'M y ultimate goal is to help people evolve,' says artist Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar. 'I want people to understand that there is so much that we do not know. Unfortunately, we live in societies today where the focus is on things like making money. And it's literally driving us to our deathbed as soon as possible. We all know why. But once I began meditation and saw these changes happen in my being, I really wanted to bring this out for others.'
"I want people to understand that there is so much that we do not know."
Behnam-Bakhtiar’s exhibition A Journey Within is the result of fifteen years’ worth of work, through which the French-Iranian painter seeks to give voice to the ideas, energy, and spirit inside himself and other people. His luminescent, incandescent paintings, made by layering and scraping paint, aim to draw the viewer past representation and towards an explicitly spiritual plain.
The title of the exhibition is not meant metaphorically - instead, Behnam-Bakhtiar intends to map an eventful journey of self-discovery. The scion of a prestigious political family in Iran, and nephew of the last prime minister of the country (Shapour Bakhtiar, assassinated in Paris in 1991), Behnam-Bakhtiar grew up in France, but moved to Iran for ten years, where, caught in between the forces of history and the current government, and, suffering "traumatic experiences", he took his leave.
How much of this is legible in the shimmering works on display in Journey Within? Behnam-Bakhtiar tends towards a palette of acid greens and bright yellows – the colours of the sunny climate of St Jean Cap-Ferrat, where he lives in a beautiful coastal villa with his wife and young child. But in his works, also show flashes of anxiety and claustrophobia, in the tightness of the grids that are formed by his technique of layering and scraping, or the sudden apparition of blood-like reds or moody dark greens, like those that loom over the painting My Soul Within - evocative of fir trees blocking out the sun, even in the midst of winter.
Behnam-Bakhtiar’s Iran enters the picture plane in other ways: for a number of works, the artist uses rocks he took from the ancient city of Persepolis, crushed up into his paint. The ruins of the Achaemenid empire literally texture his canvases, placing them within Iran’s cultural lineage - despite the artist himself having left the country many years ago.
At the same time Behnam-Bakhtiar’s background is a red herring: his journey away from his experiences in Iran - though it touches on major global events - is about the meeting of the universal and the individual in an atemporal, ahistoric way. “The paintings show the ability of the human body to heal itself,” he says. “Everything is right in there.” It is a decidedly personal and even highly vulnerable approach to painting.
Behnam-Bakhtiar spends months on his canvases, systematically setting down anywhere from hundreds to thousands of layers of paint, before working at them with the flat edge of a metal scraper. He keeps track of the gradual accretion of layered colours as he works, as if excavating in sediment over time.
“Time is a very important factor in my practice,” says the artist. “I need to wait for the paint to dry to a certain degree before I scrape it off, and this is how I get these effects on the surface of my paintings. It's a meditative practice by itself. The criss-cross effect makes every point a representation of energy. For me when I sit down, and when I meditate, I feel and I see the energy that is within me. We're all made of energy, so it's just a question of tuning in and understanding it and connecting to it. Once you do that, you start feeling things and even seeing things combined together, and you have a new experience. And this is where the technique was born.”
"For me when I sit down, and when I meditate, I feel and I see the energy that is within me."
Behnam-Bakhtiar’s connection of his work to an interior journey edges it away from the many art-historical reference points the abstract paintings could easily have: from Clyfford Still to the experiments of light and perception of the Impressionists or James Turrell’s Roden Crater. While those certainly play a role in informing the way the paintings are legible, Behnam-Bakhtiar is less interested in setting up a relation between his works and art history, and more about enabling the individual encounter with each work. It is one that demands the attention of the viewer: to work backwards through the layers of paint, to imagine the time elapsed between them, and to transform the colour into ideas that gesture towards the invisible.
Behnam-Bakhtiar puts himself on display, with an openness that hides what a gamble they are. It takes a huge amount of trust to imagine the viewer – pressed for engagements, phone in his pocket – will take the time to see the full story of these paintings. Perhaps the works truest generosity is not the desire to slow down and represent spirituality, but the decision to intervene in a world that is so intent on keeping its focus on the go.
Sassan Behnam-Bahktiar: Journey Within
Sotheby's Monaco Gallery
20 Avenue de la Costa, 98000 Monaco
Tuesday–Saturday | 10am–7pm
Until 26 September