Friday, August 24, 2012

Icy and Sot: Made in Iran

by Drew Martin
Last night I went to the Openhouse Gallery on Broome Street in New York to attend the opening of Made In Iran by Icy and Sot, (the aliases of) two young stealthy street graffitistas who live in Iran.  At first I was really disappointed. It seemed like everything there was just a knock-off of Banksy, who (they told me) was a great influence on them. I thought a lot about these guys on my long train ride back to my house. When I got home I looked at their website and other images of their work online, and I ended up having a really different view of what they are about. So today I revisited the show without the crowd and I had a nice discussion with the cool Dutch curator. Most of their stencil paintings at the gallery are on white canvases so you are only left with stylized images without any real emotional tug; partly because this kind of graphic realism is popular in the graffiti world. The other part of this effect is very Iranian, whether they know it or not. I have looked at a lot of Iranian illustrations in the past five years and the prevailing content is what I would call 'the first idea,' which is something I find necessary to avoid in order to get deeper into your thoughts. The best way to explain this is a quote from a conversation I had with the Russian sculptor Leonid Lerman many years ago:

When I started my career, when I just started to work as an artist, I had a very poor understanding of the difference (between image and text). My objective was to get as directly as possible to the core of my idea. So if I see the human condition very tough, then I would make a man walking, actually walking on the razor blade. I sculpted the razor. I sculpted the man. It was very rough but; Here's a man walking on the razor. It's can you be more direct than this? But eventually I grew out of that because it is a little bit simplistic. So I have to just remove myself from this, to be very linear, and literal and narrative into a more suggestive thing. It is living less for the literature and more for the visual and formal sort of intrigue.

At the Made in Iran opening I was looking for some unique cultural perspective in the work, but I kept seeing American/western themes and ideas. What I was missing is what the show is missing: the site specificity of their work. A repeated image/theme of a boy carrying oversized Lego blocks is cute on its own, but when done on a remaining wall of a house in ruins (possibly bombed out) it has a much deeper meaning: it is no longer a playful image but one that suggests he is an orphan, rebuilding his dead father's house.

The thrill of the show is that these two twenty-something guys are from Iran, so we are consumed by the implications of what they are doing in a less open society with a rush we have not experienced since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The curator told me a story that was quite funny and reminded me of Eastern Bloc tales. The shipments of their canvases to him depend on who is working in their town's post office. They have a green light when "the stupid guy" is inspecting packages. The curator pointed to a canvas with an elderly lady up on a ladder/wheeled walker, spraying an anarchy symbol. The dim-witted postman asked Icy and Sot what she was painting and they replied that it was just a decoration. Satisfied with that answer, the image was shipped to Amsterdam with no further questions asked.

My favorite work in the show is a short, stop-animation movie called Make Art Not War (which was part of a longer loop/montage that was playing at the opening) with a tank made of aerosol cans that rolls around the streets of a scaled-down city and "bombs" sides of buildings with their stencil work. The funny thing is that I can even see how someone who could cause them trouble in Iran might view what they are doing as being more critical of America than their own government, and yet the whole lot is being digested here as regime protest art.