Iranian artist Sara Rahbar featured at Dubai's Carbon 12 gallery
Sara Rahbar could easily have stuck to what she's known for. But her current exhibition at Carbon 12 shows the Iranian artist striking out for new ground.
With sculptural tapestries of torturous looking implements and a prickling sense of submerged conflict, Restless Violence is a challenging progression for Rahbar but one that seems aimed at pushing what she can do.
Rahbar is best known for her Flags series (2005), in which she took the American ensign as a canvas. The artist adorned this loaded object with woven fabrics from Iran, beads and tiny bells and there was an appealing, ragged aesthetic about these works. They aren't clean and well wrought, instead they drape loose like a bundle of talismanic rags.
By 2008, the flag had evolved into a nomad's banner - a patchwork of interlocking fabrics and motifs to reflect the artist's childhood move from Iran to the US.
These works stopped being about pattern, or carrying only the vaguest semblance of a flag; bullet-chains, holsters and kitschy woven portraits of JFK begin to encroach on the star-spangled canvas. The works lifted off the surface of the gallery wall with found objects.
Various iterations of the Flags have since made it into the Saatchi Collection, the Centre Pompidou and numerous reputable collections regionally.
Restless Violence is a simple but apt name for this new twin-series show: it demonstrates Rahbar's unwillingness to settle on one idea or be pigeonholed into one body of work, however much lauded those flags have been. Judging by this combative show, she'll take up arms to keep on moving.
Here Rahbar seems to want to distance herself from sparky politics. There's more of a play on material than the iconography of the American flag; she wants to know why certain shapes, objects and textures might unsettle us.
Mucky canvas tapestries and army backpacks have been adorned with a menagerie of worrying implements: billy clubs, forceps, military brooches and concealed knives. A leather corrective corset protrudes eerily from one of the pieces, and interspersed with that are crucifixes, gas masks and army water canteens.
The progression of the flags into three-dimensional sculptures has had a huge influence. If we can distance our vision from the grisly meaning of these objects, we can see a play of burnished colours (largely from the wood and leather) that jars with the reality of what we're seeing.
Similarly amid all these brutal objects, strange statements of the sort found on bumper stickers have been stitched into the canvas in silver thread: "America sweet America God shed His light on thee", and such - pop-culture intersections between faith and nationalism.
Extreme opposites are what Rahbar is drawn to - objects that can encapsulate or imply craft, beauty and peace, yet can also disturb us in some way.
One example is the elegance of a bootmaker's model leg, for instance, used for working leather yet bearing an eerie resemblance to a prosthetic. There are gleaming metal forceps, once used during difficult pregnancies, and several particularly tortured looking crucifixes.
Rahbar scours markets and collectors' troves for the objects that make their way into her work. Yet these aren't "found objects" in the sense that they are simply transplanted into a gallery and called art - at her best, the artist shows an ability to achieve something painterly with these difficult-to-use objects. The works are, in a sense, collage but should be judged on the feeling and crackling power that these charged objects emit when placed together, rather than any deeper meaning or story that we can try to glean from the overall composition.
Nonetheless, Kourosh Nouri, the owner of Carbon 12, tells us that Rahbar's works are deeply personal and full of symbolism relating to her own story. But it seems as if we're shut out from this world, barred by objects that impose themselves rather than invite us in.
There's a sense of the artist, in a number of pieces, still finding a way to articulate what she wants to do with this style. Yet in this search for a new medium, Rahbar has clearly drawn fresh blood. Let's see where she takes it from here.
• Restless Violence continues at Carbon 12 until April 28
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Updated: April 17, 2012 04:00 AM