The other day, in a somewhat drowsy effort to shake my late-summer torpor, I decided to poke around online in search of some intriguing, under-the-radar gallery shows. Rather quickly, and despite (or perhaps because of) the aimless, unfocused nature of my ramblings, I happened upon the just-concluded show Icy and Sot: Made in Iran, which ran August 23-25 at New York’s Openhouse Gallery.
As I viewed the artists’ work, I felt my mental haze dissipating and giving way to the thrill of visual engagement that accompanies the best street art. The artists, two brothers from the Iranian city of Tabriz known as “Icy” and “Sot” (pseudonyms, they have said, that help them to elude detection by the Iranian government), have been garnering attention for their bold, stencil-based images. Oscillating between playful irreverence and pointed political critique, their work is increasingly ubiquitous both on streets and in galleries around the world.
Employing a striking palette composed primarily of black, gray, white, and red, Icy and Sot convey a visceral sense of human vitality and an instinctive attunement to the raw, contrasting textures of social existence. Many of their works appeared initially on the streets of Tabriz of Tehran and were subsequently replicated for gallery display, one notable example being Broken Heart, a vivid re-imagining of Bansky’s Balloon Girl.
Radiating an ambiguous aura of both sadness and whimsy, Broken Heart implicitly acknowledges the artists’ status as inheritors of a long vibrant yet frequently suppressed strain of creative activity. Arising from social fractures and political cracks, street art has often been characterized equally by audacious vision and material ephemerality; indeed, much graffiti-related debate now centers on whether and to what degree institutional acceptance robs street art of some essential “authenticity” or social force. Such debate, however, seems to assume that “authenticity” can be clearly defined and, further, that street art’s significance is contingent on its means of production and dissemination—i.e., on its realization in the streets.
Icy and Sot’s street-to-gallery migration suggests that street-born work may indeed be motivated by socio-cultural circumstances while, simultaneously, manifesting a compelling aesthetic vision that transcends context. Certainly, in being transplanted from the street to the gallery, from the illicit “underground” to the sanctioned “establishment,” street art acquires new dimensions of import and meaning. In a sense, though, street art only becomes more expansive and more ambiguous in its nature and scope, as it implicitly, if unintentionally, challenges received notions of its own function, form, and meaning.
A daisy chain, really, of provocative questions—this is what resulted from my encounter with Icy and Sot, and this is equally what suggests that they are artists well worth watching.
All images © Icy and Sot 2010-2012