In the Shadows
Cue Art Foundation
Fereidoun Ghaffari, born in Tehran, studied painting at the University of Tehran, where he received his BFA in 1998 and his MFA in 2002. After spending a year in Stockholm at the University of Arts, Crafts, and Design, he returned to Tehran and taught. In 2006, he moved to New York, where he took a second MFA at the New York Academy of Art in 2008. Since then, he has lived and worked in Brooklyn. The body of work, chosen with the mentorship of Phong Bui, head of the art journal The Brooklyn Rail, represents self-portraits of the artist only: heads and full-body nude studies partly hidden in shadows. Ghaffari sees these works as a “process of digging into the inner self.” His art, a modern version of Old Master painting, in which a serious manner is joined to unusual technical skill, conveys his outlook with a psychological intensity very contemporary in nature. It seems that, for Persian artists, a realism driven by interior exploration is still a valid way of proceeding in art; and that the impression of Ghaffari’s psychological investigations is one of unmediated force. Ghaffari’s portraits thus speak to personal investigation; the unflinching honesty of an artist portraying the face and body of a middle-aged man presents an emotional candor hard to find today.
The danger of the works found in “In the Shadows” is that Ghaffari’s viewers might misread the paintings as historically driven representations, completed by an artist who only looks to the past. It is true that the ghost of Rembrandt hovers over the artist’s work, but that does not necessarily mean that Ghaffari’s sensibility is a matter of scholarship alone. The placement of the portraits and full-body works in shadow results in points of view that, by implication, indicate a melancholy or spiritual sadness. Ghaffari is looking to attain a deep understanding not only of himself but also of painting as a vehicle of tacit concern. Given to thick applications of paint, regularly resulting in a rough surface, he finds ways of intensifying his metaphysical longing. The fateful nature of the paintings, based on psychological effects coming from his serious demeanor and nudity, are purposeful in ways we don’t see often now. Because he does not present himself with clothes, Ghaffari takes the chance that his search will be read mostly as mere self-referral rather than an honest mental appraisal. Yet it is not true that all art is a portrait, hidden or transparent, of oneself. Such a reading would force Ghaffari’s art in the direction of self-inquiry alone. The artist is larger than that. His portraits become conduits for meditations on our perceptions of ourselves, which bridge the appearance and emotions existing between the artist and his viewers experiencing this fine show.
Cumulatively, the body of work we come across in this show seems directed by the single gaze of Ghaffari himself. Yet his intelligence is such that, overall, the group of paintings declare an outside interest—that of portraiture and its history; and that of psychological insight, developed by itself and free of outside cultural influence. A small self-portrait, 14 by 17 inches, done during the years 2015 to 2017, presents Ghaffari directly looking back at the audience, Balding, displaying a light black and gray beard, his skin color a mixture of brown and copper, Ghaffari offers a nearly mournful picture of himself. He directs his gaze without considerable emotional demonstration; throughout the work we find a directed resilience. His mouth is a single dark, horizontal band across the lower part of his face. Ghaffari thus conveys emotion in a somber manner, whose gravitas is echoed by the very dark background, a mixture of black and very dark green with thin, scratched lines. In this way, the artist emphasizes the nearly violent pathos of the picture. In another small work, done during 2007-13, Ghaffari is visibly younger. His beard is just starting to whiten, and he looks at us a bit from an angle. The light hits the right side of his face, and his meditative gaze portrays a searching seriousness. Because the artist is availing himself of a long painterly tradition, the portrait, like all of Ghaffari’s art, looks at us with a weighted concern belonging directly to the history of art.
A full-body portrait (2022) shows Ghaffari completely unclothed; the painting ends just below the artist’s thighs. Shadows deepen his eyes; they also cover the lower part of his torso and groin. Light acts in contrast to the darkness that threatens to overwhelm the image; the face again is a darkish brown, while the light throws the head and torso into sharp contrast to the muted palette he is using elsewhere. The dignity of Ghaffari’s person cannot be dismissed. Here his nakedness becomes a statement of somber awareness, without actively addressing sensuality. Instead, it proposes an ongoing discussion Ghaffari seems to be having with himself, in which awareness of transience, of mortality, fills the image with something close to melancholy. Yet, at the same time, we cannot say the picture is fully dark; instead, the physical domain of the painting is an active portrayal of an enduring self. The feeling of persistence remains large despite the nearly funereal atmosphere. Another self-portrait (2019-22) shows the body in profile, ending at the waist. Light hits his head, his shoulders, and his upper chest; his graying hair and beard partially cover the face illuminated from above. Regularly, his countenance reveals a focused purpose without specifying what it might be. The slight roughness of his features, along with eyes hidden fully by darkness, complicate the tradition of portraiture Ghaffari holds on to.
The shadows in Ghaffari’s paintings not only serve a purpose in a visual sense; they also serve a metaphysical and metaphorical goal: the effect of time. We see Ghaffari visually age before our eyes; it is fair to regard the entire body of work as an example of memento mori. His relentless demonstration of the effects of age, strengthened by body images revealing his aging torso and legs, show us that Ghaffari, like his viewers, is aware of the difficulties of passing time, leading toward death. There is a hint of a smile in the portrait described last. Perhaps he has won a momentary respite from the awareness of aging. In a portrait from 2015-16, the visibly more youthful artist presents himself from head to shoulders. Light hits his forehead and nose; we can see his eyes and closed mouth. The shoulders and neck are hidden in shadows, but around the head, we find an aura created by a thin band of light. The rest of the background is brown with a slight tinge of green—a neutral color that brings the human features of the artist into sharp contrast. Here the feeling of Ghaffari’s presence is one of determination and purpose: the artist as an embodiment of moral force. We can only admire the regularity of Ghaffari’s stance, determined as he is to deliver an unflinching view of his body, slowly succumbing to the years.
Despite the shadows that fill Ghaffari’s vision, powerful both as warnings of age and, perhaps, a fallen sensibility, the paintings themselves do not succumb to personal darkness. Instead, they reveal a man who has decided to make sense of his life by painting the body’s frailty. His description, rendered as objectively as possible, nevertheless carries an emotional intensity. This results from Ghaffari’s high resolve, influenced by centuries-long precedents. The specificities of the artist’s insight occur visually; it is hard to determine their exact meaning beyond a need for searching inquiry. But the general aura of Ghaffari’s motive is clear: the rendering of the body as a human measure of time. Vulnerability and strength both play a role in the artist’s insights, which are purposeful despite the weight of years. Painterly tradition helps Ghaffari with his goal, setting precedent for an artist whose sobriety likely stems from his choice to display ongoing physical change. Although the demonstration of the body’s imperfections is present from start to finish in this show, the persistence of an enduring self—the will to live and record human possibility—is fully evident in the work. This persistence is a demonstration of strength, despite the darkness that often threatens to take over his paintings.
Jonathan Goodman, June 17, 2022