Documentation is relevant based not only on the information recorded, but also the process of how that information was recorded. The process of documenting can significantly influence an audience’s understanding of the information. In essence, those who document are akin to storytellers. To the degree the storyteller invests in their process to that degree do they produce a work that stimulates the audience. Whether documenting reality or an imagined scenario, whether recording financial data or writing a screenplay, a storyteller is constructing reality and the audience’s relationship to that reality. If you were to put documenting reality on a spectrum ranging from a security camera to a science fiction film, every possible scenario along that spectrum shares a similar quality: limitation.

What does Saving Private Ryan and footage on a security camera share in common? They both isolate an experience in a set timeframe within a set location. Whereas a security camera literally records in real time and Saving Private Ryan gives an impression of time, there is context directed in both. The security camera might record in real time, but it’s directed with a determined perspective. It’s not necessarily capturing the entire scene, and certainly it is not capturing a particular scene from all angles. It’s not walking around sensing the atmosphere, picking up the smells, the sounds, the textures, the relationship between people, and other subtle nuisances. But nonetheless, it is a curated experience. The purpose of this limitation is to enhance our perception.

Surrender, by Hadi Salehi, 2008

You could argue that art is an imitation of reality, but you could also argue that art is a reduction of reality. The artist is not creating an illusion of reality, but considers reality a raw stock of materials to extract and create an expression of existence and individuality. What strikes audiences about art is not that they associate it with the known world, but that they experience  something new about something they already felt familiar with. A masterpiece is defined by its aesthetic composition and execution, as well as its ability to communicate a tangible experience through symbolic imagery. Sometimes we take reality for granted, in that we overlook how each moment is complex. Our minds have neurons that prevent unimportant sounds from reaching our brain’s cortex. Human eyes can only perceive visible light, whereas some animals and bugs can see ultraviolet or infrared light. The human body limits reality. And intellectually we reduce reality through culture, philosophy, tradition, politics, which all change over time. But while we are experiencing them, we perceive such things as fixed. Art uses this same reductive process to not limit our perception but to advance it beyond the boundaries of our senses, of our traditions, our politics, our intelligence, and our flesh. Such illusion is closer to reality than what we perceive with our senses. That is why art has the potential to have a spiritual connection with its audience. It pierces through the layers of the ephemera we’ve adapted. By doing so we become in touch with our soul. Art is a physical/external structure that inspires us to go inward. That cannot be said for most of “reality.”

Haparoot, by Hadi Salehi, 2009

When we view the works of Hadi Salehi’s Layers, at first glance we see things we recognize, but we are not looking at a semblance of nature. We see layers of reality, of images, writing, landscapes, people, but what we are actually looking at is not the layers of imagery, but what is between the layers. The composite images are not flat or pressed together as with a collage. They are separated by light, changes in color value, and distortion. In painting connecting two objects at a distance through space is accomplished by perspective. Perspective applies to a uniform work. Salehi’s works are lyrical. The empty space is not a physical characteristic that can be measured, but a phenomenon that occurs as the mind tries to focus on one aspect of the work at a time. This leaves part of the viewing experience in the periphery. A Hieronymus Bosch painting can be viewed in such a way, but the composition forces the audiences to experience the painting through selective study. But unlike a Bosch, Salehi’s compositions are not agglomerations of vignettes, rather they have a singular subject. In most the works these subjects are people. These portraits become narratives, not only through their depiction, but through the artistic process.

Most portraits are rendered by depicting the likeness of the subject, whether it be realistic or abstract. In Salehi’s portraits the depiction is a result of intention, to objectively arrange a composition, and subjection, to allow space for unplanned outcomes to occur. This subjective approach invites a raw element of spontaneity, which makes the process less mechanical and more organic. The outcome is not only an attractive artwork, but a result of a relationship between artist and nature.

Salehi is framing the narrative so to speak by providing the audience with a work that pushes beyond the idea of limitation. Everything we see in these works is, if not intended, approved by Salehi. Every artist has the power to create, and they have the decision to abort. Even if his hand is hidden, the decision to maintain and showcase a work speaks something of the artist’s identity within the work.

Nehgar, Hadi Salehi, 2009

Hadi Salehi works with analog photography, which requires a chemical process to unveil captured images. It’s during this process that the artist is able to manipulate the images with various techniques. But it’s also during this process that the coalescing chemicals can produce unintended results, which Salehi refers to as “mistakes,” and which I referred to as “subjection,” finding it difficult to see these miracles as mistakes. For example, Salehi described that the circular void in the center of The Twins was produced when he touched the Polaroid with his thumb before the chemicals had completely set, which defaced the image. That inadvertent touch became a powerful focal point in the work adding a layer of mysticism.

Twins-Letters, Hadi Salehi, 2009

Another medium applied to these photographs is the artist’s calligraphy. In The Meadow the script fills the sky until dots of ink cascade across the woman and the surrounding landscape. And though the script might be difficult to read, especially those who don’t speak Persian, the written word compliments the visual narrative. It might even compete with the imagery, yet the overall work is balanced. Even without knowing the language, the fluidity of the Persian script imitates the visual lyricism. In Booceh the writing reads like a letter, but in Sokoot the script is used to sculpt form. The calligraphy is applied after the photograph has been processed and printed. Like an afterthought, this requires another layer of processing, in which the artist reflects on the “finished’ photograph. Salehi builds upon the photograph with a controlled process. Whereas the chemical process involved in the dark room was an organic play between chemicals that produced varying results, the process of calligraphy puts all the power of creation in the artist’s hand without sharing control with other mediums. And though the artist has a great deal of control over manipulating the chemicals in the dark room, calligraphy reveals the artist’s subconscious directly through his hand. His personality, his energy, his emotions, all flow through the ink and are revealed in the style of the letters. We see through the pressure, the flow, and the size of the lettering, whether condensed or prolonged, the artist using words not as a medium to tell a story, but more so to channel emotions. In these works we learn to read emotion.

The Meadow, Hadi Salehi, 2008

The analog process reveals the subject, but the calligraphy reveals Salehi. This is another layer of the relationship between the artist and the subject. Salehi is not using a transparent approach to showing these subjects. He is revealing his hand in the work, although at first glance, the artist does not appear to be present in his works. The analog process has the potential of creating clear images, but Salehi manipulates the traditional formula to give the image some visual texture. And unlike a preset filter that allows consumers to generate a variation of their image, analog photography creates solely unique results through technique and experimentation.

That unique process that only Salehi can create, is pregnant with philosophy, emotion, expression, acceptance, intentions, and surprises. And so when we learn that beyond these abstract meanings the works represent “universal themes of migration, family, resilience, joy, and solitude,” we can understand that the artist isn’t documenting an event or individual who through their very self or atmosphere reveal these emotions, but that the artist is revealing the unseen. The relationship between individuals and the layers of color, distortion, forms, calligraphy, light, and darkness are designed both intentionally and randomly to evoke the feelings of migration, family, resilience, joy, and solitude. An audience usually empathizes with what they recognize in a photograph. But in Salehi’s works, we don’t acutally recognize the image, because they are abstract impressions of what we know. And yet we still empathize with the feelings embedded within the images, because it’s not the physical forms that are important to recognize, it’s the feelings. There is something about its abstraction that pierces the layers of institutions that our minds build up around our imagination, both intellectually and emotionally. We are conditioned to respond to what we recognize, but when we face something new that we innately know is beautiful, yet we cannot intellectualize it because we have no frame of reference, we simply have to abandon our thought process and enter a vulnerable state to experience how what we are looking at is making us feel.

Talking Head, Hadi Salehi, 2017

Our world, our body, and our mind is created in layers. The illusion created by photography to mimic reality is truly achieved when the artist dissolves the captured image through the creative process. In Hadi Salehi’s Layers the sense of limitation becomes transparent. Salehi is a storyteller, and his stories are neither linear nor circular. The illusion of storytelling is that the audience’s imagination fills in the missing information, allowing the scenario to reach beyond the limitation of the storyteller’s design. In Salehi’s works, our imagination does not reach beyond the framework. Our minds and emotions go into the work. The story is not linear nor circular, it is reciprocal.


Layers, by Hadi Salehi is the artist’s first solo exhibition in the United States. Hosted by Advocartsy, curated by Roshi Rahnama. The exhibition will be on view at The Space by Advocartsy in downtown Los Angeles until November 3rd, 2019. The documentary film Layers was also produced in conjunction with the exhibition, directed by co-curator Bita Shafipour.

THE SPACE by ADVOCARTSY 924 S San Pedro St Los Angeles, CA, 90015


In Between Days, Hadi Salehi, 2008