Critics’ Picks

View of “Supreme Baba,” 2019–20. Photo: Aurélien Mole.

View of “Supreme Baba,” 2019–20. Photo: Aurélien Mole.


Mostafa Sarabi

Balice Hertling | 239 Rue Saint-Martin
239 Rue Saint-Martin
December 19, 2019–January 18, 2020

The supernatural and natural spheres conjoin in “Supreme Baba,” the Iranian painter Mostafa Sarabi’s first show in France. Nude people bathing with blackbirds, veiled black and white figures amid many-branched trees, a whimsical take on the simurgh from Persian myth: Each painting here welcomes the unsettling and unknown. The red, yellow, black, and white suns or moons that light his works—not unlike the apocalyptic, phantasmagorical suns and moons that artist-poet Etel Adnan writes of—become interchangeable and render obscure such demarcations. 

Although much of the life Sarabi depicts consists of portraits of his family and himself and mostly indistinguishable representations of burqa-clad women, his most transporting pictures confront and conflate the mysterious realms of animals and kin. In one painting (all works Untitled, 2019), his father is portrayed as a reposeful lion, while elsewhere, a pregnant, white-speckled mare with the sun in her mouth is attributed as the artist’s mother. Her erect tail and visible udders, both arousing and maternal, take on a surreal cast when paired with the beast’s strange, talon-like feet. Sarabi emphasizes the fabulative aspects of memory with iterative swirls and a colorful, synaptic pointillism that sprawls across his acrylic works on canvas or mat board. The artist resists the traditional formal methods of his studied craft; his pictorial strategies invite easy comparisons to art labeled “outsider” or “naive,” his simple shapes, symmetries, and joyful patternmaking capturing the fey innocence of childhood. In La Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli (Memory, History, Forgetting), philosopher Paul Ricoeur speaks of the contingency between memory and imagination: To imagine is to remember. Again and again, we see a like-minded formula in Sarabi’s works—both as a methodology for the artist himself as well as a gift to us, the viewers, who may through these mystifying recollections begin to reimagine our own relationships to this world.