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January 14, 2003
The Iranian

In his creative activity, Yari Ostovany deals at various levels with the phenomenon of cultural memory. Following his stream of conciousness, the artist revolves in cycles of paintings around themes that bear the mark of the myth and raise questions about the sense and origin of existence. Among these are the "Conference of the Birds" and the Icarus motif. The artist regards two further cycles as tributes to Goya and Ezra Pound, whose ideas have greatly influenced his abstract pictorial language.

The "Conference of the Birds" refer to a classic of Sufi literature. It was composed by Farid al-Din Attar, one of those distinguished twelfth-century Persian Sufis who divided their time between teaching and literary activities. The hero of his famous book, the hoopoe bird, thinks and feels like a Sufi, for whom there is only one essential thing in life: the direct and unmediated grasp of the Divine.

One day, as all known and unknown bird varieties inhabiting the earth get together and deliberate about the need of having their proper king, he knows what to do. For did the king not exist since long ago in the person of the highly seclusive Simurgh, the bird who was said to be as close to them as they were remote from him? The hoopoe bird declares himself to be willing to lead his fellow birds to him who is their sovereign, only the journey will be long and fraught with danger. Simurgh, obviously, symbolizes God, while the different bird varieties symbolize as many human types.

The journey takes the birds through seven mystical valleys, each representing a stage on the path to God, an inner state of the seeker of God, accompanied by hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and external and internal enemies. Just thirty among them hold on to their objective, to find themselves at last in front of the gates of the mythical Simurgh. A blazing glow pervades them, cleansing them of all their previous deeds. And in this rebirth they recognize that they, the thirty birds (Persian: si-murgh), do not exist in separation of the great Simurgh but that He is in them as they are in Him. With the recognition of this fundamental unity, expressed in one of the most famous plays on words to exist in Persian literature, journey and book come to an end.

Yari Ostovany is not after a reproduction of this story in the form of an illustration or a symbolical representation. To put it in his own words: "In my work I strive to touch the poetics of existence, that which is not linear and rests above and beyond the confines of the geometrical logic". The paintings of the "Conference of the Birds"-cycle present themselves as concrete creations in which arrangements of colour and form express autonomous empirical values. The artist does not make any statement in the sense of a message which the spectator, looking and reading, has to decipher through intuition or by employing his reason.

In the design of his paintings he creates a reality that keeps on reshaping itself in the perception of the onlooker, finding ever new expressions. Using indissoluble, interwoven and interblending layers of colours, Yari Ostovany forms meditative spaces in which memories and representations unfold themselves as in a flow of conciousness. Vertical line progressions and scaled, horizontal structures contribute to the rhythmic organization of a perspective space whose ambience is determined by the chromatic undertones that predominate in each particular case. Rich applications of colour, underlayers that force their way into the foreground and a superposition of forms created by scratching, scraping or sketching all convey notions of meaningfulness and significance.

There is a cautious articulation of the need to manifest oneself in a public statement, to lay bare the inmost recesses of memory and to take the individual experience to a universal level. Surging, ostensibly organic shapes link up with formations of crosses; frantically expanding, impulsive movements coexist with geometrical patterns; the ornamental encounters the narrative, the diffuse the distinct form, all with a view to gauging and visualizing the various possibilities of pictorial, symbolic and emblematic representation.

Yari Ostovany regards his art as a strictly personal exploratory journey, as an experiment in which he attempts to identify and break through predominant and established modes of perception and thought. He understands his work as a dialogue which, similar to the musical principle that structures the fugue, combines the superficial with the subcutaneous, opposed with parallel, and overlapping with merging layers of perception, all in an atmosphere of suspense. Having received his artistic training at art academies in the United States, he explores the cultural traditions of his homeland Iran as well as those of the Western world.

Still, in his artistic work Yari Ostovany does not strive to achieve a synthesis between contrasting or defining characteristics of Persian and Western art. Instead, he endeavours to identify potentially fundamental, abstract cultural patterns in their respective visual vocabularies. The thematic and aesthetic relations which the artist brings to surface in the course of his analysis are developed into a form of expression that has no emblematic bearing upon their respective cultural contexts; rather, while being equally embedded in both of them, its means and orientations are distinct in one and the other case.

Much like Jewish art, Persian Islamic art has been decisively influenced by the Old Testamentary prohibition to represent God in human form: "Thou shalt not make thyself an image..." There being thus no figurative representation, Islamic art is based on premises that are altogether different from those of antique and medieval Christian culture. [1] Artists focus rather on abstract means of creation: line, texture and colour. It is only in exceptional cases that individual figures or emblems become the object of contemplation; the latter directs itself mostly towards surrounding arabesks or geometric enclosures.

Ever since antiquity Western art has committed itself to the human form and the relation between a narrative and its pictorial representation. Islamic art has given up this classical legacy to entrust poetics with the tale and its artistic expression. Through symbolic references, paintings are meant to allude to the world of Ideas. Where in classical culture the objective was to illustrate particular texts, here the onlooker is invited to freely follow his stream of conciousness within the framework set by a given theme.

At a formal level, non-figurative Islamic art is determined by the pursuit of balance, control and proportion and as such, it is unmistakebly self-referential. The stripping-away of visual characteristics, too, aims at a pictorial condensation which does not lead to the absence of a statement, but rather to a far-reaching, universal imagery, in the same way in which this came to pass in Western, abstract art since the days of Malevitch. This iconoclastic act annihilates the multifarious possibilities of distinction, leaving just the contrast unchanged.

The lack of diversity in the inner structure is on a par with the absolute and comprehensive reality to which it refers. Reality, compressed into the notion of a limitless whole, ceases to have any conceivable, grammatical predicate. Malevitch's "suprematism" endeavours to reduce culture to its universal, cosmic truths, which is why it expunges all distinctive characteristics: "The creative act, however, has limits nor restrictions. Like the universe, it is boundless in its excercise, and on that account it can arrive at 'nothingness' and 'eternal rest' ".

In nineteen-fifties' and -sixties' North American art, the "Abstract Paintings" of Ad Reinhardt, in which primary colours almost dissolve into the indistinctness of a black surface, correspond to Malevich's "White Square on a White Surface". The post-second world war American artist, too, aims for the Absolute: "The one and only criterion in art is unity and beauty, exactitude and purity, abstraction and delicacy. The one and only thing that can be said of perfect art is breathlessness, lifelessness, deathlessness, meaninglessness, formlessness, spacelessness, and timelessness. That is forever the aim and the outcome of art".

This particular claim, however, directs itself at an all-encompassing whole in which the idea of God has been preserved in a profane way. Something divine, conceptually incomprehensible, yet intuitively known or sensed is supposed to reveal itself to the onlooker in a pre- or else, meta-linguistic act of apprehension. But it is precisely here, that Yari Ostovany introduces a doubt.

The mere act of negating any extra-pictorial relation is hardly capable of clarifying the Lost Origin in the way of a catharsis. He thus starts out on a careful search for traces, in which hieroglyphic, pictorial or symbolic vestiges are made visible in an almost shadow-like way as he strives to delineate potentially new orientations and frames of reference in the chaotic texture. Using a multitude of symbolic arrangements, he uncovers the latter as in a flow of conciousness, to himself and to the onlooker alike.

The longing for an origin takes the onlooker with every painting to different recesses of memory, thus lending it ever new perspectives. The interpretation of the paintings and their symbols takes place in a spiral movement, which tends towards an axis and a final point without ever being able to attain either one of them. Thus we find ourselves in a situation where we have to verbalize the conceptual contents of the paintings while the latter escape our rational, geometric logic. This contradictory plight is certainly bearable.Bochum, 2002.

[1] Translator's note: Even though the author's remarks on Islamic art in general are well taken, it is important to observe that Iran represents an exception to the artistic tradition of the Islamic world as a whole. Indeed, throughout the centuries, Persian artists have never broken with the pre-Islamic figurative tradition of the Sasanians (224-642 A.D.), who were conquered by Muslim armies in the early days of Islam.

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