The Minimalism and Maximalism of Ali Dadgar

The Oakland-based Iranian artist’s work explores “brokeness”

Dark humor is an Ali Dadgar trademark, so his new San Francisco art exhibit is full of it — but if you’re looking for a source of that humor, you have to go back four decades to Dadgar’s native country. In 1979, when Dadgar was a teenager, Iran was convulsing politically and culturally, and the revolutionary government imposed new norms through the country’s currency, when it used the old regime’s paper bills but — hastily and surreally — printed dark designs over the Shah of Iran’s face. On some bills, they simply put an “x” over the Shah’s portrait, circulating currency that seemed straight from a George Orwell novel. 

“The currency still worked, and that was so exciting to me — for this visual experience that carries this tremendous amount of political power and economical power,” Dadgar tells SF Weekly, standing in his exhibit at California Institute of Integral Studies’ Desai | Matta Gallery. “I’ve always been fascinated by shifting the access of content and the platform that designed to prevail that information and value. To me, that shift is everything. It appears in different forms even in aesthetics of art — where the break in the history of art has created movements or brokenness. I’m all about brokenness.” 

Yes he is. Which is why “Ali Dadgar: Additions/Redactions” features ephemera — maps, photos, newspapers, and book pages — that are broken up with whited-out passages, painted-over sections, and other painterly obfuscation. It’s not obfuscation for obfuscation’s sake but obfuscation as a portal toward subtle, sometimes funny connections. One example: Dadgar reconfigured a 2007 New York Times arts section that reduced hundreds of words from its front-page movie review to just three disparate ones: “War. On. Ambiguity.” 

Dadgar’s minimalism makes a major lament about the state of the world — including the United States, where redacted material in the Mueller Report and other government publications have become fodder for public debate about White House criminality and foreign influence on domestic politics. But Dadgar’s exhibit also highlights another art aesthetic (call it Maximalism) where he stuffs a canvas with cascades of paint, shapes, people, and wording, including oodles of Farsi script — as in No Redemption, a fantastical mélange that has a boyish devilish-looking angel urinating above another similar angel. A plane and insects fly overhead in a nighttime scene of red, yellow, white, and brown that might as well be Dadgar’s version of Dante’s Inferno — this one with a theme of war, revolution, and displacement that also features the words of the celebrated Persian poet Rumi and the words of the deceased Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who criticized Iranians (like Dadgar) who live outside Iran. 

“There’s an overt element of overdoing a piece until it breaks visually for me,” Dadgar says. “And then (on another piece) I’ll redact and take content away until it totally shifts and becomes something else — where it’s visually elevated and, in the realm of the ephemeral, it becomes spiritual for me.”

This uplift into spirituality or ascent into brokenness happens in Dadgar’s Oakland studio, and there’s nothing truly overt in “Ali Dadgar: Additions/Redactions” that says the works — done over the past 2-3 years — have a political bent. Even a painting like Non-Native Manimal, which is centered on an image of a ram with a man’s face and hints at Dadgar’s existence as a hyphenated American with roots in  Iran and the United States — where he’s lived for decades — is artistic and cultural slapstick, not political shtick. (“Man” in Farsi means “me,” so there’s that play on words.) But Dadgar knows that visitors to the Desai | Matta Gallery will bring their own ideas to the exhibit, and Iran has been in the headlines for weeks because of the U.S. drone killing in Baghdad of Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s most important general, and the subsequent doings around military actions, including Iran’s mistaken downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane. When asked by SF Weekly if there are political undertones to his exhibit, Dadgar doesn’t hesitate — but with a caveat. 

“Absolutely,” he says, “but it’s not a level of (direct political) engagement, which is linear. That’s a whole different agenda and it’s not about humanity. And I’m more interested in a different way of having an exchange. . . . . People will see the name ‘Iran’ here, but let me put it this way: I have a beard and a shaved head. Maybe there’s a person who looks exactly like me and we’re at the airport, at security. My name is ‘Ali,’ his name is ‘Robert.’ Already the context has shifted. There are going to be two very different results from these identical guys — one will be presumed as a hipster and a skinny beer-drinking guy from San Francisco; the other is going to be this Iranian guy with a beard, and suddenly my beard has a whole different meaning!” 

Dadgar visited Iran in 2018 for the first time in four decades, and says he may open an art studio there so he can practice art-making in Tehran each year for a bit. But Dadgar is firmly entrenched in the Bay Area. He has an undergraduate degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts and an MFA in Art Practice from UC Berkeley, and it’s here that Dadgar can make art that subverts traditional Persian art-making — as with his Self Orientalization Series, which are tall paintings that are take-offs of Persian miniatures. Their life-size, angular dimensions are an almost absurd opposite of the prized miniature paintings that first appeared in Persian art circles more than 700 years ago. But there’s another absurd level about them — at least to Dadgar, who points out the paintings’ deliberate imperfections, as with the dripped paint that lines the figures’ faces and the scenes’ seemingly damaged backgrounds. These lines and damage subvert and “break” the genre, he says, playing with traditional paintings that beautify and exoticize their Persian subjects.  

So the Self Orientalization Series reflects the “additions” in the exhibit’s title. One of the Self Orientalization Series features two conjoined people — their arms around each other as they embrace while wearing the same rose-colored kaftan. Their genders are unclear. Their relationship is unclear. Much about the work is ambiguous. So if there’s indeed a war on ambiguity, as Dadgar proclaims in his redacted artwork, it’s clear which side Dadgar is on. His art isn’t resolving any questions. No. It’s asking even more questions, inviting people to come to their own conclusions, as with the “redacted Persian rug” that’s in the exhibit. As Dadgar says about his redacted New York Times’ section: “Ninety-five percent is left to the viewer, but I also leave . . .  a playfulness behind. It’s a darker humor rather than purely comical. Because there’s also a commentary about this unacceptable reality.” 

A Hominin Takes a Selfie

Elisabeth Daynès’ sculptures of people and other figures are so realistic that they’re almost frightening. So Daynès’ “Find Yourself” exhibit at 836M Gallery is a must-see for the cell-phone culture on display — especially the sculpture that Daynès did of the hominin Australopithecus afarensis known as “Lucy,” which was discovered in Ethiopia in the 1970s and is believed to be three million years old. At 836M, Lucy is almost alive — and she’s taking her own photo with an iPhone. Daynès critique of cell-phone culture makes the practice almost seem dystopian. In a way that Alfred Hitchcock would have appreciated, the French artist takes a seemingly simple scene and turns it into something bigger — beautiful, yes, but maybe even sinister. 

Last Days for Michael Jang Exhibit

Photographer Michael Jang’s retrospective at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, “Michael Jang’s California,” runs through this Saturday, Jan. 18, when — at 3 p.m. – Jang will talk to curator Sandra S. Phillips and Nion McEvoy, founder of the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts. The conversation (which is at seating capacity for now) promises to be thoughtful and to touch on Jang’s influences, including that of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand — whose work is on display alongside Jang’s. 

“Ali Dadgar: Additions/Redactions”

Through February 29 at the California Institute of Integral Studies’ Desai | Matta Gallery, 1453 Mission, S.F. Free; 415-575-6100,

“Find Yourself”

Through February 6 at 836M Gallery, 836 Montgomery, S.F. Free;

“Michael Jang’s California”

Through January 18 at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts,

1150 25th Street, S.F. Free; 415-580-7605,

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