hadi tabatabai
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Silence and Abundance
Hadi Tabatabai and Nelleke Beltjens
by Peter Lodermeyer

I would prefer not to use the word minimalist. The fact that it comes to mind so easily only heightens the suspicion that it is too apparent and thus, unsuitable for saying anything substantial about works by Hadi Tabatabai and Nelleke Beltjens. The works of the two artists gently, yet emphatically, elude the stylistic terms and categories that critics so love to use for defining the uncontrollable of the artistic process of creation. No thoughts wasted on being original at all costs (this always has something ridiculous about it), these works indicate an area that is about much more than concepts: they point to the silence of precise, patient, curious, and enjoyable contemplation.

No less gentle and silent, Hadi Tabatabai's works also elude any customary definitions of genre. Certainly, he himself refers to them as his drawings, paintings and sculptures. But the line, the drawing element per se, sets the standard in all of his works; it is the fundamental base of his work. At the same time, however, all of his works reveal a three-dimensional character, even the drawings that often display relief features; the artist scored the white lines of his "Weave" drawings into the paper, for example, before placing further accents with colored pencils. The lines of his "Thread Paintings" are polyester threads spanned a short distance in front of the painted surface (strictly speaking, these then are also reliefs), and the individual surfaces of his "Floor Pieces" do not essentially differ in terms of composition and technique from those of his paintings. All of the genres are closely interwoven. What ties them together is the theme they persistently formulate, over and over again and always differently: Space. Not space in the sense of the all-encompassing continuum, the great shell everything has been placed into, but space in its smallest unit. Space from close up, space as a distance, as a gap, as the difference between front/back or inside/outside (whereby it is certainly possible that optical and geometrical conditions contradict one another).

Space is interim space for Tabatabai, the thing "between" things that is revealed through a concentrated view from up close. What do we see there? "What you see is what you see", perhaps? Really? Frank Stella's statement1,  quoted thousands of times, simply implodes in this respect. What you see is precisely not what you see, not yet, no longer... You have to look more closely, get as close as you can and look steadily until you can see the seeing itself, watch yourself as you l ook, in order to perceive, for example, that the stripes in Tabatabai's "Thread Paintings" are not on the painted surface, but have only been placed there by the eye. Where the threads are the same color as the background, zones of uncertainty come about that make us wonder where front and back are, where the figure and the ground are located.

It is no coincidence that Hadi Tabatabai chose the word daruni as a title for his latest catalogue. This Farsi word from the artist's native country of Iran, means "interior space" and is used in traditional Persian interior architecture to designate the interior of the house—in contrast to biruni, the exterior side of the building. It also means "the interior of the self", however.2  Space at the border between subject and object, space as something that makes terms such as "inward", "inside", and the "interior" possible in the first place. Tabatabai very carefully selected lines from Gaston Bachelard's famous "The Poetics of Space", quoting them in large print on a double page in the same catalogue, a place referring to the benefits of a house: "The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace".3  With a seeing eye and vigilant mind you can dream yourself right into the works by Hadi Tabatabai, which need not refer to anything other than their precise, patient state of having been created, in order to activate the poetics of the interior—this " Weltinnenraum" (something like an "interior space of the world"), to use a largely untranslatable term by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.4

Tabatabai's manner of working, the repetitive, ritualistic approach, limiting himself to horizontal and vertical lines, has sometimes been termed ascetic: "Tabatabai's asceticism bears a resemblance to that of religious sects such as the Shakers (...).5  I do not agree, because I am unable to see what is ascetic here about tracing, fathoming and formulating space to its most minute detail. With Tabatabai this seems to be something utterly enjoyable, a poetry where nothing smacks of forbearance, but which rather knows how to indulge in abundance: Repetition does not mean for him the same form a dozen times, it means to glue four thousand nine hundred squares, all of the same size, on the picture carrier such as in "Tar-o-poud #6" or to span hundreds of polyester threads like he did in his "Thread Paintings". Here, the artist does not forego color, do without diagonals or his personal signature, but rather he revels to the fullest in the unexpectedly sensual wealth of the black, white and gray, the verticals and horizontals and especially the grids, one of the central "mythic" metaphors of modernism,6  alternating between rigid rationality and the boundlessness of the imagination. Reductionism? No, it is the utmost of concentration.

Likewise, for the works of Dutch artist Nelleke Beltjens, interim spaces, blanks in real space or on paper, are of immense importance. But whereas Tabatabai's works—tend to—display the character of interior space (in the dual sense mentioned above), Beltjens' works—tend to (we must be careful with the formulation here)—correspond with the unlimited expanse of exterior spaces, open like the ocean, the starry sky or the spatial intangibility of music. Her sculptures, on principle always installed on the floor, may be considered as landmarks in a broad expanse, whereby the resulting interim spaces are just as important as the works themselves. It is remarkable that these markings are never per se homogenous, but rather exude a relationship of tension. In many of her works, this is achieved by putting together two material components: by combinations of wood and plaster, steel and concrete, steel and poured stone, etc. "Repetition in Diversity" is the only sculpture series, where the two components differ only in terms of color. Each of the works done in synthetic concrete bears a narrow colored stripe, which stands in a tension to the "neutral" white body of the sculptures. A further moment of tension is the deviation from the stereometric ideal, the partially slightly rounded surfaces, the avoidance of right angles. The colors of the pigments, red-brown, moss-green, dark blue, ochre, and stone-gray, seem to have been taken directly from Californian nature, where the series came about in the summer of 2004.

A wholly different way of making a theme of interim spaces may be found in the drawings the artist has been making since 2005. One of the titles she uses for her series is "Fragments of the Parts", which indicates a fundamental characteristic of the time-consuming and work-intensive ink drawings: There are no closed outlines; all of the "lines" have been divided into their minutest of components. With Nelleke Beltjens' drawings since 2006, linear structures only consist of a myriad of short pen marks placed crossways to the direction they run in. These are rather more like rhythmically placed punctuations than they are linear units. The interplay between visibility and invisibility is a leitmotif for these works, whose dialectic is expressed in titles such as "Incomplete Completion", "(Im)possibilities", or "Apparently", the latter posing a fine ambiguity between the obvious and what only seems to be so, oscillating between certainty and deception. Invisibility here not only refers to the empty spaces between the marks or the free surfaces of the paper, but also to the fact that only about 50 percent of the marks placed here may be seen. Beltjens always works with paper rectangles as "guides", upon which about half of each ink pen mark remains. For several of her works she has integrated these paper tools with their densely covered edges into the drawn pages again, thus showing her working process.

Concerning the perception of Beltjens' drawings, there is the confusing fact that they may never be completely comprehended by the eye, let alone be categorized by it (accordingly, they are scarcely done justice in photographs). From a distance they reveal a feather-light, cloudy charm, but upon closer look they disintegrate into an overabundance of individual information, which overtaxes the eye in its attempt to structure and determine it. Making us conscious of our viewing as a complex orientation process in an overly-complex reality is one of the artist's intentions.

The fragmentary character of her drawings Nelleke Beltjens continues to emphasize is something that causes us to assume an imaginary whole. We could point to the composer Pierre Boulez, who once posed the rhetorical question whether the real work were not to some extent a more or less random fragment of a large, imaginary, virtual work, whose beginning and end we do not desire to know.7  Music is of enormous significance for Nelleke Beltjens' art. She always does her drawings while listening to music, and there is a purported intangibility and indeterminacy of musical phenomena inherent to them. Piano music from Bach to Cage, Free Jazz or Fusion Music, whatever it is: the dynamics and rhythm of what she is listening to are transferred to the action of the hand, thus entering into the drawing via her fine-motor skills. It is precise enough, since this is in no way a translation of music into the visual. The art of Nelleke Beltjens is no self-centered game. It is rather an art that answers to the exuberant diversity of phenomena (of which music is only one example) with a dynamics of silence, which however—and this is what connects her work with that of Hadi Tabatabai—is a silence of abundance.

— Peter Lodermeyer

  1. "Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Frank Stella, New Nihilism or New Art? Interview with Bruce Glaser" [1964], quoted after: James Meyer, Minimalism, London 2000, p. 197-201, quote p. 199
  2. Hadi Tabatabai, Daruni, Anthony Grant Gallery, New York, and Stephen Witz Gallery, San Francisco (2005/06), unpaginated
  3. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, transl. Maria Jolas, New York 1964, p. 6
  4. From the poem "Es winkt zu Früehling fast aus allen Dingen", 1914
  5. Melissa E. Feldman, "The True Grid. The Art of Hadi Tabatabai", in: Daruni [fn. 2], unpaginated
  6. Rosalind E. Krauss, "Grids, in R.E.K.", The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge 1986, p. 9-22
  7. "En fin de compte, n'est-ce pas plutôt le désir d'affirmer que l'œuvre réelle, définie par des limites spatiales et temporelles, ne pouvait être, d'une certaine façon, que le fragment plus ou moins volontaire d'un grand œuvre imaginaire, virtuel, dont nous ne voudrions connaître ni l'origine ni la fin?" (Pierre Boulez: Oeuvre : Fragment, Paris 2008)

Peter Lodermeyer was born in Ottweiler (Saar), Germany in 1962. He attended Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitaet in Bonn, Germany receiving multiple degrees in 1983 for Art History, Philosophy, and German Literature. In 1992 he earned a Masters of Arts in Art History and in 1997 a PhD degree in Art History. Since 1999 Peter has been working as an art historian and author for books, artist catalogues, articles in national and international professional magazines, art magazines, and broadcast. In addition he has been active with art exhibitions, organization of and participation in international symposiums, special tours at museums and art fairs, lectures, as well as other speaking engagements.

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