Perched on a table in Ali Banisadr’s homey Brooklyn studio was a copy of an epic poem that has been told and retold, including by Banisadr himself.
“My wife complains that I can’t stop talking about Gilgamesh,” the artist said, with a laugh, about a storied Mesopotamian text that has consumed him. “I like the idea of something ancient that speaks to our time. I get visions in my head—of the places, the characters, the atmosphere. It just keeps giving.”
The geographic origin of Gilgamesh syncs with Banisadr’s roots in Tehran, where he was born and lived before moving to Turkey and then to the United States when he was 12. And the tale it tells resonates with powerfully pent-up and urgently searching paintings of the kind he made for a recent exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, and a solo show opening this week at Kasmin Gallery in New York.
Reading epic poems (other favorites include The Odyssey and Dante’s Inferno) is just one part of a diligent research process that Banisadr undergoes to channel different energies into his paintings. On the same table as Gilgamesh were books about the Renaissance master Titian, the melting cores of planets, race and caste in the U.S., and the bubonic plague—all subjects that have occupied him during an anxious year riven by lockdown and calls for social change. Synthesizing these materials, Banisadr said, primes him to enter into states of mind that enable him to see what he sees when he peers into ever more elusive realms of abstraction.
Entering into such states is easier in a studio just a few doors down from the apartment he shares with his wife and two young daughters. “Orhan Pamuk said it’s good to work in a place where you dream,” Banisadr said of the Turkish novelist awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006. “I’ve always liked not looking at a workspace as a workspace.”
And a regular meditation practice helps. “There is a place I have to go to in order to see, a trancelike place I have to put myself in, in order to be able to connect with a painting and know what to do. When I meditate, I go into these places where visual things come and go and move around.”
Synesthetic sensations also figure in Banisadr’s reactions to colors, which in his work run from contemplative pastel washes to dramatic bursts of reds and greens and blues. “Colors trigger a certain mood for me, of a place or a time or a temperature,” the artist said.
A canvas in its beginning stages hanging on his studio wall was slathered and smeared with a shade of brown that for him summoned “loud, jumbled sounds that are right now not going together very well but have the mood I’m after, of underworld places like caves.” Another canvas in a formative stage was deep indigo, though that could change.
While he assimilates what comes immediately to his eye and ear, Banisadr also grounds his process in the context of predecessors he reveres from centuries of art history. In 2019, six of his paintings appeared in an exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna in the presence of The Last Judgment by his beloved Hieronymus Bosch. And numerous other artists and styles also occupy his mind when he is at work on a canvas. “I have different ways of visual thinking for solving issues,” he said. “What would Hiroshige do in this situation? What would a Persian miniaturist do? What would de Kooning do?”
All the while, he monitors what he hears while peering into a painting. “Listening is the key,” he said. “Earlier in my career, it was a fight. But now it’s just listening, surrendering, and serving the painting. I’m a servant. I have my own ideas that I throw in, but a painting takes on a life of its own—and you have to respect that.”