Iranian-American artist Tala Madani paints a provocative and humorous discourse on cultural and sexual identity. Picturing the male domain in all its stereotypical glory, Madani’s portraits of Middle Eastern men play out fictive rituals of a deviant, distinctly female imagination: prayer gatherings twisted into homosexual orgies, birthday parties targeted for terrorist attack, and tattoos and body hair plucking construed as the latest in ultra-macho beauty makeovers. In devising her scenes of aberrant ceremony, Madani pinpoints the very essence of frustration, fervour, and inadequacy.
Stylistically ranging from lush painterly expressionism to loose, almost comical line drawing, Madani conveys her politically controversial subject matter with a genuine innocence and empathy. Rendered in soft, pastel palettes, her figures are humanised with a sentimental goofiness that belies their zealous bravado. Whether engaging in torture via flatware, engaging in group grooming, or assassinating chummy rivals, Madani’s cohort are less dangerous than cringe-worthy; their fetishised violence rendered tragic and flaccid, contriving the phenomenon of male bonding an embarrassing and lovable spectacle.
Appropriating the preconceptions of racial and gender difference as a departure point into the bizarre and surreal, Madani uses her position of ‘other’ to draft her own elaborate fantasies, detailing a riotous underworld of cliquey sect-like subterfuge. The motif of the birthday cake recurs in Madani’s paintings as an emblem of masculine ego. The impotence of melting candles protracting to the ultimate conclusion of ‘blow them out/blow them up’, as pink gooey pastries become the signature trademark of her maverick suicide bombers.
In Line combines Madani’s sensitive approach to drawing with the more irreverent processes of graffiti. Using spray paint as a medium of protest, Madani juxtaposes its matted aerosol texture against fluid and pluming lines of oil paint. Picturing a men’s forum where peek-a-boo party games transform into opportunities for assassination Madani renders this scene with the measured flourish of calligraphy, tempering absurdity and cartoon violence with an antiquated gracefulness.
Drawing from her Iranian heritage where strict social etiquette creates a division between the sexes, Madani’s paintings gleefully envision what she imagines to be the ‘goings on’ at men-only events. In Holy Light, Madani pictures an everyday prayer meeting as a ritual of a more erotic variety, as devotees cower from the golden shower of divine blessing. Drawn out with marker pen and layered with yellow paint, Madani renders this scene with minimal detail, the painting’s crude content becoming a loaded approach to formalism.
The larger Madani’s paintings, the more abstract they become. While her tiny canvases embellish scenes with engrossing detail, pieces such as Tower Reflection – which spans 4 metres – reduce her outrageous narratives to only a few brush strokes. This shift in size draws comparison between the public understanding of complicated issues of violence and cultural identity and how they become manifest in individual experience. Madani considers these different ways of working as confronting two opposing dialogues of painting. Tower Reflection addresses the incompressible scale of terror with unnerving simplicity. Set against an interior decor toned backdrop, roughly drawn squares, evocative of aeroplane or theatre seating, pile on the canvas in emergency orange. Framed by two rectangular ‘windows’ the spectacle plays out with diagrammatic accuracy of one ‘motif’ passing through the other: a physical crash, a spiritual ‘crossing over’, or the gross transformation of horror into instant replay media.
Madani’s Nosefall uses cartoonish exaggeration to comically devise an army of ineffectual suicide bombers. Taking ideas of macho identity to the extreme, Madani’s characters become unwittingly effeminate buffoons, undermined by their own zeal. Their prostate devotional poses ironically double as sexually submissive positions, a joke enhanced by suggestively phallic parachutes and pink mankini uniforms. Hardly the image of international threat, the entire squad is prone to high altitude nosebleeds. Madani paints this with subtle variation of style, using a combination of solid flat patterns and hurried sketching to create a sense of floating or weightlessness; the splash marks of gushing blood hint that the men have never left the ground.
Madani’s cloistered gatherings of men are humorously imagined through an ironic portrayal of girl-culture, their clubby skullduggery emasculated against the background of female rituals such as sleepovers, spa treatments, and bake-offs. In Braided Beard Madani envisions a barber shop as a setting for camped up erotica, with a hirsute bear-type getting a pampering session he didn’t bargain for. Madani replicates this melodramatic fussiness using her loose painting style as a key component of her epicene narrative: the elaborately patterned carpet and the man’s hairy legs point to a feminine eye for detail and decoration and the hamfisted clumsiness of its male approximation.
Two Pillows and a Bolster devises a ‘slap-and-tickle’ approach to formal painting. Picturing a man lying across a bed with his unwound turban suggesting the final stages of seduction, the visual clues to his wantonness lie in the painting’s composition rather than its image: the mattress and pillows form a female torso, the man’s body creates an immodest shape and angle. Rendered in the muted tones of soft-porn, Madani’s muse resolves as a lusty wannabe centrefold, or more comically, a frustrated and repressed depiction of a quiet night in for one.
Madani’s recurring cake motif was inspired by a child’s birthday party she witnessed in Tehran, where the festive celebrations seemed to incongruously include businessmen, a PA system and American coloured decorations. This mosh-up of signifiers suggested an interesting parallel for the act of painting itself, conceiving the canvas as a site of contradiction, invention, and fantasy. Pink Cake captures this ambience of surrealism in both its subject and style with her cake-laden brief-clad machismos elucidated by luscious and intuitional mark-making, jumbling delicate washes and fluid lines with glutinous impastos of intoxicatingly saccharine hues.
As a painter, Madani has been compared to Matisse because of her use of pure colours, geometric compositions and expressive patterning. In contrast with her controversial subject matter, her large paintings are self-consciously aesthetic, borrowing from the ‘feminine’ styles and tones of printed fabrics. In Elastic Pink, her troops of parachuters are barely recognisable; instead their trademark brown and pink bodies become an abstract design focusing concentration on the painting’s construction. Each splotch of colour reverberates with energy as brush marks bleed between opaque and transparent to reveal minute details scratched into the surface. Compositionally dividing the canvas into two parts, Madani gives the impression of movement, like two panes of a comic or frames of film.
In Pose Madani’s beefy terrorist strikes a classic pin-up posture, farcically boasting his recent body waxing as a hero’s survival of exquisite torture. Executed with the apocalyptic glow of sunset exotica, Madani stages his glory with a clichéd romanticism redolent of Hollywood film posters or Gauguin’s Tahitian virgins. Traces of her casual brush strokes give the scene a languid dreamy effect, her sharp dabs, replicating oozing blood and plucked hairs, punctuating the canvas’s serene surface with exaggerated cartoon severity.
Madani’s Withered is from a series of paintings exploring men’s sexuality. Transplanting the metaphor of the female ‘garden’ to the realm of masculinity, Madani’s balding blokes are confounded by the flourish of greenery sprouting from their pants, only to face the further social embarrassment of botanical wilting at an inopportune moment. Similar to her cake paintings, Madani’s horticulture theme is conceived as a sub-cultural activity rife with macho-ego, sexual innuendo, and competitive violence.
Madani’s paintings substitute slap-stick comedy for violence, drawing from the conventions of comic book illustration where hyperbolised stories and exaggerated forms become allegories for complex social issues. In Ice Cream pink and brown paint rolls down the canvas, the strawberry-chocolate colours of Neapolitan gelato conjuring Mafioso affiliation, its sickly sweet gore transforming blood bath to festive delight. Madani renders the men’s faces as drawings within a drawing, heightening the simple two dimensionality of their farcical world and making reference to both balaclavas and women’s veils.