Makan Negahban is a self-taught, first generation Iranian-American artist who initially gained attention for his portraits in oil. Only until recently did he start experimenting with acrylic on paper. While Negahban’s interest remains rooted in portraiture, his approach has clearly evolved as evidenced in “Resplendent Tendencies,” currently on view at Co-Lab Gallery in Los Angeles. Comprising forty new works produced in a two-month burst of creativity, the exhibition is demonstrative of a young artist coming into his own, increasingly confident in his application of loose brushwork and vibrant colors that together embody a folkloric mysticism reminiscent of Marc Chagall.
What distinguishes Negahban’s new paintings from his previous ones is the incorporation of surreal or rather hallucinatory elements that add an overarching sense of intrigue. Take Hat and Cats (all works 2017). Here, we see the portrait of a young woman whose face is rendered with enough clarity to inform viewers of her youth, aptly characterized by a taut jawline and smooth skin along with bright and watery blue eyes. Even her arms sustain a realistic quality though executed with less attention to detail. The artist’s whimsical choice of wardrobe is what brings life to the painting. Colorfully patterned with cats and flowers, her shift looks as if it’s unraveling at the seams. Yet, what appears like a tangled mess of blue green threads is instead a collection rough outlines, borrowed from the images on her dress. Like untethered objects in space, Negahban’s scribbles ultimately add movement to the painting as they float around and below the subject’s midriff.
Similarly, one of the subjects in Our Eyes also is clad in a piece of clothing whose patterned fabric spills out onto the canvas’ negative space. Elephants, horses and birds charge from the skirt of a seemingly subdued woman, reclining comfortably in an armchair. Despite her poised repose, a stream of colorful ribbon-like markings emanates from her frontal lobe, suggestive of rampant musings which also spew from her confidante, seated beside her. Interestingly, neither woman appears engaged with the other, yet the intermingling of their thoughts, which merge in a spiral of cursive circles, implies that their relationship runs deeper than meets the eye.
Negahban’s reliance upon the abstract becomes increasingly apparent as viewers move through the exhibition. Oracles, for one, reveals a definite shift in the making. Underneath hastily sketched doodles are the faces of two young women, realistically depicted in soft, natural tones. While both are attractively portrayed, Negahban’s crass “graffiti” slashes are what lend depth to the piece, inciting viewers to contemplate the complexities that complete the individual.
Probably the most abstract painting on view is Dress and Friends. Not only is the subject’s gender obfuscated by Negahban’s childlike interpretation that includes a pair of white round circles for eyes and a single pink line for a mouth, but it is surrounded by two ghostlike beings whose arched arms protectively reach up and surround the subject. Also of note is the subject’s caftan-like garment which commands two-thirds of the painting’s surface. Again, Negahban introduces a textile decorated with a variety of animals. In this piece, however, the menagerie isn’t necessarily moving off the fabric. Rather, it seems to be mingling in what looks like a field of wheat, shivering in the wind, or the ebb and flow of a running stream.
Rarely are we given the opportunity to witness the evolution of the artist’s process in real time. More often than not, this transition is curated through the lens of a museum retrospective. While “Resplendent Tendencies” reads cohesive, its strength lies in its capacity to capture Negahban’s journey as artist, willing to take risks and navigate new waters with bold abandon. There is no denying Negahban’s technical aptitude (his works in oil are proof enough). His willingness, nevertheless, to leap beyond his comfort zone and deconstruct his subjects from an abstract perspective is what makes “Resplendent Tendencies” read as refreshing as it is alive.