Madani’s “Pussy” series began with a rough sketch that Madani says she also based on Jane. There is something disturbing about this child, who displays her private parts so freely. Does she know what she’s doing? Her smile is playful, and somewhat mischievous. Madani had her original sketch transferred to a silk screen, and variations of the vagina-flaunting charmer appeared in a dozen or more of her paintings during the next few years. One of these, “Prism Pussy” (2019), which is in the MoCA show, is larger scale, and rendered in Madani’s lush, Abstract Expressionist manner. A similarly posed girl also stars in a 2017 Madani animation called “Sex Ed by God.” The plot here is simple. A pair of pink lips in a moving cloud of light (the Almighty, we assume) give whispered instructions on cunnilingus to a man and a young boy. (“Not too fast . . . Be present . . . Find her clit and never let it go.”) Pussy appears, larger than the man or the boy. She reaches out, takes man, boy, and moving lips in one hand, and tucks them away in her vagina. The End.
Other characters weave their way in and out of the MoCA exhibition. The icon known as Smiley made its first appearance in a 2008 semi-abstract painting of seven men, each of whom holds up to his face a copy of the familiar yellow circle bearing two dots for eyes and a half-circle mouth. In other evocations, the Smiley image is projected onto people’s faces or hovers above them, or descends on them in the form of yellow-gold urine (“Piss Smiley”). “The fact that Smiley has no nose was interesting to me,” Madani explained. “He can’t smell anything. He can’t hear anything. He can just smile.”
Another gallery in the exhibition is devoted mainly to Madani’s penis paintings, in which the male organ functions as a giant protagonist. One of them fills the open doorway to a dark room in a painting called “The Guest.” In “Son Down,” a man-child gazes in wonder at his enormous member, which occupies the space in front of him and rises to form an arch above his head. “O” shows one of Madani’s bald, black-bearded men hugging his tumescent penis as it spills copious quantities of white paint on the floor beside him. “He’s kind of loving his very big dick,” Madani observed. “And I’m giving him the space to enjoy it.”
Madani didn’t really solve the problem of painting women until 2019, when her “Shit Mom” paintings arrived. “Abstract Pussy” was a silk-screened image transferred to canvas, but Shit Mom is all Madani, and I can’t imagine anyone else inventing her. She figures prominently in “Biscuits.” The shit in her case is not a figure of speech; she is composed of what looks like dark-brown, soft, dripping excrement. She first appeared eight months after the birth of Roshan. Madani had given herself wholly to motherhood during those months, and when she came back to the studio she had no idea what to do. “I thought, I’ll paint a mother and child, just to get it out of my system,” she told me. She did a painting of a mother and two small children, and had planned to hang it in her bathroom. “But it was so awful, so cliché and kitsch, that I couldn’t stand it even there,” she said. “So I started wiping it off, smearing the mother away. The children were still pristine, but the mother became quite shitty-looking, and I thought, Wait a second, where did that come from? It’s Shit Mom!” Madani firmly denies that Roshan’s birth had anything to do with the “Shit Mom” paintings, but I find this hard to believe. She has also said that when she started them she was “thinking about my own phobias of failing as a parent.”
There are more than forty paintings of this strange, tragicomic figure, eight of which are in the MoCA show. We see Shit Mom in many different guises: tenderly washing the blond hair of a baby girl who looks very much like Imra; standing thigh-deep in blue water; lying on the ground while four babies touch her and eat pieces of her. Why this is not revolting, or even disagreeable, is beyond me. The beauty of the brushwork and the virtuoso modulation of color and surface must have something to do with it. Whatever the reason, I don’t know of anyone who has been seriously offended by Shit Mom—not publicly, anyway. “There was really not much criticism,” Madani said. “I wish there had been more.”
We had been in the museum for two hours. Before leaving, I wanted to take another look at the video about Shit Mom that Madani had made in 2020. It’s just under eight minutes, longer than most of her animations. The setting is the interior of a lavishly furnished house that Madani had seen in a book and rephotographed. Shit Mom, who is naked and alone, goes from room to room, touching things and sitting briefly on chairs or sofas, and everything she touches receives a dark-brown stain. There is a soundtrack of birdsong. In the formal dining room, her hand leaves a wide, continuous smear on all four walls. She sits on a couch and tries to masturbate, but fails—her body is too insubstantial. She beats her head against a marble tabletop. In another room, she finds a white cloth and uses it to wipe away the stains, but it makes them worse. At this point I felt, for the second time that day, a rather puzzling sense of sadness. When I told Madani about this, she said, “Yes, the sympathy thing. You can feel sorry for her. I don’t.” And then, moments later, “Sometimes I don’t really understand my own practice.”
Tala Madani was born in 1981, two years after the revolution that ended the monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Hopes for a liberal democratic government in Iran were crushed when the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power and imposed a harsh Shi’ite regime, but Madani, an only child in a well-to-do, secular family, remembers her early years as being happy. She lived with her parents in a Tehran building that her paternal grandfather, a successful entrepreneur, had constructed for his four children and himself, with separate apartments for each of them. “My grandfather was extremely influential for me,” she said. “He was like the Godfather, the center.” According to Madani, the year she was born a paper company that her grandfather owned was confiscated by the regime, after publishing an advertisement that showed a nude woman covered almost entirely by paper napkins. He spent six months in jail for that offense, but quickly regained his Godfather standing afterward.
His son Alireza, Madani’s father, worked for his father’s company. He married an upper-middle-class Iranian woman named Mojgan. After Tala’s parents divorced (she was eight at the time), the court decreed that she would live with her father—the usual procedure in Iran, with its patriarchal traditions—and Mojgan moved out. For the next four years, Tala lived with her father and spent the Iranian one-day weekends, Friday, with her mother. “Fortunately, I loved school, and reading was a big part of my life, especially history and Runi mythology,” she told me. “My mom, who was very smart and good at mathematics, immediately got a job in the national oil industry. I was really happy when she and my dad divorced, because I knew the marriage wasn’t working.” There were all-night parties at her father’s apartment, which Tala was allowed to stay up for and observe. On her birthday, there were strobe lights and a hanging disco ball and her dad as the d.j.
Her mother decided to move to the United States. An uncle of hers taught in the business school at Western Oregon University, and Mojgan enrolled there as a graduate student, working toward a master’s degree in computer-science education. Early in 1994, she returned to Tehran and, with Alireza’s consent, took Tala to live with her in Oregon. Alireza planned to follow them as soon as he could get a visa, but that proved to be more difficult than he expected: Iranian students could obtain approval to study abroad, but, for an adult male, permission to go to the Great Satan was a different story: it took Alireza nineteen years to get his exit visa. (He could not be reached for comment.)
For Tala, the move from a city of six million people to Monmouth, Oregon, a town of six thousand, where the university is situated, was not as disruptive as it might have been. She had grown up watching American movies and absorbing American pop culture. But in Oregon, where people shopped at megastores like Home Depot, she was homesick for Iran. “I never felt more Iranian than when I came to America,” she told me. She missed her father, her grandparents, and her extended family. Madani was in the eighth grade in public school, and she didn’t know enough English to keep up. One of her teachers, seeing how intelligent she was, gave her English lessons after school. But what really got her through those first years in Oregon was drawing. Her mother had taken her to private art classes in Tehran, and Tala had decided very early that this was what she wanted to do. “But I think coming to America was what made me an artist,” Madani told me. “I didn’t have any friends, I was bored, and I just drew and drew and drew. I kept on doing it all the way through high school, even after my English was fine. My mom really encouraged it. We lived above a teriyaki restaurant, in an apartment with just one bedroom, and we survived on her part-time teaching salary.”
At Oregon State University, in Corvallis, which Madani entered in 1999 on a full scholarship, she double-majored in art and political science. Her interest in political science was fuelled by thoughts of returning to Iran, where the government’s hard-line policies had brought increasing economic and social misery. She knew that many Iranians were suffering and dreamed of going there somehow. A fellow-student at Oregon State, whom she had a tremendous crush on, urged her to forget political science and concentrate on painting, but Madani couldn’t do that. She was convinced that art, much as she loved it, would never provide the independent life that she wanted for herself. For a long time, she told me, she had one foot in art and the other in Iran.
Her painting teacher at Oregon State, Shelley Jordon, thought she was born to paint. “I could see immediately how smart she was, how capable, and how ambitious,” Jordon told me last fall. “She came into the class not knowing how to paint, but she learned very quickly. There was never a question about her being the real thing.” Jordon, who grew up in New York, had studied painting there with Philip Pearlstein, and she kept in touch with the New York art scene. When Madani and a few of her student friends visited New York annually on Thanksgiving weekends, Jordon gave her lists of galleries and museum shows that she should see. “I hadn’t met anybody who took painting that seriously, and her severity was very exciting,” Madani remembers. When I asked Madani to describe her own painting in those years, she was scathing: “The backs of people who had been lashed, to talk about what was happening in Iran.” She also painted several portraits of Donald Rumsfeld, as well as thumbnails of Iranians with hangman’s nooses over them—“cliché reactions to the politics in Iran. They weren’t caricatures yet. It was just basically bad painting. I had a studio mate, a Belgian painter, who would come in and say, ‘Tala, this is awful. These are so bad. These are not art.’ ”