"Given how perilously pitched on the abyss of cliche this work already is, the artist would be wise to keep a lower personal profile."
This damning review of Shirin Neshat's new exhibition in Washington DC, by Philip Kennicott, the art and architecture critic of Washington Post, marks a decisive break from the usual adulations of her work over the last three decades by a sizable majority of European and North American art critics.
How fair is that assessment?
The occasion for this harsh critical judgement is a major exhibition of Neshat's work at Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, which has of course received much more sedate (if not blase) reviews as well.
Kennicott admits: "It's painful to say that, because Neshat's early work is so successful."
The key question, which Kennicott does not address, is in what ways was it "so successful then", and so "on the abyss of cliche" now?
When history outlives art
Neshat's rise to global recognition dates back to the early 1990s, when with an uncanny ability she began capturing the spirit of her age with creatively wedding some of the dominant media representations of the revolutionary decades of the 1970s-1980s in her homeland and raising them to magnificent visual and aesthetic abstractions.
From the very beginning of her work, Neshat has been pulled and pushed into two opposite but ultimately corroborating directions by her admirers and detractors. While her admirers have praised her in terms of an artist in exile challenging the masculinist narrative of her homeland, her detractors have denounced her for self-exoticisation, Orientalism, and aesthetically fetishising the use of the veil by some Muslim woman.
Encouraged by her gallerist's penchant for quick commercial success, she has been instrumental in corroborating the reading of her admirers and ignoring her detractors.
What both her admirers and detractors have missed, however ... is the metahistory of her aesthetics placed far beyond these two vacuous readings of her work.