A review by Nick Gardner
The Pearl Conard Art Gallery at OSU Mansfield is empty on a Tuesday afternoon. The halls that rumbled with conversation and squeaked with damp sneaker friction are at rest and, after asking me to sign in at the door, the student watching over the gallery promptly puts on her headphones and digs into a book. I am alone to peruse this room.
Omid Shekari is a young Iranian artist who has lived through the terror and war in the Middle East. He states that his “work has been focusing toward representing people’s relationships and reactions to events.” He says, “instead of being specific, I try to make some stories, which globally talk about these feelings that repeat during the human history.”
Standing in the entryway I am confronted by two large paintings in acrylics, both in dull colors. On the right is a convocation, a raincoated politician type with arms raised in benediction speaking to a stone-faced crowd who look on, somewhere past the speaker, somewhere off the canvas. On the left, a donkey on a palanquin standing proud is carried by haggard-looking men with legs left incomplete or rather fading into the paint that drips at the bottom of the canvas off the edge.
I continue through the gallery and become obsessed with the eyes of the people in these paintings. In Cover there is a yellow-skinned man standing behind a red and white striped sheet. The two assistants in the painting are drafted with little detail and no color. I follow the eyes of these assistants to their focus, the painted man’s groin. The naked man, arm raised, looks out to the side of the painting, off into the distance beyond his body, overlooking the assistants so intent on his nudity. This focus on the nude figure is reflected on the opposite side of the room in Final Check. The naked form is now uncovered, the body impinged upon by a man in a blue lab coat, and the subjects’ eyes are not visible. The paintings taken together show the hierarchy of the body. While one example of the human form is ogled and honored, on the other side of the room the body is shamefully inspected and commented on objectively. One man looks out with pride while the other hides his gaze.
The use of space in this gallery compliments the art. I notice how Shekari’s limited color palette reflects the dreary weather outside. It is winter with gray skies and rain. The trees are bare of leaves. The concrete is bare. The scenery is no less beautiful, though dulled.
But as I make my way to the back of the room, closer to the windows, the paintings become more colorful. There is Gathering with its oranges, yellows, lime greens and purple. There is the untitled piece at the back of the room, the only work set against the floor-to-ceiling windows, with its orange-mesh fence and orange slop pouring down the throat of an obscured figure lying on its back.
When talking to others about this exhibit there was a feeling expressed that these colors were “Middle Eastern Colors”. But what does that mean? The yellows are the color of sand, the tan of stucco and grays of brick and concrete. The color of the awning in Gathering is reminiscent of photographs I’ve seen of Eastern markets. But the colors say nothing about the characters involved. While the colors may seem to create an identity or sense of place, the characters refuse to be identified and refuse to be placed. They fade into outlines at the legs, into paint dripping thick down the canvas. It is the people in these pieces that make the place. And this place, like its people, is nonspecific, is everywhere. This is the title. These places are “Not Too Far Away”. These colors are the colors that claim a land that is not their own, a body which is a nondescript piece of meat fed indiscernible scraps by other bodies which are equally undetailed.
In Gathering (by far the most colorful piece in the collection) a series of pedestrians stand beneath an awning in close quarters. All those on the right look right. All those on the left look left. Just right of center there is a person with short hair, neither male nor female, not necessarily old or young wearing short pants and what could be a sweater or a collared shirt. I am not sure, finally, if this is an old woman or a young boy. This figure is sexless, ageless, of no specific cultural persuasion, but adaptable to any culture. It waits with others staring out toward something we cannot imagine but which we all know. It is looking toward either destruction or salvation.
These paintings are not paintings pushing a certain political agenda, but as Shekari puts it, “studies (on) human society based on a range of present issues in the form of narrative visual arts.” In this sense, Omid Shekari’s exhibit in the Pearl Conard Art Gallery goes beyond the cultural moment to mesh together a global history of dialectics. Politicians stand and orate, but the audience looks beyond them. On one side, two assistants ogle a human body, on the other side of the room the body is inspected, invaded. In one painting a gurney lies empty, in another, a head survives, overlarge and on a chair with no body attached.
Footsteps resound in the hallway outside of the gallery, a hubbub of gossip, the harbinger hum of the students. The muted tones make sense against the muddled merging of voices, the students and professors looking off past the speakers, past the horrendous events that fill our peripheries. There is hope and expectation for a savior or some untidy end, but still, the gurney is empty, and the head without a body still sits on its chair digressing.
As I leave the gallery I do not meet eyes with the student who signed me in. Caught up in thought, I do not confront the students gabbing down the front steps away from Ovalwood Hall into the parking lot. In separate cars we watch the same saltstained gray asphalt, avoiding eye contact. We are all characters from the paintings, looking in different directions, unable to meet the eyes of those in power, who are unable, in their part, to perceive us fully. We become indistinct, naked and ashamed, fading into some vague background color. On the drive home I pass the old YMCA, condemned and surrounded by orange mesh fencing. The site of the old AK Steel plant is all grays, taupes, sprouts of green grass. On the computer a politician orates to a crowd that doesn’t acknowledge him and looks off for something more. These paintings are not isolated moments, but moments that replicate in different times, different places. But this is not to say the world is condemned. What Shekari has proved in his paintings is that this world, however vague, can still be beautiful to look at, can still mean something.
Exhibit runs from Jan 17 – Feb 10, 2017
Gallery Hours are: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Friday 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
Closing Reception & Meet the Artist: Thursday, February 9 from 12:35-1:30pm
Pearl Conard Art Gallery Ovalwood Hall