Conversation with Ali Banisadr, at Greg Lindquist’s Greenpoint, Brooklyn Studio, January 13, 2012

Ali Banisadr: [Pointing to The Shape of Remote Futures, 2011] I like that atmospheric quality you’re building up on the canvas. There’s no space or boundary — there’s nothing between you and that thing. It’s just extending toward you, where it creates such a deep space without even creating a space.

Greg Lindquist, The Shape of Remote Futures, 2011

Greg Lindquist: Mary Mattingly and I debated in our interview about the differences between painting and photography in terms of surface, depth and illusion. She was arguing that photography does exactly the same thing as painting, in terms of creating a space. But, I argued painting privileges a handmade, tactile surface, that’s at once dimensional, by accrual of physical paint layers and creating illusionistic space, and also flat, by virtue of being a two-dimensional surface. The drips and splatters make a dot image, calling attention to the surface as a screen that we stare into and onto, while acknowledging the residue of the photographic image behind it.

Banisadr: And that’s what I mean, you’re not intentionally painting a space, but you’re just letting the paint itself make the space.

Lindquist: Exactly—the use of the paint is not controlling. Painting is about embracing the opportunity for chance.

Banisadr: It’s similar to what I do in my work, because its always about having a space, but also fighting the space, so when you look, the space is flat, but at the same time there’s deep space, so it’s a fight between them. As opposed to painting a conventional landscape, where you formally set up the space, but even then look at Soutine or Cezanne, for example….

Lindquist: Right, and you’re pushing and pulling that space with the temperature and intensity of color.

Banisadr: You could always find things that paint can do that you couldn’t have planned. The paint tells you what it’s capable of doing by you just messing with it and understanding its property..

Lindquist: It becomes more of an unpredicted alchemy of substances intermixing.

Banisadr: It’s like you’re performing on the surface with paint.

Lindquist: But there’s also a sense that like you don’t exactly know what’s going to happen until you do it, and until you respond to it, and you let it sit. That’s the way that painting becomes something that tells you what you don’t know about what you know, as Philip Guston might have said. One of the things that I want to talk to you about is Guston, who is an important painter in this series of works. In reading and reviewing his collected writings [See “The Eye Watching the Eye Paint,” May 2011 issue of The Brooklyn Rail], I absorbed the way that Guston viewed painting as a living and breathing organism that you’re interacting with, that you surrender to in the painting process. Do you agree with that?

Banisadr: It has its own life. I think on a good day— always on a good day—that painting tells me what to do, and I just listen. You know, that’s the dialogue, the narrative and everything just happens by the paint, the actual paint telling me what to do. When I go to museums, like the Met, there’s a part of the painting I see that will open me up to something new that I can use or steal.

Lindquist: Because you’re looking for that next move?

Banisadr: I’m just looking. If I go to the Met, and I’m looking at a Titian, or a Tintoretto, I’m not looking at the subject, I’m looking at the paint. I get close to the canvas, I see something in the painting that I get excited about, and it tells me this is the next thing that I need to do in my work.  It could be like a little tiny part—but, the actual paint tells me where to go, what to do, next.

Lindquist: Right.

Banisadr: Which is a very mystical, spiritual kind of thing —

Lindquist: Magical —

Banisadr: This material speaks to the subconscious.

Lindquist: It reminds me the surface of water, as like the site of tension between what’s external and internal. Mary Mattingly described the surface of water as almost being gelatinous, that being heavy while running your hand through it– almost resisting your hand.  At that point of tension, when you run something horizontal over it. During your last studio visit, you told me to spend more time with the painting, and put the image away, look at the image a little bit less and less, and less, as you work on it. That resonated with me when I was swimming laps, because when you swim free style, your head is under the water three quarters of the time, and only one quarter of the time are you lifting your head out to breathe. So you’re mostly spending time under water, looking at what’s down there and being—

Banisadr: Which to me, being underwater is the subconscious. Land is conscious; water is subconscious.

Lindquist: A fascinating metaphor for life, and for painting.

Banisadr: Sand is the in-between, you know. You have rocks, water, and then sand. The sand is where the magic is, because it’s the combination of two elements. With painting, you have the combination of something that you have in mind, like an image that you have in mind, that you want to make it concrete and the abstract idea or abstract image that you want to bring to life.  You want to make this thing concrete and by doing– by bringing it into the surface, by painting it, you somehow meet in the middle of water and rock. [Laughing]

Lindquist: I like that metaphor.

Banisadr: That’s why I was telling you to put the images away, because you start somewhere, the image is a starting point, but then let the painting take–

Lindquist: Form itself…

Banisadr: Take control.  Let the painting become what it wants to become– don’t hold it back.  When you hold it back, and when it’s forced, you can see it in the work. When you let it go where it wants to go, it becomes something that you didn’t know what it was going to become and that’s what you’re saying about Guston, right?

Lindquist: Yeah, absolutely, and the other thing I dwelled on was Guston’s discussion of de Chirico and Piero della Francesca. But I found de Chirico especially important because Guston misquoted text on a de Chirico frame. Guston thought it said “What shall I  paint but the enigma?” Guston started painting subjects that were slightly off, obscured, unrecognizable or altered by abstraction. Translating the enigma into the landscape was a compelling challenge. I asked myself, what in the landscape can I paint that’s not simply a conventional landscape painting? My earlier paintings were mostly at a uniform distance and sense of space–

Banisadr: It’s image, and there’s the difference between photography and painting.

Lindquist: Why is that?

Banisadr: Because, with a painting like this earlier one, you could say, what’s the difference? Maybe you can’t argue the difference between photography and that, because that painting is trying to mimic photography. Where this painting here, I mean, you didn’t know where it was going to go.

Ali Banisadr. Selection. Oil on Linen, 66 x 88 inches. 2011. Courtesy of Galerie Thaddeus Ropac.

Lindquist: And I observed this as your work has developed through a rigorous process of adding and removing paint.

Banisadr: Subtracting.

Lindquist: Removing paint with palette knives and wiping. I resisted using a sander for a long time, but in this painting, I used it by chance, because the projector was moved by accident. I sanded it down to start over, and then I stopped when I saw an interesting texture develop. I started painting on top with splatters and then, suddenly, the surface became fused with a weird sense of mystery or ambiguity about how the painting was made.

Banisadr: But also it gives history and age. Where you look at an old person, you see wrinkles and we know that person has been through time.

Lindquist: They’ve lived.

Banisadr: They’ve lived through time and it’s the same thing with paintings. When it has gone through different layers and different things, and it’s been built up and torn down, and built up, you can see the history and time. And that’s what makes it interesting, because of that time that exists within the work. However, there’s certain things that are quickly done that also are interesting, like they’re fresh, but–

Lindquist: It has a certain feeling to it?

Banisadr: Yes.

Lindquist: Is de Kooning’s sense of abstraction an influence in your work?

Banisadr: Yes, but also because his work is not just abstract, it lingers between abstraction and figuration, which again, it’s the sand metaphor.

Lindquist: But just a second — why is sand a middle point between water and rock?

Banisadr: That’s how sand is made. By water softening the rock into sand. Or maybe rock could also be land. But with de Kooning, he never let go of some kind of representation.  He distorted it but because of where he came from, he had that background of knowing how to draw the figure that made his work more interesting. When you look at it, you’re not just looking at abstraction.  There’s something hidden in there. Like the enigma thing of de Chirico you were talking about. That’s what holds me there, looking at his work. Where unlike—what’s his name?

Lindquist: Describe him?

Banisadr: When it’s just pure abstraction—

[Banisadr gestures vertical lines]

Lindquist: Barnett Newman?

Banisadr: Yes, but more so Clyfford Still.

Lindquist: All you needed to do was gesticulate the “zip” vertical motion! [Laughing] Let’s play painterly charades.

Banisadr: Clyfford Still just doesn’t do anything for me, there’s nothing there for me to look at and I know that it is supposed to be some kind of mystical experience, which makes it more interesting unlike Still. But de Kooning just experimented with every kind of possible thing in paint.

Lindquist: Do you think that’s part of what painting is about, experimenting with what paint can do?

Banisadr: I can’t speak for painting in general. I could only say for me what it means. When people try to say what is art, I find that conversation a bit exhausting.  It’s because everybody has his or her own point of view.  What is your purpose, or what is god, or what is art, it’s all subjective.

Lindquist: But I think the state of mind with painting Guston expresses articulately via John Cage, is saying, when you’re in the studio, everyone’s there with you, and as you start to work and engage with the painting, everything fades away, including yourself. And that takes time— time to be with painting.

Banisadr: You have to live with it—

Lindquist: Just like another person.

Banisadr: That’s the thing. I don’t think you’re ever going reach a point, where you could say, I’ve mastered this painting and I could move on, because—

Lindquist: Unless you’re Picasso, maybe.

Banisadr: Well, even Picasso. Even Picasso [Lindquist laughing] and that’s why he kept going– he was trying, and trying, you just do it until you die. Then people later judge if you were a master. But, but for yourself, it’s always about discovery, it’s always about learning about yourself.  You’re digging, constantly digging within yourself, and and the more you dig, the deeper it gets. And, you reflect it in paintings.

Lindquist: Jerry Saltz said in the first season of a Work of Art confessional statement that art is about showing your inner self to the outer world. People had fun with that saying, it’s also what happens when you vomit.


Banisadr: That’s different, because when they say you’re masturbating [laughing] that’s a different–

Lindquist: I believe Saltz expressed an important insight about the nature of creativity.  Similar to  going deeper, making art is about showing who you really are on the inside. It’s about discovering your inner life and finding a visual form for it.

Banisadr: Going back to the subconscious thing: I think that as human beings, you are constantly taking in visual stuff, all day long, everything you look at, you’re taking, you’re taking in, you’re taking in–

Lindquist: You’re absorbing.

Banisadr: I had a friend who was saying, “I don’t look at anything, because I want my work to be original, I don’t look at anything.” You can’t do that, you can’t not look at anything.

Lindquist: That’s as naïve and as sad as an artist once telling me that he only looked at himself for inspiration.

Banisadr: There’s a difference between literally copying somebody else, but if you must look at as many things as possible. I go to the Met all the time, and sometimes I end up like in the African section and look at the African sculptures because something intrigues me and I look at it. I’m not going to back to my studio and make African sculpture, but it’s going to somehow–

Lindquist: Seep into your work.

Ali Banisadr, The Wave, 2010, Oil on Linen, 8x10 inches, Courtesy Galerie Thaddeus Ropac

Banisadr: It could be something that’s totally an abstract thing, but it still influences something.  And that is the mysterious thing that I look forward to when I take in visual elements of a painting, how did they get processed, and what happens to it in my imagination– and then what comes out.  It helps me understand what I’m imagining. So it’s a dialogue.  But it’s an invisible, subconscious kind of dialogue that continuously goes back and forth.

Lindquist: When people don’t look at their peers’ and predecessors’ work and have a closed attitude, they’re not engaging in a larger dialogue with the external world. It’s all about them. It’s not about anything–

Banisadr: Because if you’re an artist, and you’re interested in what is going on inside you, then obviously you’re interested in how other human beings have also dealt with that. This is why reading a good novel is important– it takes you inside that person’s world, the way that person thinks, the way that person sees the world. It’s intriguing to be in someone else’s skin—another human being.

Lindquist: That’s the nature of painting, it unfolds and reveals itself over time—

Banisadr: It doesn’t have to be described in words. It could be a private thing, like when you go see shows and you don’t have to talk about it.  You could simply look, take in, and then talk about it later. It’s also interesting how the meaning of painting can also change constantly.  You might not know what it’s about now, but you might know more later.

Lindquist: In what way?

Banisadr: How you could go to a museum and look at one painting in different points of your life, and get different things from that one particular painting. As you change, it changes [laughing].

Lindquist: Isn’t it also about your perception of it?

Banisadr: It’s not going to be that same thing, as if you closed a chapter and said, “OK, I’ve got that and I must move on now, it’s over with—“

Lindquist: As your understanding of your own paintings changes, your understanding of that particular painting at the museum changes as well.

Banisadr: And painting communicates to different people in different ways: It’s a very mysterious thing. Which also, in terms of philosophy, this opens you to accept that as humans, there is a lot we still don’t know.

Lindquist: But, we are curious beings and, as artists, driven to explore, express and communicate.

Ali Banisadr is represented by Galerie Thaddeus Ropac in Europe. He will have a solo show in June 2012 in Ropac’s Salzburg location. He was ranked number 1 of Top 100 artists in Flash Art magazine in 2011. His work has been shown in S.M.A.K. Contemporary Museum in Belgium, Saatchi Gallery London, and Queens Museum of Art. His work has been reviewed in Art in America, ARTnews, The Brooklyn Rail, Flash Art, The New York Times. Banisadr was born in Tehran, Iran and lives and works in New York City.