When he is in the midst of planning a new exhibition, Brooklyn-based artist Kamrooz Aram aims to respond to the space in which his art will be displayed. That is especially true with his latest show, “Privacy, An Exhibition,” now on view at the Arts Club of Chicago.
“The architecture is always something that informs the work—art informing architecture, architecture working with art,” he said on Wednesday night during a talk with Janine Mileaf, the Arts Club’s executive director and chief curator. “Something that I prefer not to do is to alter the of architecture physically in a major way. I find it quite wasteful, especially with shorter exhibitions, that you build three or four walls, and then four weeks later you tear them down.”
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His first concern was the tension inherent in the location of the show: a private members club (with a storied history of presenting modernist art since 1916) that has a public exhibition space. “There’s another kind of spatial conversation that takes place here,” he said.
Next, Aram mulled how the effect of his paintings could be heightened by the Arts Club’s reflective floors, made of black terrazzo, as well as by the Arts Club’s two permanent installations: a Mies van der Rohe staircase and Alexander Calder’s 1942 sculpture Red Petals, both commissioned by the organization and transplanted to the current space in 1997. (The title of one of Aram’s new paintings, Iskandari, is a reference to the Persian and Arab variant of Alexander, derived from Alexander the Great. For Aram, Iskandari is “a tribute to the other Alexander the Great: Alexander Calder.”)
“As I started to think more about how I could work with the architecture rather than against it,” Aram said, “I started thinking about reflecting pools as a concept.”
Included in the exhibition are six new paintings, a painted privacy screen, a suite of six modestly sized collaged paintings, and two sculptural interventions into the space. The painted elements are composed of the mostly abstracted geometric forms—gridded outlines filled with oranges, yellows, greens, blues set against a smeared background—that Aram has become famous for over the past several years. These works explore his interest in merging elements associated with decorative objects and abstract painting as a way to collapse the boundaries between the two and to question the divides that these modes of art-making have long faced.
Aram views no division between the decorative arts and abstract painting at all. He said he’s interested in “the difference between what is ornamental and what is decorative: if we say perhaps that something ornamental can have content—whether that’s conceptual, symbolic, emotional, or spiritual content—and the decorative is something that is superfluous in form, something that is really there to fill the space. And I’ve heard those terms used the other way around.”
The paintings, and his practice overall, “set out to do is renegotiate the terms in which art history has been written, this very Eurocentric idea of what is fine art and what is minor art.” His thoughts on the matter are documented in Privacy, A Notebook, a book that accompanies the show.
Another way that Aram has responded to the Arts Club’s collection is by looking at a privacy screen, Spring (1927/28) by Nathalia Goncharova, which was commissioned by the Arts Club in the ’20s. Aram’s work is titled Privacy Screen for Public Architecture (2022). Both are constructed from multiple panels that are hinged together; both take inspiration from a functional domestic object.
As works of art, the two are meant for display rather than to serve as functional objects. “I thought it would be interesting to make a privacy screen that doesn’t really function as a privacy screen, but as a painting,” he said.
Nearby it is Phantom Architect (2022), located in front of one of the space’s street-facing windows. The installation includes a small white ceramic depicting a woman’s face atop a skinny four-foot-tall column of mahogany, steel, and concrete. Installed closer to the right side of a wall, the sculptural element is set behind a white lace curtain, against a mint green wall. On the left side, on either side of the curtain are two black Le Corbusier chairs owned by the Arts Club. (The chairs typically reside on the members-only second floor.)
Located on the other side of the Mies staircase is a six-part work, Variations on Wine Bottle, Polychrome on White Ground (2021). Each canvas is relatively simple: at center is a square that shows a vertical band of color and a collaged image of a ceramic, with the rest of the linen exposed. While the image of the ceramic maintains relatively the same, the color bar changes in each work.
The pages are each drawn from six different copies of the same book documenting Iranian ceramics, and each color represents a color that can be found in the image. Over the course of years, the paper on which the image of the ceramic is printed will continue to fade, while the oil paint will remain the same. “The oil paint is much more likely to freeze this moment, so it becomes a sort of index of those colors,” he said.
Color, whether in his canvases or painted directly onto the walls where those works hang, is an important part of Aram’s practice. But until recently, he hadn’t given a lot of thought to his use of it.
“When I’m asked about color, I give an answer that sounds almost like a cop out, which is that it’s intuitive,” he said. “But I’ve been thinking more and more deliberately about color especially as I talked about the collage piece. As an organizing mechanism in the paintings, they happen in layers, so the turquoise goes on, the white goes on.”
When it came to creating the several new paintings that are on view in the exhibition, Aram began how he usually would with any painting. He primes his canvas by applying gesso with a palette knife, and then starts to draw a grid with oil crayons to create various patterns.
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“It goes through a process of erasure so that the crayon lines are erased with solvents and rags, and then rebuilt and erased and rebuilt until I find a composition that works,” he said. “And then the painting begins somewhere in there. Some of the paintings are quite quick, and some of them are more trouble—they take a very long time to resolve.”
He added, “There is a lot of excavation that takes place in my painting.”