‘The Painting Itself Has a Soul’: Watch Artist Tala Madani Explain How Her Acerbic and Witty Paintings Come to Life

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21
Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Tala Madani: Sketchbooks." © Art21, Inc. 2017.

The Iranian-American artist Tala Madani imagines worlds that are populated by potbellied old men whose spines are slowly curving. These men, rather than feeling any shame at their appearances, seem to be invigorated. Like teenagers, they are powered by testosterone-fueled impulses, and though the viewer is disgusted and made uncomfortable by their antics, the men themselves revel in one another’s company.

Though her paintings were exclusively dominated by men until 2013, her more recent works include animals, children, and women—though the men are still there, wreaking havoc on others.

While she works mostly in painting, in an exclusive interview with Art21 for the Extended Play series in 2017, Madani explained the importance of using sketchbooks to formulate ideas and experiment with content. “It’s the most immediate record of a thinking process, isn’t it?” she asks.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Tala Madani: Sketchbooks." © Art21, Inc. 2017.

Production still from the Art21 “Extended Play” film, “Tala Madani: Sketchbooks.” © Art21, Inc. 2017.

In the video, she explains that although many of the images in her sketchbooks become the bases for future paintings, they also act as a sort of instant diary, so that she can quickly articulate an idea without having to fully flesh it out in the moment.

“You don’t necessarily have the time or space to investigate each idea,” she says. “It’s good to catch them if you’re in the space where ideas are flowing.”

Madani’s work is on view for the first time in Japan at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, where many of her newer pictures address the ways that men operate in society. As usual, her art has a healthy dose of dry humor—and humiliation.

“If anyone is interested in looking at a painter at work, you just have to follow the brushstrokes,” she says. “It’s about a transference of energy… I really love this idea that the painting itself has a soul.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Extended Play series, below. “Tala Madani” is on view at Mori Art Museum in Tokyo through March 29, 2020. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television series is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.

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