JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 color photographs, generally framed in color-matched artist’s frames and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the divided gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 2018 and 2020 (two of the works are being exhibited as 120×90 inch Phototex prints adhered directly to the wall, but are available as regular framed prints). Physical sizes range from 24×18 to 54×42 inches, and the works are variously available in editions of 5+2AP, 3+1AP, and 2+1AP, based on size. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: In the past two decades, the artistic practice of constructing something for the sole purpose of making a photograph has become a growing subgenre of contemporary photography. Whether at the scale of the tabletop or the entire studio, artists have actively explored the complex interplay between two and three dimensions, unraveled nuances of optics and disorientingly flattened photographic seeing, and deliberately wrestled with the dichotomy of images themselves functioning as objects. In many cases, as in works by Daniel Gordon, Yamini Nayar, Nico Krijno, Erin O’Keefe, Vik Muniz, and others, construction has been used as a method to interrogate photography itself. Their images are sophisticated photographs about photography, where the installations have been created specifically to test the limits of the medium in one way or another.
But for the Iranian-American photographer Sheida Soleimani, employing studio construction and assemblage techniques doesn’t require that the end product photographs turn conceptually inward. In fact, her installations look resolutely outward at the world, embracing politics, protest, and visual activism, and specifically digging into the thorny relationship between the U.S. and Iran. In many ways, in spirit, they connect back to innovative photocollage and photomontage efforts of early 20th century (particularly from the war years), where political satire was built up from the biting juxtaposition of component images. In Soleimani’s case, she’s extended that incisive thinking to three dimensions, bringing sculptural and spatial layering of physical objects into the aesthetic mix.
This show skims across Soleimani’s different projects from the past five years, starting with a 2015 image which takes the Iran nuclear deal as its inspiration. She turns the tense and protracted negotiations into a literal wrestling match, complete with raw egg protein drinks, wrestling singlets, and tangled bodies. The wavy grey hair of US Secretary of State John Kerry and the beard of Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (as well as facial fragments from other participants) are also jumbled into the mix, the resulting composition edging toward the surgical nonsense of Dada.
A series of four works from 2018 and 2019 use types of oil as their central subject – Iran Heavy, Basra Light, West Texas Sour, and Bayou Choctaw Sweet. In each construction, Soleimani has paired satellite images of the oil fields with various objects made from the different kids of petroleum and other regional/national symbols, essentially creating “portraits” of each one. Her arrangements sting with climate-aware bite, with a goldfish choking on pink bubblegum, New Orleans boiled crawfish interrupted by a plastic whiffle ball set, and a scarred football helmet and delated basketball seemingly ready for the landfill. Other works from 2018 and 2019 touch on the interplay of Westernization and stereotypes of the Middle East (with TVs, white bread, plastic camels, and gold bars), and the dissonance between the influence of the ayatollahs and Internet blackouts (via unplugged cords and outlets).
The four large works that fill the front room of the gallery (including two massive enlargements affixed directly to the walls) tackle more current political issues facing Iran. A pair of images uses pointing fingers (of disembodied presidents Trump and Rouhani) as their central motif, with hawks and doves alternately perched on the two outstretched hands. Behind this mutual condemnation (wrapped with a sweet edge of cake frosting) lie visual allusions to drone strikes and downed airliners, the blaming and bluster given shape as clouds of destruction and falling debris. Another work uses the Iran sanctions as its backdrop, with Trump’s hand playing with toy bombs and pool torpedoes atop scraps of the legal paperwork. And the final work on view brings Iran’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic to the forefront, via the sweaty hand of the Iranian health minister (who would later test positive after a public coughing fit), flanked by images of mass graves and rolls of toilet paper. In each case, Soleimani takes highly charged current events and deftly turns them into sculptural assemblages filled with caustic satire.
As a first gallery solo show in New York, this introduction to Soleimani’s work packs plenty of promising firepower. In just a few short years, Soleimani has found a way to take photographic studio construction and make it resolutely her own, creating satisfyingly aggregations of allusive materials that tell stories of international back-and-forth. What’s exciting is that she’s boldly stepped into the fray of making overtly political art, and punched her way through with consistent intelligence and visual wit.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at $4000, $7500, and $10000, based on size. Soleimani’s works have little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.