Hadi Tabatabai insists on making all his work by hand, but his imagery of choice, the gridstraight-edged, repetitious, and symmetricalrequires precision and,
in this case, not just a ruler but a saw and spackle knife as well. With meticulous carpentry skills, the Iranian-born, Bay Area-based artist builds his wall-mounted and
floor-based works from plywood, grout, gypsum, thread and acrylic paint. His mainly monochromatic palette is limited to grays and whites with the exception of the caramel
of natural plywood. The works tend to be rectangular and vertical in format and are modest in scale, ranging from the tarot-card sized Thread painting #16, a triptych,
to that of a life-sized portrait bust.
Tabatabai's works invite close viewing, close enough to see that, for example, in Thread Painting #7, on the large side at 30.25 x 23.875 inches, the vertical lines
are actually lengths of taut white thread. Attached to the top and bottom edges of the inch-deep frame at .0625 of an inch apart, the thread forms a sheer plane parallel to
the gray-painted base. In other words, the "painting" is three-dimensional. The fenestration is created by a grid pattern painted in gray on the white thread. The gray matches
that of the base below, so that these rectangles disappear into the background, leaving white thread and empty space to define the grid. The result is that positive and negative
space become indeterminate. As in all his works, the thread paintings similarly straddle the realm of the pictorial and the sculptural.
Grout Piece #10, a 14.25 x 11-.875-inch grid of bass wood frames on a white background, presents another conundrum. The background, as it turns out, is all
"infill"white grout filling in the shallow space surrounding the central low-relief grid of hand-cut bass wood frames. The insides of these tiny rectangular frames are
also white but remain unfilled so as to define a deeper plane behind. Tabatabai's largest work, Tar-o-poud #6, takes its title from the Farsi term for the network of
knotted threads that forms the base of woven rugs. If you marvel at Agnes Martin's perfectly parallel pencil lines as she moved her ruler across the canvas, imagine the presence
of mind it took to make this 55.25 x 46.5-inch grid of 4,900 boxes, 0.625" x 0.5"- each within a 3.5 inch white border. Like a jeweler setting stones, each rectangle has been
individually attached to the plywood support, not directly but on a smaller pedestal so that it throws a strong shadow behind, thereby darkening the spaces between. Yet the work
does not look like it was made additively, as such, but by subtraction, the way you would slice up a pan of brownies.
In Tabatabai's hands, then, something as straight-forward as the grid becomes a meticulously managed, duplicitous affair involving light and shadow, depth of field, and
opticality. He obfuscates interior and exterior and plays illusion, something strictly optical, against reality: thread as a literal, 3-D line except where it has been
"erased" by painted color, using actual recession in space to create depth as opposed to pictorial means such as foreshortening or contour. In for Agnes, he cuts out
the thread where it traverses each frame to "open" the grid-but not before gluing down the remaining bits so they don't fall off.
Modernist critic Rosalind Krauss attributes the power and persistence of the grid, which was first sanctioned by Mondrian and Malevich in the early 20th century, to its unique
ability to embody the conflicting desires of the modern artist: "The grid's mythic power is that it makes us able to think we are dealing with materialism (or sometimes science,
or logic) while at the same time it provides us with a release into belief (or illusion, or fiction).1 Krauss focuses on the abstract/ intellectual realms of mathematics
and religion; however, the grid also has a strong connection to craft and manual labor. If Tabatabai's work bears the imprint of modernism, it does so in a way that intersects
with ordinary life. Through his work we see the associations modernism and minimalism's reductive, repetitious forms have with things like weaving, skyscrapers, a hand-crafted
string instrument, a pinstriped shirt, mosaics, bathroom tile, maps, a face-to-face encounter. The grid is an iconic organizing principle that applies to both craft and "high"
art, pragmatic and spiritual pursuits. Tabatabai's asceticism bears a resemblance to that of religious sects such as the Shakers, for whom even the mundane aspects of life-from
clothing to cooking--reflects their adherence to a life of perfection, economy of means and symmetry through the rigors and routines of labor. "Do your work as if you had a thousand
years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow." 2
Tabatabai's search for perfection is what spurs him on to the next piece, the desire to recalibrate his efforts towards "an absolute, a rightness." In orchestrating a set of
selected concrete physical elements, the artist is attempting to achieve flatness"a democracy" as he puts itacross the picture plane. In this respect his work intones
a Greenbergian mantra. Maintaining flatness, though, is an ongoing struggle. He does not consider for Agnes to be a failure per se, but admits that it does not achieve the
flatness he intended. Visually, the "mat" around the perimeter of the grid recedes further back than the interior, while at the same time the interior (the gridded portion) pops out.
Similarly, the painted thread pieces are marred by globules of paint collecting on frayed bits of thread-despite his best effort to shave them off before applying paint. "You try
to achieve the impossible," he says, "even though you know that every time you're going to fail."
Tabatabai's preferred format is the vertical rectangle containing a similarly proportioned smaller grid within. The shape and size are reminiscent of the portrait bust, which
as it happens dominated his practice for years. It was his realization that his portraits, no matter how slavishly painted, were "never as real as the subject." That, along with
the impact of seeing Agnes Martin's work, led him to give up figuration ten years ago, in a classic artistic journey to systemic abstraction. Besides the portrait bust format,
another remnant of his earlier work is the ever present "mat" to borrow a framer's terminologya blank border, equidistant all around framing the central image. Even his most
experimental works demonstrate this approach. In Wall piece #1, for example, the central square fits snugly into a cutout section of the gallery wall while surrounded by a
conventionally-mounted border. But there is never a third tier, which would suggest infinity, or a single geometric unit, which would lack spatial autonomy or else appear strictly
sculptural. It is this remnant of traditional presentation that further challenges Tabatabai in his effort to collapse the distinction between subject and object, literal and
depicted space, and interior and exterior.
Melissa E. Feldman
- Rosalind E. Krauss, "Grids." The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge: MIT, p.12.
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shakers [Retrieved on February 23, 2007]. Culture of work and further extremities.
Melissa E. Feldman is a San Francisco Bay Area correspondent for Art in America, a writer, and an independent curator. Her recent exhibitions include "Secret Victorians: Contemporary Artists and a 19th-century Vision," co-curated with Ingrid Schaffner, at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, and "Artworkers: The Politics of Labor in Contemporary Art" at the Newlyn Art Gallery, Cornwall, and other venues in Great Britain.