Sponsored  January 19, 2021  Kathleen Cullen

Revolutionizing Perspectives: An Interview with Davood Roostaei

© Davood Roostaei, Photo by Hugh Foster

Davood Roostaei in his Los Angeles studio, January 2021.

Painter Davood Roostaei has lived in many places and had many lives. His work shows the complexity of his experiences, which he has created a new artistic style to be able to fully express–Cryptorealism. An artist of great expression, his story is best shared in his own words.

© Davood Roostaei. Courtesy of Pashmin Art Gallery.

Davood Roostaei, Nirvana, 1994.

Kathleen Cullen: I am always curious about when an artist develops their first connection to art and the first steps they took on their artistic path. Can you tell us about that?

Davood Roostaei: Well, I feel like I was born a painter and that is what I have always done–it is the only thing I see myself doing. But I would say, I had my first proper connection to art when I was four. It started with expressing my great passion for painting, which surprised both my family and everyone else who looked at my paintings as they believed I had this rare innate artistic talent. I got great joy out of painting as a child and also building mud sculptures. I completed my first oil painting when I was six. I believe this connection was also passed down to me through my father and older brother who had a great love for the arts and culture. I grew up always being exposed to their love of philosophy and the arts, which I very quickly picked up and included in my artistic works.

© Davood Roostaei

Davood Roostaei, Death of Rembrandt, 2017.

KC: Many artists leave their countries to be inspired by different cultures. In your case, it would appear you had no choice but to leave. Can you describe how your journey–which could be seen as an escape–came about?

DR: It certainly was a very turbulent journey. I did not agree with the values of the regime in Iran, and as a result, I decided to engage in graffiti art which the Khomeini regime deemed subversive. It all culminated in my imprisonment in 1981 for two years. After my release, I decided it was time to leave the country and seek a better life in a country where I could openly and fully express what I wanted to express. As a result, I decided to seek asylum in Germany.

© Davood Roostaei

Davood Roostaei, My Testament, 1994.

KC: How did you develop your interest in graffiti art in Iran?

DR: I only really used graffiti art for a short period of time to express my resentments towards the regime in Iran. I chose it because it was visible to thousands and I felt like I could make a difference more easily that way. However, it came to an end with my imprisonment in 1981, and I haven’t engaged in graffiti art since.

KC: You settled in Germany after leaving Iran. What was that change like and how did it impact your work?

DR: The biggest initial impact was having the complete freedom for the first time to express myself how I wanted to. Then, of course, I got to visit some of the greatest museums in the world in Europe and study the works close-up. Being around other great artists and thinkers also left its own positive impacts on my work.  In particular, meeting the renowned German art historian and critic, Hanns Theodore Flemming in 1986 had an extraordinary impact on my work. Flemming was incredibly knowledgeable. He spent a great deal of time with many important artists of the twentieth century such as Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Nolde, and Dali; and had talks with Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Otto Dix, Eduard Bargheer, David Hockney, Andy Warhol and many more... He wrote about their works extensively and spent a great deal of time meeting with them in person at their studios to study their works. As a result, he had a very good, in-depth understanding of the progression of contemporary art, which I was able to benefit from.

I spent nearly twenty years meeting with Flemming on almost a weekly basis and he became one of my main early biographers who extensively wrote about my work. He was one of the first people who really appreciated Cryptorealism; and in many ways, I think he fell in love with it, dedicating the last twenty years of his life to writing about it–which I am enormously grateful for.  I learned so much from being in his presence regularly.

It was also in Germany that I decided to cast aside the paintbrush and paint with my bare fingers. I felt like I could connect more viscerally with my body of work and fully express myself this way. And I have not picked up a paintbrush since 1986 in executing my oil and acrylic paintings.

© Davood Roostaei

Davood Roostaei, Don’t cry Joy; I’m the Winner, 1995.

KC: If I hadn’t seen video of the process first hand, it would be hard to imagine your work is done by hand. It’s very precise…incredible. 

DR: Thank you.

KC: In Germany, your career flourished, but politics and injustice can still be seen in your work. In this case, it’s been said your work was almost predictive. Can you elaborate?

DR: Well yes, I did a series of paintings about German Unity and the collapse of the Soviet Union years prior to these actual events taking place. In a way, I could predict these events because of my own personal experiences with a totalitarian regime in Iran–I could sense a resemblance when I moved to Germany.

I would say I only paint what I truly feel in any given moment. If I feel that there is an injustice occurring that I feel a deep connection towards in any way, and feel it needs to be expressed, then I will render it in my own unique way through Cryptorealism.

© Davood Roostaei

Davood Roostaei, Glasnost, 1988.

This picture was painted before Perestroika and before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Roostaei became very upset after witnessing the struggles, lack of freedom, and the poverty of the people in the Soviet Union, and based on his own experience with a totalitarian regime he could sense that the time for communism was running out. At the center of the picture, he has painted Jesus crucified on the spires of the Kremlin, as a sign of injustice. There is no one in the Red Square in front of the Kremlin, there is only a tank with a red star and the head of a soldier who is driving it which can be seen at the lower-left side of the picture. This is a symbol of dictatorship. In the background, there is an open window symbolizing the coming in of light and hope into that dark prison. At the upper-left corner of the window, there is a blood-red dove. On the right upper edge of the painting a sad face of a mother figure can be seen, a person bearing the sorrows of others. Her figure follows through to the lower left of the picture. Red crosses are strewn throughout the picture as a sign of those who were killed by the unjust regime, and also deformed people who have red stars instead of heads. 

KC: Since you’ve had international success, has acceptance of your work also grown by collectors and museums Iran?

DR: Well, there are certainly private collectors in Iran who love my work and collect it. However, I would say it is not openly accepted by museums in Iran since I was very openly against the regime there, and then became a political refugee.

© Davood Roostaei

Davood Roostaei, Henry Miller, 1993.

This is a painting of Henry Miller, the American writer and artist. When he was in his 80's, Miller fell in love with Brenda Venus, a young Playboy model, columnist, actress, and dancer. During the next eight years of his life, he wrote 1500 love letters to her, some of which were published after his death under the title, Dear Brenda. Roostaei has integrated a pair of red high-heels into this portrait as a sign of the dominance of eroticism in Miller’s life.  

KC: What was art education like when you first started taking classes at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Tehran? How did it change?

DR: It was a great experience which enhanced my understanding of art history and also enhanced my technical skills. However, I would say I am more of a self-taught artist. But it was certainly a great chance to study both classical and modern art extensively, which has helped me in finding my own unique path, which I’m grateful for. My art studies were unfortunately quite violently disrupted in 1979 because of the Iranian revolution, but then I resumed my art studies in 1984 when I was granted asylum in Germany. In Germany, I first studied art at the Kunst fur Hochschule in Cologne, then at the University of Fine Arts of Hamburg.

© Davood Roostaei

Davood Roostaei, Minotaur, 1993.

KC: In 2000 you moved to Los Angeles. What made you choose to live there?

DR: LA is a place to which many come in the hope of satisfying their dreams, and I felt like it would also be a place of greater freedom to live the dream-life with the sun shining all the time. LA also has a great art scene, which I was always excited by.

KC: The art scene in Los Angeles is very different from New York let alone Germany. What was the initial reception of your work like and how did it change over time?

DR: Well, I would say many were astonished by it, many confused, and some overwhelmed. I feel that, to many people, my art was totally new and unfamiliar, and therefore, it took some people a bit of time to get used to it. Many people loved it immediately, but my Cryptorealistic paintings can be quite complex, usually, as I try to construct meaning by overlaying different levels of images in order to foster multiple perspectives on a particular matter. I strive to make the observer an active participant in the revelation of meaning, to bring together the conscious and the unconscious mind.

I want my work to have an immediate impact, but at the same time, my methods of layering images require the observer to really engage with my work. The closer and more intently you look, the more you will find…this is the essence of Cryptorealism. I like my paintings to be like a magnet that pulls the viewer in very quickly, but to also have them get lost in it for some time and never really be done looking at them.

© Davood Roostaei. Courtesy of Shophet collection.

Davood Roostaei, Dance with Technology, 2011.

KC: You’re planning to show more recent works at a time of great disruption throughout the world. Has the disruption impacted your need to show your art or made it more vital?

DR: Well, it certainly is an unprecedented challenge for the whole world, but I think it has actually enhanced my work in some ways as I have been able to focus, uninterrupted, on producing a new body of work. I am hopeful I can show these works sometime in early 2021 but I am in no rush as I’m actually enjoying this peace and quiet.

© Davood Roostaei, Photo by Brandon Thiessen

Davood Roostaei, Musical Ecstasy, 2018.

KC: How would you describe Cryptorealism? 

DR: Well…to put it simply… Cryptorealism is an expression of hidden meaning, revealed through layered imagery, which requires active participation by the observer. 

Cryptorealism has been the only means by which I have felt I can fully express my experiences…my vision. It’s a way for me to communicate my perspective, and painting with my hands allows me to connect more viscerally with my work, and with my audience. It’s very personal to me. I put a lot of myself into my work, both figuratively and intellectually.

KC: In closing, you have written a Manifesto of Cryptorealism. Can you describe the focus of this and how you see this art form evolving further?

DR: The Manifesto of Cryptorealism is a book that was published in 2007. It is a collection of writings about Cryptorealism by different art historians such as Hanns Theodor Flemming, Albert Boime, Helmut Orpel, and many others that have been brought together; and I would say, this book offers a unique insight into Cryptorealism.

© Davood Roostaei, Courtesy of Shophet collection

Davood Roostaei, A Cryptic Message, 1990.

Cryptorealism illustrates to the viewer that the external reality isn’t all that is there. It demands that we not look hastily at life, but look more intently and observe situations and matters from all other possible alternative perspectives. I have remained committed to this way of painting now for over thirty years, and every day, I am focused on perfecting it more and more. I think my collectors have always taken a great amount of joy in living with these paintings, as they never really feel like they are done looking at them. My Cryptorealistic paintings can be turned in all directions, and every angle offers new insights. According to distance, illumination, or the viewing angle, different interpretations can be put on them and they often reveal themselves slowly to the viewer. The more you really look, the more you will see.

Cryptorealism will evolve with me, and I with it, as I have for the past several decades. I have always been intrigued by the various ways one can blend artistic styles, and eras to produce new ways of expression and perception. I created Cryptorealism as a way to express my views on the world. As the world continues to change and evolve, so will Cryptorealism.

About the Author

Kathleen Cullen

Kathleen Cullen is currently head of sales for Art & Object. She is a former gallerist, independent curator, and writer for CultureCatch.com. Cullen’s role as a director-curator permits her to maintain an independent spirit, presenting new artists “on the edge” by feeling the “pulse” of the emerging art market. It is this inalienable eye that posits her as a harbinger of new artistic expression.

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