Two Chicago Artists Free Themselves From the Rigors of Form

CHICAGO — Noghtes are those dots that appear above and below individual letters in written Persian and Arabic. Something similar, called a nuqta, is used in Hindi and Urdu. Like any diacritical element, they change the way a letterform is pronounced. In calligraphic script, noghtes appear like little diamonds, and they come singly or in groups, for different effect.

I don’t understand any of the languages that use noghtes, but that lack of knowledge in no way impeded my experience of Maryam Taghavi’s elegant exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the 21st iteration of its Chicago Works series of solo shows dedicated to local artists. Indeed, not knowing what a noghte is supposed to be might have made me more open to the vast range of possibilities Taghavi imagines via her understated sculptural, painterly, and architectural experimentation.

Born in Tehran, Taghavi moved to North America in 2000, studying art first in Vancouver and later in Chicago, where she has lived since 2014. Though there is not a sizable Persian community here, all the exhibition texts have been translated into Persian, a first for the MCA, which became officially Spanish-English bilingual in late 2022. Proper usage of the noghte abounds.

It is against this linguistic good form that Taghavi’s artworks rebel, freeing noghtes from the rigors and responsibilities of language to become markers of infinity, twinkling stars, feet and eyes and mouths, glimmers at the horizon and on the surface of a lake, absence, presence, something, nothing, peepholes, headlights in the fog, basic diamond patterns, and units of measurement. 

Really. A noghte — well, sometimes many noghtes — can be all that, and maybe even more.

How these transformations happen is a matter of geometry, light, form, color, and materials. As with most things of extreme simplicity — remember, we’re talking one diamond shape, that’s all — repetition can be helpful, and many of Taghavi’s artworks come in series. There is a set of polished stainless-steel prisms into which one can peer through noghte cutouts, to see her motif reflected ad infinitum inside, like a sparkling universe. Four- and five-sided versions have been built into the gallery entry, with peepholes cut right into the drywall, as if the very architecture of the museum contained the cosmos. A triangular example stands in a corner, its entire structure laid bare but no less magical for it, and a hexagonal one lays on the floor, unbuilt, its pieces in an orderly arrangement, casting mysterious reflections of light onto olive walls. 

Eight paintings from Taghavi’s Horizon series hang in the second gallery, against a backdrop of dark forest green. These look as ephemeral as their eponym, their airbrushed hues the colors of dawn, and of Lake Michigan on a moody day. Mostly made on delicate crepe de chine and suspended from the ceiling at irregular angles, excepting a pair draped from nails, they feel barely tethered to the world. Here the noghtes float in horizontal groupings, shapes left unsprayed and hazily out of register, shimmering like the optical effects of light at daybreak and on a large body of water. 

A lone limestone sculpture in the center of the room presents the Persian word “heechi” in three dimensions. For a word, it’s awfully cute, a squiggly body topped with a head and running on five little noghte feet. It’s also an appropriation of a series by the famed Iranian sculptor Parviz Tanavoli, who has been creating versions of the word “heech” in bronze, fiberglass, and other materials since 1965. Both words mean “nothing,” but by adding an extra letter, Taghavi flips the sense from a nothingness that begets wholeness to a nothingness that represents emptiness, from spiritual fulfillment to quotidian despair.

Taghavi brings in other artistic references, too, notably Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirror Rooms” and Sam Gilliam’s draped color field paintings. For the final work in the show, Taghavi commissioned calligrapher Parisa Shafiei to inscribe four stanzas by the 13th-century poet Saadi Shirazi in a style completely devoid of noghtes. Having by now found them everywhere, in even the most unexpected places, I missed them and was moved by their absence.

Across town, in a tiny project space called Slow Dance, Travis Morehead applies himself with such sensitivity and at such length that, as Taghavi has done with the noghte, he too eventually succeeds in liberating his subjects from their intended functions.

The subjects in Skin Horse are a found wooden gate, a few dozen foreign coins collected by the artist’s step-grandmother, and a cuttlebone. Nothing really has a title or a date, just a material identifier. The purposes of the first two will be familiar, but I had to look up the third to learn that it’s the internal shell of a cuttlefish, used for buoyancy control and also commonly sold in pet shops as a dietary supplement for caged birds. What Morehead does with these items is work them slowly, repeatedly, and keenly until they have superseded their original use and become something else entirely. The wood of the gate is whittled away until all that remains are impossibly spindly lengths with smooth bulges where knots and hardware have been left in place. The effect is curiously anthropomorphic, screw heads staring like pairs of eyes, knots like bony protuberances, bendy rods caught mid-motion. The coins, hammered against a small block of steel until they thin out and curve into dappled bowls an inch or two in diameter, shine in shades of copper, bronze, and nickel. They’re laid out haphazardly on the gallery’s concrete floor like tiny precious offerings. The cuttlebone, naturally brittle and hard, undergoes the oddest of alterations, its strata carefully chiseled and scraped away until a life-size replica of the artist’s ear emerges.

There’s an elemental aspect to Morehead’s approach, as if by wearing away at certain things he will eventually reveal something central to their essence. Certainly, he knows at what point wood will snap and metal wear through and cuttlebone crack. That’s important expertise, though not entirely unique: beavers do as much and more to trees, coins have historically been melted down then cast anew, and cuttlefish bone was carved by artists in past centuries. In Morehead’s hands, though, each material is pushed to the utmost edge of transformation and no further, with foresight, restraint, a touch of humor, and something very much like grace.

Chicago Works: Maryam Taghavi continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through July 14. The exhibition was curated by Bana Kattan.

Travis Morehead: Skin Horse continues at Slow Dance (319 North Albany Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through February 25. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.  

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