‘[My paintings are] based on three things: the history of myself, the history of our century, and the history of art. These things aren’t going to change much.’
Rendered in characteristically meticulous detail, Ali Banisadr’s stunning At Sea (2011) is a dreamlike tableau of writhing, inchoate forms. A vision in intense submarine blues, Banisadr shapes a landscape of visual splendour and complex emotional ambiguity that seems to disintegrate before our eyes, a tapestry of abstract forms that somehow maintain the residual presence of figuration. Amidst the teeming throng of lines and shapes executed in painstaking miniature, forms are implied, but not defined: a ladder rising on the painting’s left side; a man’s figure looking upward at its bottom; a sliver of parchment or stone inscribed with an illegible language in the top-right of the frame. These half-realised forms are read upward or downwards, and contribute to the work’s strange sense of verticality; Banisadr subverts the notion of the sea as landscape and instead transforms it along an apparently infinite vertical axis, evoking dizzying Dantesque visions of spiritual ascent and descent.
Born in Tehran, but raised in California from the age of twelve, Banisadr’s work is profoundly informed by his childhood experiences of the Iran-Iraq war; a synaesthete, his first artistic experiments as a child were drawings of the sounds of bombs falling in the city, something that continues to bear influence over his distinctive visual language today. Indeed, Banisadr’s inimitable style emerged from particularly vivid recollections of his wartorn childhood. Visiting the D-Day beaches in Normandy as a student, Banisadr was struck by the landscape’s eerie familiarity, bringing back flashes of memory from Iran; moved by the experience, he returned to a practice of drawing sound, producing a series of charcoal drawings of explosions that transformed the horror of reality into fractured forms permeated by violence and destruction – and establishing the artist’s hybrid practice of abstraction and fragmented figuration.
This artistic idiom is, however, also a product of the artist’s literacy in both Western and Eastern artistic traditions; while his mastery of landscape and penchant for infinitesimal detail recall scenes from Old Masters like Bosch and Bruegel, as well as Behzad, the great Persian miniaturist, his ability to melt these splinters of ‘figurative’ detail into abstraction recalls de Kooning or Gorky. Filtering these influences through his own remarkable biographical experiences, Banisadr’s painting transmutes contemporary history into ineffable, fantastical visions. ‘I don’t make things that have names. I don’t make identifiable things – like here’s a tree or a rock or a car, I just don’t make things that way. The painting doesn’t communicate to me that way, because its paint. As paint, it’s telling me different things and those things are unnamed things. When you have a dream, there’s visual stuff going on in your subconscious you can’t really get a hold of – you can’t weigh it down and say what it is; you can’t’ (A. Banisadr, quoted in J. Beer, 'Conversation with the Unnamed: Ali Banisadr', Art-Rated, January 2012).