq. A lot of that began to seep into the work. I started thinking more iconographically.
Rail: I mean, they seem to reference the sort of patterning of carpets.
Aram: Those paintings certainly used patterns from Persian carpets, but they also included imagery that was derived from Persian miniatures, Shia religious posters and murals, along with references to a multitude of sources including the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. A lot of apocalyptic imagery. Gary Indiana wrote an article in Art in America in 2009 about that body of work, which in retrospect seems to have served as a moment of closure for me. About a year after that article was published, I had an exhibition at LAXART called Generation After Generation, Revolution after Revelation, which I can now identify as the moment I stopped working with that kind of iconography and reengaged abstraction. The exhibition consisted of ten tall, vertical paintings, all in different stages of development, five on each side of the gallery, leaning against the wall and facing each other, so that when you walk among them, they feel almost like banners. They have an emblematic feeling, each with a single ornamental form at the center, almost flag-like.
Rail: That’s funny because I saw those and I thought they embodied a certain formalist approach, to bring it all back around. They reminded me of early Guston and Joan Mitchell. A lot of the mark making; but then the pattern imagery from the carpet or the miniatures as well, that you are distorting or bleaching away—
Aram: Well the more iconographic work developed out of that graduate school work that might be considered more formalist. I think at the time I was feeling the limitations of abstraction and wanted my paintings to do more, to say more. But the LAXART exhibition was really when I returned to form, to sort out my relationship to abstraction and what might be called a formalist approach. I don’t think I would have used these terms then, but I had started to think of the process of painting, the building and destroying of an image, as part of the content of the work. Not long after that exhibition I started a group of paintings that I have referred to as “palimpsest” paintings which developed this approach further.
Rail: Do you read a carpet? Do you pull a narrative out of it? Or do you approach it as a purely abstract work? How do you look at them, both when you were taking photographs of them, and then now?
Aram: There are many interpretations of how one could read Persian carpets, for example the idea that a medallion carpet illustrates the Sufi path of spiritual development. However, it was not any specific interpretation of carpet patterns that struck me early on, but the general understanding that carpets are not merely decorative and do, like paintings, have content.
Personally, I am more interested in tribal carpets which are much looser and freer in their compositions. They adhere less strictly to tradition. There is more room for improvisation and the maker of the carpet might decide to add a small figure here or a protective symbol there. These are the types of carpets that I live with.
Rail: I’m interested in your transition from the carpets to Agnes Martin, this idea of a cultural object imbued with lots of symbols, then a somewhat similar field rendered in a very minimal, possibly more universal, way. Is that a rejection of the ornament? Or is that an integration of it?
Aram: I would say an integration, if we reevaluate how we define ornamental and decorative. I use these terms out of convenience—but they are not really accurate, as with the term arabesque.
Rail: Well, I wanted to come to the arabesque. There was a very nice show about a year ago by a choreographer named Jonah Bokaer dealing with the arabesque and dance. That’s where I first thought about the term as the colonial eye observing something and simultaneously dismissing it, and then also applying a concept of a hybrid notion of beauty that wasn’t actually there in the culture that was producing this form. What is your interpretation of the term arabesque? You said that you see yourself almost as an arabesque!
Aram: Well, that was a joke. [Laughter]
Rail: It was actually quite apropos, in terms that the arabesque is this foreign term that is applied to someone who didn’t think of it to begin with.
Aram: Right. Because, what is identity? We talk about how one identifies, but in reality how I identified, growing up as a young immigrant in the United States, didn’t really matter. I didn’t have control over how I was identified. And so maybe when you are identified as an Arab long enough, you become kind of arabesque. [Laughter] But I do think that “the arabesque,” like “ornamental” or “decorative” is a vague and outdated term. I believe the roots of the term are from the Italian, Arabesco, referring to forms found in Islamic art. And the English use of the term comes from the French, who observed arabesque forms in North Africa. Generally I think it referred to an undulating organic pattern, like those found in many Persian carpets in fact. But these forms exist in a multitude of cultures beyond the so-called Arab world.
Rail: Your new body of painting, which incorporates architectural details, made me think of the first book that I was told to read in architecture school, The Origins of Classical Ornament, by John Hersey. It was a guide/explanation of all the details of classical ornament which then were related back to various rituals of sacrifice, trophies, things like that. One can also apply that kind of glossary of meaning to Islamic architecture and design, to the geometry, the medallions in the carpets—even, as you mentioned, the Sufi path towards enlightenment. But the term “arabesque” is pejorative, it denies deeper meaning. Arabesque just designates everything as decorative, as mere ornament. It’s not deeply meaningful in the same way that something like the Parthenon might have a deeper rituals/spiritual origin.
Aram: Islamic architecture—outside of scholarship—is often misunderstood as decorative and devoid of content. Perhaps in a similar way that abstract painting might be misunderstood. But the recent work—the arabesque paintings—are not derived from carpets or architecture. The forms are generated out of a grid, the curved lines are improvised and built upon the grid, erased and redrawn until I find the composition.
Rail: Which strategy are you employing? Are you referencing the context of Islamic architecture? Or just creating a pure abstraction? The title of the show is Elusive Ornament, which I think is a perfect evocation of the problem with the term arabesque.
Aram: We have to rethink how we use the terms “ornament” and “decorative.” The way that I tend to use the two terms is that the decorative refers to something that is considered to be superfluous form. Something that is ornamental may or may not be decorative, because ornament has the capacity for content. Not all ornament is decorative and decorative forms are not necessarily ornamental. But even these definitions are insufficient. And perhaps we have to be clear about defining “meaning.” Is the meaning of an artwork necessarily a message received through an interpretation of symbols, or can we find meaning in the emotional presence of an art work? For example, if you are in a space where music is playing softly in the background, is this decorative or background music? Or is it something that, by essentially changing the mood in the environment that it occupies, has meaning? And if you turn up the music and listen to the lyrics, how does that then continue to change one’s experience of occupying that space? I am interested in those aspects of art that appear to be peripheral but in reality are significant. Like frames or framing devices.
I had an experience several years ago at a Michelangelo drawings exhibition at the Met, where I noticed that one of the drawings had an almost absurd number of framing devices. I counted sixteen rectangles in the form of matt boards and lines drawn on the matt boards between the frame and the image.
Rail: Do you think it was the number of matts conferred a certain level of importance?
Aram: I have no idea who made that decision or why, but they clearly changed the composition of the drawing. The framing device might be considered decorative or functional, but it inevitably changes the composition of the work that it frames. In Persian miniatures you see many borders, often disrupted or broken, allowing the painting to spill out of the contained compositional rectangle. Most Persian carpets have multiple borders, which are a meaningful part of the composition.
In much of my work I make use of some kind of border and I consider these to be simultaneously functional and expressive. They demarcate the composition, but they are also part of the composition. Some of my paintings are framed in the studio and I consider those frames to be part of the composition.
Rail: I wanted to ask you about one of my favorite artists, Siah Armajani. He employs a lot of references to miniatures and to poetry, but most importantly, architecture. His engagement with architecture was always in a way that deconstructed it, turned it on its head, and recast it as image and text. I was wondering if you had engaged with his work?
Aram: Yes, I have followed his work over the years. He was much more deeply engaged with architecture than I am. He worked with architecture directly. My interest in architecture came through my exploration of exhibition design, especially in encyclopedic museums. I was interested in the proposed neutrality of these spaces where we display ancient objects, or objects that are identified as part of a “glorious” past. And this interest in design led me to architects like Carlo Scarpa who broke the neutrality of the museum with decidedly modern, decidedly Scarpa, forms.
Rail: That strikes me as analogous to the intersection that Armajani explored; he utilized architecture as a form of protest and political critique. I feel like you're doing that to a certain degree. You talked about starting art school right before 9/11, and that being on your mind, and that comes through in the paintings from 2007 and 2009, where you employ motifs and organizational structures from the carpets. But by utilizing these architectural motifs in these newer paintings, are you also making a similar critique?
Aram: Well the architectural references in the work are quite vague and usually in the sculptural work and exhibition design. There are a couple of things that I’m interested in: One of them is a renegotiation or disruption of the art historical hierarchies that have determined a certain group of forms, images, and objects to be decorative, and thus less culturally valuable. Secondly—and this takes us to the sculptural works and the collages—to explore the idea of cultural nostalgia, a certain glorification of the past. How does object veneration allow us to look away from the present moment, and what does that mean?
My sculptural works have no didactic text describing the objects on display; no information about provenance, geography, or the date of fabrication. I do not disclose to the viewer whether the objects are fabricated or acquired. They may be genuine antiquities or they may be replicas from a museum gift shop. They may be made in my studio or fabricated by a ceramicist. Even the found objects are often altered. It isn’t my intention to trick the viewer, but to challenge our preconditioned approach to understanding objects in a museum.
I’m interested in the museum as a space in which we find satisfaction in gazing at the past, which is often combined with an orientalist gaze toward an exotic distant land where these objects come from. With diasporic communities in the West, it is a fixation on our own glorious past, which often becomes a way of looking away from what might be considered a dismal present.
Rail: Do you think this nostalgia has been shattered by the current political moment in Iran?
Aram: I appreciate how a young generation of Iranians who came of age after the revolution and after the Iran-Iraq war, are fed up with what previous generations have left for them. They simply want to be in control of their own destiny and build their own future. The current leadership in Iran is an old patriarchy that is deeply rooted in the past, even if it’s a different past than the one that is the subject of a certain diasporic community’s nostalgic fantasy.
Rail: Can you tell me about Variations on Glazed Bricks (2021): five framed images of the same piece.
Aram: This image is a color plate from five different copies of that same book. Each of these color plates is framed with a color that I have mixed to match a color in the image itself. Over time, depending on how they are stored, the images begin to fade. I’m not sure when and to what degree, but as the colors in the image fade, an archive of colors will be preserved, more or less, in the oil painting surrounding the image. The image depicts a floral unit from a larger pattern from Susa or Shush. This unit, while originally part of a larger pattern, is displayed in this photo—and also at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—as a singular object.
Rail: It became a singular object in the museum, but you’re restoring it to its repetitive nature.
Aram: Yes and of course what we are also seeing is the evidence of the passage of time. These bricks were excavated, bought, sold, stolen—who knows—before this photograph was taken in the 1960s. And the photograph itself is a very particular representation: the current image of these same bricks on the Met’s website is quite different.
Rail: Going back to your of investigation of ornament versus decoration versus abstraction, I’m curious about your feelings about sculpture versus ceramics. In Bosphorescent Badakhshan (2022) you have a ceramic vase, but countering that, you have Remainders (2022) it’s an object on a pedestal and in our contemporary framework, we’d immediately say, “Oh, well, that’s a sculpture because it’s an abstract object.” You’re playing with visual triggers. Remainders has a little number written on it, which is an imitation of an artifact date. How does the deployment of ceramics in your work compare to the use of more indeterminate and possibly sculptural objects?
Aram: I refer to a work like Bosphorescent Badakhshan as a “sculptural work” rather than a sculpture, because it functions as both a sculpture and a painting. The exposed linen in this work is, of course, the raw substrate for the painting: Belgian linen. But it is also a reference to the linen that is commonly used in museum displays to create a supposedly neutral space.
Rail: The marble plays with that too.
Aram: The stone is Rosso Verona, which is very common in Italian architecture, often used in floors. The painting is made with a far more precious stone, lapis lazuli, which is also used to paint the pedestal. There’s an interdependence between the ceramic objects, the display and the painting. The painting becomes the backdrop to the displayed object, and the pedestal also occupies the space of both painting and sculpture.
Remainders, the sculpture that stands on its own, was made at the same time as Bosphorescent Badakhshan. The color of the pedestal was initially mixed as an underpainting for the lapis lazuli, but turned out to be so compelling next to the Rosso Verona that I kept it. I tried a number of different objects on the stone, but when I placed this yellow tile on top, it felt as if I had plugged the piece into an outlet. Something about this combination of colors really hummed.
Rail: Well it goes back to Itten and Albers as well, the color. Your “traditional painting education” has benefited you. Their composition is beautiful.
Aram: All of my sculptural works, as well as the exhibition design, come out of a painterly process. The decisions are essentially painterly decisions and my editing process is that of a painter.