|A still from Tala Madani's “Sex Ed by God” (2017), currently showing at the Whitney Biennial. Courtesy the Artist / Pilar Corrias Gallery / David Kordansky Gallery and The New Yorker.|
Recently, the Iranian-American artist Tala Madani was sitting in her studio in Los Angeles, tweaking a video in progress. It featured a young girl wearing a bow in her hair and a yellow-gold cardigan, her legs akimbo in a pose that conjured Courbet’s “The Origin of the World.” The animated film imagines a sex-education class taught by God. Madani had recently been watching nineteen-seventies sex-education films from Scandinavia and Britain on YouTube, and was struck by the way they were typically narrated “from both perspectives, male and female.” In her own film, a pair of men—one thin and boyish, the other tall and pear-shaped—gaze at a projection of the young woman, while the narrator, represented by a pair of disembodied pink lips, wheezily delivers the wisdom of the ages: “Be present. Find the clit and never let it go.” As the scene unfolds, the girl reaches out of the projector screen, takes hold of the male figures, draws them in, and makes them disappear between her legs. “I guess I was really interested in exploring female pleasure,” Madani told me. “I wanted to play with the idea of passivity. She’s not passive anymore.”
Like her paintings, Madani is alternately droll and punishingly serious. The first time I saw her work, seven years ago, in London, I was struck by a painting of a gaggle of men kneeling on all fours. It was impossible to say whether they were engaged in prayer or in sexual submission. Large parachutes hung limply around their bodies. The men’s noses were spewing blood. And yet, somehow, this grotesque group portrait had a sweetness to it as well.
In February, following President Trump’s executive order denying the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries entry into the United States, the Museum of Modern Art exhibited eight works by artists from those countries in its fifth-floor galleries. Among the works on display was a Madani video, from 2007, entitled “Chit Chat.” In the video, which can be seen on YouTube, two men engage in banter that is by turns friendly, argumentative, and literally bilious. It is, like the best of her work, at once charming, thoughtful, and kind of disgusting.
Critics are wont to consider Madani’s work through the prism of her Iranian background. Madani is not fond of this maneuver. Her work has more in common with the giddy grotesqueries of the Los Angeles artist Paul McCarthy or with Philip Guston’s lumpy, comical forms than it does with Islamic calligraphy or Persian miniature painting. And yet, she admitted, “I probably wouldn’t have become a painter if I hadn’t been the product of emigration.” Her canvases can be viewed as theatres of cultural encounter, where references from the history of art meld with figures drawn from the Japanese anime that she loves to watch or from the Ladybird children’s books that served as her introduction to the English language.