When I look at Tala Madani’s paintings, I notice a peculiar relationship between what is direct (the manner) and what is ambiguous (the matter). Her spare compositions and fluid brushstrokes are easily, almost subliminally, absorbed but my attention also stutters in its effort to comprehend the image as a whole. Her manner is straightforward, but the imagery so uncertain: Is the man of Braided Beard actually braiding another’s beard, or strangling him? The titles, however (Fish In Pants, Paper Boat), aren’t at all mysterious. They often point out the single clearest fact in the painting: either Madani knows only as much as we do, or she’s protecting her secret. Either way, this deadpan withholding beckons us to delve into the absurdity beneath what is obvious.
Initially alienating paintings, even Madani’s most legible scenarios are unruly and mysterious. Men are her exclusive subjects, and she mercilessly depicts their vulnerability, holding them hostage with her compositions. From a woman’s perspective, there is some relief in turning the often-subliminal perception of the male point of view as a gender-neutral one against itself. In this way, her antagonism is quite funny. Humor is as palpable as violence, and it rescues her work from being read as a dogmatic (Western) feminist manifesto.
Madani paints with a candid quickness, but this manner of the mark is skillfully deceptive; it obscures elemental facts and highlights the obscure. The quickness of the paint does not engage the quickness of our image-reading sensibility. Her slippery oils are so drunk with power that narration is suspiciously and deliciously gossipy. Madani paints paintings within paintings, men eaten by their own drawings, and drawings attacking men. In Original Sin, the wispy apples painted on the blackboard accentuate the unusually apple-like shape of the man’s buttocks. In Red Stripes with Stain, a vertical mark is an object falling on the heads of a quartet seen crouching from behind; in Man In Cape, someone vomits the colored stripes of his cape onto the backs of two others. The men are at the mercy of painterly abstraction and each scene is suggestively fetishistic. A flick of pink paint in Tower Reflection represents a tongue licking a staple-shaped man’s rear end. In Withered, two men watch mystified as a wilting plant grows from their pants.
The muddy, out-of-focus paint humiliates this fellowship of balding, indistinct men. With birthday cakes, candles, and chalkboards as their props, Madani’s grown men are in an awkward stage of childhood discovery, nervously bidding and speculating on their future. It’s hard not to cringe and feel sorry for them. We peer in on their absurd rites, which they seem inexplicably and idiotically compelled to perform (stamping one’s painted clown face onto another’s back; demonstrating, with an actual rope, how to play hangman). Madani’s strangely cartoonish marks cause the figures to always appear fumbling and clumsy, the doomed performers of incomprehensible dream scenarios.
There is a complicated, if cruel, tension between the creator and her characters—as if she’s eager to submit evidence of their idiocy. My first instinct is to trust the brush marks and laugh along with Madani, and maybe even to feel vindicated. But after deliberation, I begin to feel empathy for these generic men. Their peculiar humiliations become particular, and thereby personal. Eventually, I am embarrassed to notice myself implicated as an eager voyeur, hungry for more inconclusive gossip. Their shame turns onto me. Madani’s paintings seduce without beauty, but rather, shamefully, with humor and humiliation.
—Diana Al-Hadid moved from Syria to Ohio in the first grade to pursue a career in sculpture. She was recently included in Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East at the Saatchi Gallery in London and in the Sharjah Biennial. This fall, her work will be exhibited at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum in Tampa and at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in Brooklyn. She has upcoming shows at Rice University and at La Conservera Contemporary Art Center in Murcia, Spain. She is a 2009 NYFA Sculpture Fellow and her work is represented by Perry Rubenstein Gallery in New York.