In “Contemplation,” featuring the work of Laleh Motlagh at the Chicago Artists Coalition, the gallery is conceptually and physically divided by a temporary wall, separating off a closet-size portion where three artworks live from the vacant remaining space. The viewer is immediately introduced to Motlagh’s ability to treat reduction as a gesture, distilling down to only the necessary, resulting in an exhibition that is contemplative, introspective and a stunning demonstration of an artist taking gratifying risks.
Lined up on the wall are five consecutive drawings titled “Obscurity.” At first glance, the surface of the paper appears blank. Once the viewer’s eyes focus, their peripherals blacken and faint contours of Monstera plant leaves begin to emerge, like crawling veins just below the surface of the skin. Motlagh treats lighting as a medium, intentionally keeping the filtered illumination subdued. This tricks the eye into projecting additional forms onto the paper and confuses the physical with the imagined. The subtle opacity of the drawings imply a challenging feat of reduction. The paper is not the plane that the drawings then develop onto. The physical Monstera plant is the starting point, and the drawings are worked backward and abbreviated until only the implication of their form remains.
On the adjacent wall hangs an iPad displaying the moving-image piece, “Quiet Chaos.” With Lake Michigan swelling in the background beneath a silver overcast sky, Motlagh sits upright on her knees cradling the base of a Monstera plant. The plant rests on her knee, its roots exposed and ungrounded. Wrapped around the tip of the sturdiest branch is a white headscarf, forming a bold symbol of protest. “Quiet Chaos” continues exploring the study of reduction. The looping moving image requires no arching narrative or mobilizing elements outside of the artist and the surrounding wind. Motlagh remains stoic and unchanged as the wind provides the only movement within the frame, activating swaying Monstera leaves, rolling waves, and the defiantly dancing headscarf.
Strategically placed on the adjacent corner as a reflection of “Quiet Chaos” hangs the photograph, “Untitled.” Depicted is Motlagh as a child in Iran, sitting in the same upright position on her knees. Behind her sits a crowd of plants, with the leaves of a Monstera emerging from the left side of the frame. “Untitled” relies on “Quiet Chaos” as the artist appears in these two images sitting uniform, but in two different countries defined by disparate decades in her life. Donned in a blue dress with a white collar and big red bow, there is a foreshadowing of Americana, summoning grapplings of displacement and identity.
The throughline across all three pieces is the Monstera plant. When introduced, it was a study of form and gesture. Motlagh further followed the thread, investigating her relationship to the plant by taking it out of the pot and holding it securely, feeling the tightly bound roots in her hands, letting the crumbs of dirt unabashedly pepper her white clothing. Then, with a final discovery, the viewer learns the plant was with the artist all along in the background. The Monstera becomes a physical representation of Motlagh’s resilience, curiosity and rewarding risk-taking.
Laleh Motlagh’s “Contemplation” at Chicago Artists Coalition, 2130 West Fulton. On view through March 1.