Curtain Call by Zhanna Veyts, June 2005, NY Arts Magazine
Howtan by John Vitale, May 2005, ARTnews
by Zhanna Veyts
NY Arts Magazine, May 2005
When I walk into a gallery playing French New Wave music, the last thing that I expect to see are large-scale lightboxes illuminating images of naked women rolling around in blood or posing with pregnant bellies and chartreuse feather headdresses. The titles don’t help much–the latter piece is called Next in Green, its counterpart, hanging on the opposite wall, is Next in Black. I make a note to ask Howtan about these, predicting that something may have been lost in the translation from the Italian. Other gaps emerge between the photographs, especially considering the straining effort to categorize them according to the show’s seemingly insufficient title, "Light on Hell and Paradise." The dissonance is manifested awkwardly, more so in the anachronism of the images than in their ability to evoke, say, Dante’s Inferno. As I circle the perimeter of the Virginia Miller Gallery, I find myself noting an increasing number of questions about the conceptual drive behind the work, as well as the method behind its making.
By the time I sit down to talk to Howtan, 30, reclining demurely in his post-Minimalist, Miami home, I am ready to pen the next Vanity Fair celebrity angst bio piece. I am in for a surprise, however, as he motions to Pierro, his partner, to stay put for my aggressive line of questions. "Pierro will translate," he explains. Very well.
I want to start with inquiries about how he chooses the subjects for his staged photographs. Howtan claims that, invariably, he conceives of each project at night, often while unable to sleep, and begins to develop the idea through excessively detailed writing. He moves ahead quickly: has the set constructed, the props and costumes collected, and most importantly, casts his characters. In this latest series, one is a friend, another is an Italian actress, another a model, and one is even his sister-in-law; all of them are women who can respond to and embody the passions and tragedies of the women he has known and grown up around. By the time the set is constructed and the actors are in place, he is ready to shoot the picture that he has been crafting so carefully in his mind.
Howtan has been looking through a camera and "organizing pictures" since he was a small child, coping with separation from much of his family as well as dislocation from Iran. His personal history informs the illusory metaphors behind the nightmarish pictures. His creativity gives him a concentrated lens for viewing the events of the present. In person, his gaze is penetrating, as he is sensitively studying the situation before him. The discord between his quiet persona and the almost gothic decadence of his pictures is fascinating. Critically influenced by David LaChapelle, the narratives of illusion and fear are palpable in every work. Howtan pushes both the dimensions and the emotional scale in his work, infusing it with a sense of theatrics that makes for a hyper-real result. "I live with opera and fashion, but what I want to show is a different set. The set I shoot on is just like the stage of the theater." Howtan insists on utilizing the lens of the camera as the imaginary fourth wall, "I make from something false–a set, models, actors–something true. I use theater stories to represent true stories. That’s how people understand truth."
Howtan incorporates a myriad of mediums into the creation of every frame; and his process of creation is ever-performative. He uses music to create the mood for the psychological situations he wants to see through the lens. Whether enacting a sense of animation or desperation, the music will always frame the mood. He uses video to document everything that takes place on the set, from the frenetic preparation, to the expressiveness of the actors as they ready themselves for their roles. (Though he has considered editing the footage into a video work, the project is on the backburner for the time being.) Even while shooting Howtan continues to take notes and to make sketches as director’s aids. Any given picture is created with the participation of 15 to 20 people and can take as long as three 12-hour days. He insists on maintaining an intimate atmosphere on the set, and creates a tone of concentration for the laborious process. He goes through literally hundreds of negatives–and now digital images–to achieve his desired effect. "If they don’t give me emotions," he insists, "how can someone else get it?"
Reflections on the themes of paradise and hell have been utilized for many forms of self-expression, but in drastic disproportion to one another. When I asked him, why he thinks this may be, Howtan replies, "Because, we have too few things we consider paradise. We have many that we consider hell. And many of the former turn into the latter." This becomes glaringly evident as he translates the symbols and subjects incorporated into the works: From feathers, which he uses to suggest freedom through flight, he quickly moves to gestures of war and terror. As for a symbol for the fear associated with death, he points to our "unhappiness with who we are and who we feel we are." This leads to the self-destructiveness behind, for example, the Lost Identity triptych, which centers on the abuse of drugs, alcohol and the suicidal notion of the "inescapable end." Many of the subjects reflect personal tragedies of friends and loved ones: Metamorphosis I and II are Photoshop-ed to exaggerate the fallacy behind the mutilation of plastic surgery; Illusion is about hiding homosexuality, which requires cutting off an integral part of the self.
The majority of the works strive to demonstrate the maximum, the global, and the universal: Next in Black and Next in Green focus on abortion and single motherhood, respectively; Justice is a gruesome close-up of the humiliation of women’s subservience to men in positions of power and dominance. He accounts, "I use women because I know women. I didn’t have a father and I know that people want to use women, that women suffer much, much more then men. That’s just protocol–and the abuse is part of it all." In Scream of War, for example, Howtan explicates that women suffer from the gravity of (the potential) loss. The subject of this piece is the prostitute of war, screaming for the loss of humanity and dignity. In every instance, whether fueled by a personal account or a universalistic understanding, "Light on Hell and Paradise," drives home an essential point: that it is not about where we go after dying, but about where we are now.
In the upcoming months, Howtan wants to switch gears and explore representations of happiness by documenting the elderly, "the happiness of everything we don’t yet know" that he reads in their eyes. On related themes, he intends to work with the FAO in New Guinea, Vietnam and Brazil, where he wants to construct sets and engage with local children to enact scenes he is already in the process of sketching. As with all of his shooting projects, he will carefully select the final pieces and any proceeds will go directly to the communities on location.
In response to the allegation that his work is merely shocking and provocative, he takes a politically charged tone and replies, "is our life not provocative and shocking? I just want to represent what is inside the brute and the cardinal. I work only from passion and sentimiento." Constructing a fantastical set in order to see an intuitive reaction, Howtan hands over his lenses to the audience and asks them to look into the staged scene and identify its true actors within themselves.
ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries
by John Vitale
National Reviews/ARTnews, May 2005
In Howtan's latest show of large-scale illuminated photographic transparencies, "Light on Hell & Paradise," the Persian artist successfully created a circus of female clowns in a variety of erotic guises. Mounted on lighthoxes, the images were slick, almost cinematic in scope; a number seemed to have been taken at a road-side freak show. Sometimes the women appeared innocent, other times violent and debauched, swigging from bottles and bleeding. Their makeup and costumes did not hide their identities but did highlight bits of their character.
As a child in the early 1980s, Howtan emigrated from Iran to Italy with his family. He developed an interest in Federico Fellini and his film "La Dolce Vita," influences that pervade his own theatrically rich art. In Next in Green (2004), a pregnant model dressed in the feathers and flamboyance of a Rio de Janeiro carnival costume evokes the nightmarish imagery of James Ensor.
Lost Identity (2003) shows a disheveled woman with clownish makeup sitting on a bed, cigarette in hand and a full ashtray and an open champagne bottle at her feet. She has a certain kind of toughness, but her posture—she girlishly covers her nudity by crossing her arms and clutching a feather boa—makes her appear weak and defenseless.
In Renaissance (2004). Howtan conveys the opposite effect. Here, a sleeping nude woman is presented as a source of strength and promise. The model lies in fetal position on a bed of tulips. She looks peaceful and strong, despite her vulnerable position, and evokes the myth of Psyche, who fell asleep on a bed of flowers while searching for Cupid.
Some images, in their slickness, seemed to border on fashion photography. Clearly the artist knows how to manipulate costumes, poses, light, and color to maximum effect.