No object, no subject, no matter. No symbols, images or signs. Neither pleasure nor paint.
No mindless working or mindless non-working. No chessplaying.
Through an elegant combination of drawing, painting and sculpture, Hadi Tabatabai's work describes a place that is as much an idea as a physical location. These compositions of thread, paint and wood embody liminality: that is, they create a constant experience of sensations that exist at the limen, or edge, of perception. To bring about this state, Tabatabai has removed all possible distractions. Narrative and figuration, even figure and ground, have been excised from these delicate combinations of squares, rectangles and floating lines. Tabatabai works with a grid to bring what he describes as democracy to a surface-to break it up in order to deny the greater or lesser importance of any particular area. He describes the grid as a kind of crossroads, "where we all arrive in our quest for understanding the self, and the self's relationship with the infinite. "
This crossroads is intended to be as neutral as possible. Since colors carry emotional freight, Tabatabai deliberately limits the palette of these pieces to shades of white and grey, sometimes contrasted with unpainted wood. Even the vertical orientation of the majority of these compositions comes out of his decision to forestall a possible reading of his pieces as landscapethough, as Melissa Feldman points out in her essay, the vertical orientation may also come out of the fact that Tabatabai's early work focused on the portrait, landscape's fraternal twin.
Tabatabai determines both the scale and shape of his pieces through an intuitive process. This way of working has led to a succession of series, as he shifts from one piece to the next, each of which resolves some questions, but raises others. In each case, Tabatabai plays with limited variables: the size or proportions of the tiny rectangles that compose the larger grid, or the color used throughout. In some works, like Thread and Wood #2, one hundred ninety-two rectangles have been constructed one by one on the surface of a plywood panel. A second surface made out of delicate lines of thread connects the rectangles to each otherlines that are echoed by the dense vertical grain of the wood beneath them. In other pieces, the lines are formed by absence. The delicate grid that covers the surface of Tar-o-poud #6 is made of shadows cast by each tiny rectangle into the precise groove that surrounds it.
People think that painting is about color
It's mostly composition
It's composition that's the whole thing
The classic image
Two late Tang dishes, one with a flower image,
one empty the empty form goes all the way to heaven
In their own quiet way, these pieces help us learn how to pay attention. Like artists James Turrell and Robert Irwin, Tabatabai creates a situation that requires viewers to look at something long enough to really see itto experience, both mentally and physically, the phenomena of vision. There is also an element of Ad Reinhardt's insistent purity in Tabatabai's stance-"art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else. " In the end, though, Agnes Martin is the artist who seems most present here. Like Martin's, Tabatabai's principles are rigorous without being scientific, not premeditated but arrived at through a kind of meditation in search of the sublime.
As a boy, Tabatabai was interested in studying architecture, but the forces of fatehis family emigrated to the United States from Iran when he was 13led to a degree in construction management instead. His recent work suggests that he is still thinking about one of architecture's primary concerns: what the body feels/ experiences in a particular space. Floor piece #5, a row of three cubes, is as much about the narrow passageway between one and two, two and three, as it is about their meticulously constructed forms. It is impossible to enter visually all the way into those tiny defilesyet, were the piece to be expanded to a much larger scale, we could imagine ourselves in them. On the faces of these cubes, Tabatabai creates more inaccessible spaces with lines of thread that partially screen each surface. But the threads only cover the perimeter of each square, leaving the center open, like a question that has no single answer.
This combination of real spacehowever shallowwith spatial illusion; of transparency with translucence, is what makes Tabatabai's work a kind of prestidigitation. Literally, this word implies that an act of deceit is taking place, as the hands of the performer fool the eyes of the viewer. In this case, it is more a matter of the audience being seduced into knowledge. We think we know how to read two-dimensional images as three dimensional space, after all, how could we not, after seeing thousands of images, day after day? All of this practice is in vain when Tabatabai's own version of trompe l'oeil brings us face-to-face with lines created by the absence of lines, space that is both real and an illusion.
For all their pristine rigor, these pieces are not perfect. They aspire to perfection, but they are clearly handmade, like the marvels of clockwork or cabinetry that we see in museums, relics of past eras when the word craft was used and understood differently: to describe the knowledge acquired by both hands and mind through practice and (mindful) repetition. Putting ourselves in the meditative space that Tabatabai's subtle invention requires rewards us with a perception of what Reinhardt called art-as-art. This quiet place is where the sublime resides these days, if it can be found anywhere.
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland, California. For more than twenty years, she has been contributing reviews and essays to publications that include Artforum, Sculpture, Contemporanea, Art Issues, the New York Times Book Review and American Craft. Porges' sculpture has been exhibited widely in galleries and museums, and she teaches in both the Visual Criticism and Graduate Fine Arts Programs at the California College of the Arts.