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Glitch x Glitch: Painter Taha Heydari

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Standing in a flood of azure blue, a figure wearing a yellow t-shirt holds their arms aloft as if conducting an orchestra. Though one might expect the background figures to play instruments, they instead labor to lift objects from the flood, engaged in what might be disaster relief. Like many of Taha Heydari’s paintings, this canvas in his Federal Hill studio towers above my head. If a disaster persists across his work, it seems a fissure of orientation.

Heydari uses several tropes of fracture: bodies do not have definitive borders, facial features are indistinct or completely absent, and his hallmark grids that compose huge swaths of these large-scale paintings are torn and frayed at the edges. Though he paints in acrylic, his pieces initially look like mixed-media collage assembled with digital material. Consequently, these fractures read as glitches—and the fact that these glitches are physically created emphasizes how our material reality is just as precarious as our digital worlds. They are susceptible to transfer or corruption.

Born in Iran eight years after the country’s revolution, Heydari grew up in a tense political environment between Iran and Iraq. Then, the uprising of the Green Movement began during his last semester at the Art University of Tehran, and Heydari felt he and his generation were forced to create new identities. Heydari’s first solo show opened in 2009, coinciding with this freshly unsettled socio-political landscape.

By the time his second solo exhibition opened in 2011, he was frustrated with the shifts in Iran’s art scene. Collectors were leaving due to the economic downturn and increased sanctions, which signaled to the artist that it was also time for him to go.

 

Heydari’s migration from Iran to the United States marked a physical departure from his home country, but the move was more intricate than a simple relocation from point A to point B. With many loved ones back in Iran amidst political and economic turmoil—and now a global pandemic—his focus is frequently split. Heydari can walk down North Avenue, phone in hand, and feel as though he is in Iran. In this way, Heydari says his existence can be stretched from place to place. Technology allows one to bridge otherwise uncrossable divides.

Heydari began experimenting with painted grids in 2018. He didn’t want to leave a trace of his human hand, his identity, his heartbeat; he wanted the work to look as if it were mechanically produced. He wanted “to free each painting” from the human process, rendering it machine-like; to question “what it means to paint in a post-internet world.”

Using electric airbrushes, paint rollers, and masking tapes, Heydari can both add and remove layers of acrylic paint in ways that remove the intimacy of a handmade brushstroke. These new paint application methods create cell blocks that invoke coding, pixels, algorithms, and digital space. The figures within Heydari’s narrative paintings give new meaning to the phrase “digital native,” suggesting that our source codes can be merged, manipulated, or deleted.

 

For example, in Monarchy (2020), a painting acquired by the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2021, Heydari redressed the royal Pahlavi family as middle-class, disrupting the Iranian hierarchy and reordering their roles. The family sits on the ground, gathered for what might be a picnic in the park on an ordinary Saturday. The crosshatched lines that texture the canvas make parts of this painting appear as woven textile, but tattered fragments dangle like the threads of a broken spiderweb—further emphasizing an unraveling of power.

To achieve this distressed effect, Heydari first paints his grids on a separate surface. Once they dry, he can peel off a piece of the grid and transfer it to the canvas he’s currently working on. Because acrylic is pliable, these grids can be manipulated, torn, or stretched—an act that echoes so many aspects of living (and working) a hybrid life. And because these marks start their life on one surface before being relocated to another, this painting technique is also one of deliberate migration, a “nomad” mark as Heydari names it.

Before arriving in the United States, Heydari was curious about the country’s self-image as the front line of democracy. Life in Iran imposed an orderly, binary existence. The dominant ideology in post-revolutionary Iran constantly moralized, created hierarchies, and rendered the material world as “bad,” a shadow world. To be a “good” person meant to aspire for a higher, transcendental world–an aspiration that focused on leaving the world we know behind.

Upon moving to the United States, however, Heydari found this country could be even more binary than Iran. Our relentless insistence on progress, success, and the future creates a culture in which there are firm borders around what is good and what is bad. Capitalist, individualist ideas create invisible orders. These boundaries can then silo people within their identities. The result is a socio-political environment prone to restrict collective conversation.

Perhaps to provoke more conversation, Heydari is drawn to chaos. When he encounters established, rigid order, he wants to poke and mess and destroy. He wants to under- score the scaffolding in which we live and pull it apart a bit—just like his nomad marks.

 

His grids call to mind the orderly nature of algorithms, but these same algorithms deliver users images of national disaster as easily as an Under Armour advertisement. These algorithms calculate a daily experience of chaotic disorientation.

During my visit to Heydari’s studio, I learn that this underlying interest in chaos is behind his recent compulsion to add images of babies into his paintings. “You can’t even start negotiating with them,” says Heydari. “They don’t sign any contract, even language.” Because babies live their lives outside systems of agreed-upon order, he views them as outside binary thinking. They live in total disregard for convention because they have yet to learn any conventions—and there is something for us to learn from that disposition.

In Runway (2022), a baby obstructs the linear path of the model’s walk, her legs knocked akimbo, heels teetering on the verge of collapse. If there were no order, there could be no glitch. If there were no borders, there could be no migration, no place to leave from or leave for. But we live in a world of orders and borders, and so we must learn how to navigate them.

I think again of Heydari’s work-in-progress, the disaster orchestra I saw at his studio. A young girl in a purple dress rides the back of a donkey into the foreground suggesting the possibility of escape. However, there is also a man reclining with his head on a pillow, afloat and aimless, suggesting stagnation. His eyes stare above at the screen held between his hands. When the grid of our life begins to break down around us, will we flee, will we strive for repair, or will we simply stay put till the bitter end?

 

Images by Elena Volkova in Heydari's School 33 Studio for BmoreArt Issue 15: Migration

This story is from Issue 15: Migration, available here.

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