Shahpour Pouyan title

In contemplative works of art astonishing for their intense beauty, sophistication, and virtuosity, Shahpour Pouyan critiques oppressive power in all its forms. Politics and the weight of history have been inescapable forces throughout the artist’s life. He was born in Iran in 1979, the fateful year when the country’s last royal dynasty was overthrown in the Islamic Revolution. Pouyan grew up in Isfahan, a jewel-like city famous for its domed mosques and grand palaces built when it was the capital of the Seljuk (r. 1038–1194) and Safavid (r. 1501–1722) empires. His father worked as a military engineer and their family lived on an air force base, which became a target of nighttime bombings during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–89). In 1988 his family moved to Tehran, where Pouyan pursued a multidisciplinary education in mathematics, painting, philosophy, and physics. He continued his study of art in New York City, where he lived from 2011 to 2020, and now divides his time between London and Tehran.

Eloquent in his use of materials, Pouyan creates art in a variety of different media. Ceramic sculptures have constituted the core of his practice since 2014, when he saw pottery advertised as therapeutic for people dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and realized that, as a child of war, he suffered from PTSD himself. Pottery is also meaningful to the artist because of its venerable history in the Iranian plateau. While he works within the same tradition, he expands its expressive possibilities to have contemporary resonances.

Winter in Paradise is Pouyan’s most extensive solo museum show to date. Presenting three major projects from the past decade, it features examples of the drawings and sculptures for which he is best known and introduces an ambitious new virtual reality experience. The exhibition explores the artist’s use of architecture as a vessel for his ideas. Domes and towers are recurring motifs. For research Pouyan has traveled extensively in Iran, visiting the built remains of past empires. “I observed empty landscapes, ruined palaces, and mosques,” he says about those trips. “Imagining the flow of life in these places is a deeply melancholic experience.” His work carries with it a haunting sense of loss.

Monday Recollections of the Muqarnas Dome

Seeking to erase history and establish a new totalitarian regime, the Islamic State group (commonly known as ISIS) has destroyed dozens of cultural heritage sites in the Middle East, including the Imam al-Dawr, an eleventh-century tomb monument in Iraq. The small cube-shaped building was crowned with the earliest known muqarnas dome. An invention of medieval Islamic architecture that spread far and wide and became one of its defining characteristics, muqarnas vaults resemble the intricate three-dimensional form of a honeycomb.

Shahpour Pouyan had long admired how the Imam al-Dawr anticipated the postmodern architecture of twentieth-century Europe. He had an image of the monument tacked to the wall of his studio and, before its demolition in October 2014, had hoped to visit it one day. The year after its loss, the artist embarked on a memory exercise of personal significance. Every Monday morning, he created a drawing of the building based on details he could recall without looking at his photograph. Pouyan primarily used pencil, including gold pencil, to mark the creamy white paper, and there is a poignancy in his selection of a medium so easy to erase. Some forms are incomplete; some lines are faint. After thirty-nine weeks, the artist abandoned the project because he could remember nothing else about the building.

More recently, in an open-ended series, Pouyan has been revisiting the Imam al-Dawr by producing ceramic sculptures of it, five of which are displayed here. High fired to make the clay strong and durable, these are deliberately the most indestructible of the artist’s sculptures. Each has a different colored glaze. Less somber than the drawings, these reincarnations offer a way to see and experience the monument in three dimensions. Pouyan creates the sculptures as time capsules preserving information about the tower for future generations.

We Owe This Considerable Land to the Horizon Line

Each ceramic sculpture in this installationrepresents an architectural motif appearing in one or more of the three dominant building styles in Shahpour Pouyan’s native Iran: Islamic, fascist, and brutalist. Historically used by rulers there and elsewhere, the forms speak the language of domination and subjugation. They include cones, domes, flying arches, and towers. Following brutalist tenants, Pouyan leaves the material out of which the sculptures are made exposed and without decorative flourishes. These small edifices resemble sandcastles or, when viewed as an ensemble, a desert metropolis.

The installation’s title paraphrases a line from Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name Is Red (1998) describing the God’s-eye view that a medieval Persian artist attained while standing atop a minaret and looking out over a burning Baghdad during the Mongol invasion. Pouyan stresses that “the three-dimensionality that was subsequently added to flat miniature painting was too costly—it was the result of the collapse of an empire. This can be seen as a metaphor for how expensive it is to develop awareness and learn from mistakes.”

Pouyan’s city is uninviting. Many of the buildings lack doors or windows, granting no way in or out. The scene serves as a dystopian allegory for the dangers of totalitarianism, patriarchal rule, and the loss of individual freedoms.

Winter in Paradise

In Iran art and poetry have long been intertwined. Shahpour Pouyan contributes to this rich tradition with his virtual reality installation inspired in part by Mehdi Akhavān-Sāles’s Persian poem “Winter.” Published in 1956, the anguished verses describe a cold, cruel air—a metaphor for the resentment many Iranians felt after the 1953 toppling of Mohammad Mosaddegh, a popular prime minister who fought for Iran’s sovereignty by nationalizing its oil industry. Akhavān-Sāles and other dissident poets cloaked their political critique in symbolism to escape government censorship, a strategy that artists living under Iran’s current theocratic regime often employ today.

Pouyan’s Winter in Paradise transports us inside the Friday Mosque in Ardestān, a desert city in Iran. The virtual reality medium allows us to explore and admire the mosque’s exquisite and well-preserved eleventh-century architecture, including its vast dome, while listening to a lush and mysterious soundscape. Inspiring wonder, Pouyan evokes winter phenomena in novel and creative ways.

Outside the mosque, in a space beyond our reach but visible through an arched door and window, the sun shines on a magnificent cypress—a sacred tree known as the Cypress of Abarkuh planted by the prophet Zoroaster, founder of Iran’s Zoroastrian religion. Cypress trees lined the walled gardens that ancient Iranians built in the desert and called paradise, and they are ubiquitous motifs in Iranian art, appearing in architecture, carpets, miniatures, and pottery. These trees embody many different meanings, including everlasting life, righteousness, and truth. Most importantly for this context, they also represent freedom.

Please consider supporting the Frist Art Museum with a donation. Your gift is essential to our mission of serving the community through the arts and art access in particular. We truly appreciate your generosity.