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Monir Farmanfarmaian @ Haines

First Family – Square, 2010, Mirror, reverse glass painting, plaster and natural glue on wood, 33.5 x 33.5

In this dazzling solo exhibition Iranian artist (and nonagenarian) Monir Farmanfarmaian presents The First Family, eleven mirrored sculptures based on the sequential divisions of a circle. Balancing geometric precision with handmade methods, the works are both regal and mesmerizing. Coinciding with a major exhibition at the Asia Society in New York, The First Family is a special treat for San Francisco, and not to be missed. 

 
Any review of The First Family will likely include a synopsis of Farmanfarmaian’s remarkable career trajectory.  
 
Born in Iran in 1924, she studied art both in Tehran and New York, rubbing elbows with a long list of art world luminaries including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Milton Avery and Andy Warhol. Upon her return to Tehran in 1957, she began working with cut mirrors, utilizing traditional craft methods to plaster the shiny slivers into patterns, creating multifaceted and luminous wall works and sculptures. Her career blossomed; she showed in Europe and New York, winning a gold medal at the 1958 Venice Biennale. But after the Iranian Revolution, Farmanfarmaian and her husband were forced to relocate to New York, her extensive art collection and much of her own work left behind, confiscated and lost forever. Separated from her favored tools and materials, her art practice paused until the early 2000s, when she returned to Tehran after her husband’s death and resumed her practice at the age of 76.
 
In this show, eight wall pieces circle the light-filled space, exercises in geometry and patternmaking. Thin slices of mirror create intricate interlocking patterns within each shape. Backing the sculptures are several layers of black acrylic, creating outlines between the shapes and surrounding walls. A spoke extends from each sculpture’s vertices towards the center, adding an illusion of clockwise motion to the static pieces. 
 
First Family – Decagon, 2010, mirror, reverse glass painting, plaster and natural glue on wood, 45.5 x 47"; Octagon Sculpture, 2013, mirror, reverse glass painting, natural glue on wood, 24 x 24 x 24" 
 
The exhibition begins with First Family – Triangle, followed by First Family – Square, a pentagon, a hexagon and so forth, all the way to the ten-sided First Family – Decagon, the only shape made up of thinly cut curves rather than straight slices. The sequential premise is simple, but effective. Farmanfarmaian finds new ways to create organizational patterns within the surfaces of all eight sculptures, paying attention to each and every edge in the process. 
 
Two smaller pieces, Untitled (Sculpture 1) and Untitled (Sculpture 2) resemble handmade disco balls; they cast a riot of dappled light against the walls behind them. In these, Farmanfarmaian employs her reverse glass painting technique to inset small moments of color and contrast into the otherwise entirely mirrored surfaces. These slightly more organic shapes add a level of play into the more rigid arrangement of the exhibition. 
 
Untitled (Sculpture 1), 2013, mirror, reverse glass painting, plaster and natural glue on wood 15.5 x 15"

The final element, Octagon Sculpture, sits just inside the gallery’s front doors, occupying a recessed space of its own. This piece, more than any other in the exhibition, conjures notions of reverence, fully demonstrating the aspects of Farmanfarmaian’s practice that tie her work to Islamic architecture, worship through repetition and ideas of sacred geometry. Octagon Sculpture, like all the works in The First Family, takes up space. It reflects light on the three walls that surround it, its thick mirror-covered framework anything but delicate. The wall pieces bulge outwards towards the viewer, asserting their significance and the decades of assured art making behind their forms. 

Farmanfarmaian is the type of artist I aspire to become – bold, principled and innovative within the same gamut of materials that have shaped her practice for over 50 years. In a recent interview with Vogue she said, “Whatever time I have left, I want to make art. And I hope it will be worthwhile to see it.” She doesn’t need my vote of confidence, but I’ll offer it anyway: The First Family is a must-see exhibition.
–SARAH HOTCHKISS 
 
Monir Farmanfarmaian: “The First Family” @ Haines Gallery through December 21, 2013. 
 
About the Author:
Sarah Hotchkiss is an artist and arts writer based in San Francisco. She contributes frequently to the KQED Arts blog and Art Practical and her writing has been featured in essays for Southern Exposure, The Present Group and Gazzetta. She received her M.F.A. from California College of the Arts in 2011. Her artwork has been included in group shows in the greater New York and San Francisco areas, including Adobe Books Backroom Gallery, MacArthur B Arthur and the Popular Workshop. She has attended residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, the Esalen Institute and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.
 

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