The paintings of Heydar Rasoulpur include some of the most vivid dreamscapes, capturing the most telling and painful memories, to have emerged from the ship-wreckage of nations that have literally cast so many homeless millions onto stormy seas in the decades since the Millennium.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that an Iranian artist, descendent of one of the oldest and finest traditions in the world of painting figures into landscapes, should accomplish this. But where the Persian miniaturists painted exquisitely-dressed lovers, warriors, archers, and poets among razor-sharp mountains, intricate castles, and towering minarets, drawn with odd, intuitive perspective and often such painstaking precision that a magnifying glass is needed to see it all, Rasoulpur’s figures swim in a phantasmagoric, underwater world in which all that surrounds them seems capable of dissolving in an instant.
It may sound foolish to say that it would have been better for Heydar Rasoulpur if there had never been a Covid pandemic in 2020; clearly, it would have been better for everyone had the pandemic not divided and isolated nearly everyone, denied work, school, and ultimately health, killing unknown millions around the world and making survivors of those who remain. So of course the pandemic gets star billing in Rasoulpur’s story. What is lost from the text, but surely not from his art, however, is the far more wrenching and life-changing event that came first, that the pandemic could only make worse but never displace.
It’s a sad fact that so many of the world’s people cannot fathom the emigrant experience without a great deal of effort, which few are motivated to undertake. It’s like the forest being hidden by all those trees: the immigrant, the unattractive and unwelcome arrival in our midst, hides the heartbreaking story of the emigrant: the person who lost everything, material goods, fortune, often even family, but then in addition was robbed of a home, a language, everything familiar, even the history and the actual graves of ones ancestors and their culture.
The delusion that everyone in the world wants to crowd into this or that country and blend in is part of the compound deception of National Exceptionalism. Sure, there were laborers willing to leave home for a brief spell of work, only to return home to see how their extra income had improved things at home. And stateless individuals, as can be found everywhere, who would go wherever things were good, until something or someplace better beckoned. But the truth of the matter can be found in each person’s own heart: love of place of origin, with all that entails, is built into the fiber of humanity. And so it makes sense that Rasoulpur’s identity includes glimpses of everyone lost to him, and these loved ones make up much of the landscape of his memories.
Images of the self separated and alone are familiar, like those seen throughout much of the history of art. The Romantic Hero painted by Caspar David Friedrich in “Wanderer Above the Sea of Clouds” is just, perhaps, the most prominent example. But such images have only one dimension: sure, the subject is alone, but wants to be. The hero prefers isolation. For Heydar Rasoulpur, however, that is not the case. Instead of an apotheosis, a moment “above the clouds,” he is encountered at the bottom of a sea that aches with loneliness. In the midst of his solitude, he sees everywhere shifting phantoms of what is lost. If these seem less than specific, less definite, it’s because they represent two alternatives, two other dimensions. One is the truly lost, the past and with it all that lies beyond recovery. But they also represent the alternative in the Now. That face that could be a memory could also be a new friend, a co-worker or someone encountered on the street. The problem for the artist is that he cannot approach this stranger, whose language and background he doesn’t know, whose history is one of war with his people and not one of love, or even trust.
Something should be said about the colors. With one exception, there is not a single depiction of daylight among these half-dozen scenes. In that one, the long figure in the foreground, standing on a slope, a piercing, ice-cold white light penetrates between the trees like so many frantic photons, desperately turning every which way at once, as if trying to find something capable of being illuminated. Elsewhere the skies are deep blue, olive green, black, or missing, the perspective instead being down, not up, into an abyssal sea. But for their protagonists, these could be powerful statements of many sorts of suffering. But then there are the women divided by a fence, too dazed to recognize each other; the trees that resemble hair and the hair that turns into a face; the grown man’s face on the body of a babe in arms; and throughout, there is the frantic, desperate energy of the brush and the marks it leaves, saying over and over, “NO REST! NO PEACE! DO NOT HESITATE! YOU DARE NOT STOP HERE!”
What Rasoulpur achieves is something rare. He paints things that can’t be seen, that no one wants to look at, that can only be felt, but that the mind doesn’t want to touch. It would be torture if done by someone in a position of power to those who have no choice but to bear it. But no one in the gallery has that kind of power. Only a willing curiosity can bring someone to look at these works of art, made of damaged and broken lives, for which everyone has a share of responsibility. Perhaps when the art has done its work, when the artist has enabled his audience to see what was hidden and what is at stake, there may be another encounter, one that recognizes not just the terror in these canvases, but what makes them so beautiful.
Heydar Rasoulpur: Remembering Together, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through Jan. 7, 2023