Sam Nejati: What Does It Mean to Be Human?
by Richard Whittaker, Jan 5, 2015
I ran across the work of Sam Nejati on Facebook. There was something about the first painting that made me linger, a simple shape the artist was exploring. It’s mysterious how hundreds, even thousands, of images fail to make one stop that way. Being stopped by a spectacular image is a different matter. I find it’s usually a short-lived affair. But as I looked at more of Nejati’s paintings, they continued to hold my interest. I wondered what the actual paintings were like and tried to figure out where he lived; I guessed New York or Brooklyn. That meant I could forget a studio visit. But I decided to send him a note, anyway. It’s nice to get a little appreciation, maybe especially from a stranger. A couple of days later I got a note back from Nejati: “Guess what, I live in Oakland!”
That was a welcome surprise and we set up a visit at his East Oakland studio. The artist greeted me cordially and, as we chatted, I quickly learned that Nejati is Iranian. He went to art school in Tehran and came to Los Angeles in the late 1990s. That was a big cultural shock, he said. “Everything is so scattered around in Los Angeles and everything seemed so fake.” And Nejati found no sense of community there. He moved to Palo Alto in 2001, where he was able to get his first studio in the U.S. Then, a couple of years later, he made his way to Berkeley. Some parts of it reminded him of Tehran, he told me, and he loved it. Later, he moved to Oakland because his work was getting larger and he needed more space. Although no place is without its problems, all in all he likes living here in the U.S.
As we talked, I soon realized that Nejati is a deeply philosophical man. For him, painting is a search of the kind that belongs to the era when the phrase “art, philosophy and religion” was in common usage. Each modality was seen as an authentic avenue toward the deeper possibilities of what might be humanly known. One never sees that phrase nowadays when any pretense to profundity outside of the realm of science is often taken as a sign of weak-mindedness. About this epistemological tilt, John O’Donohue said, “I feel that there is an evacuation of interiority going on in our times. We need to draw back inside ourselves and we’ll find immense resources there.”
I was interested in pursuing these questions as they were opening up. For instance, I was curious to hear more about what he was calling fake. He struggled to express what he meant. He spoke of fashion and how to keep from getting lost in its constant flux. And in the city everything is designed for people, he added. A lot of it is good, but something is off, imitation. In nature things are not imitations. For Nejati, spending quiet time in nature provides an essential kind of nourishment, a return to oneself.
It led me to ask him about an oval shape that appears in so many of his paintings.
“Those are like self-portraits,” he said. “The shape is a symbol of endurance. The paintings are very humanistic and reveal emotional essence.”
On his website, Nejati writes of what he calls, the aura of human virtues and spirituality that can be experienced on a universal level. I asked him what he meant by “virtue.” In response, he spoke of the spectrum of emotions. Quoting from his website, “Love, loss, memory, sorrow, drama are all attributes of the psychological state which constitute the aura of being and humanness. Everything in my art deals with the question, what does it mean to be human?”
Listening to Nejati, I had to appreciate how difficult it must be to express oneself in a second language on such challenging subjects. But I find his formulations often have a particular charm. His choice of the word “virtue” is an example. To think of emotional states as constituting virtues has an unlikely and welcome freshness. Finding words for such inner realities can be next to impossible, and it’s fortunate we have other forms of expression.
“Let’s just say I’m searching for utopia,” he said to me. Realizing how improbable that sounds, he added, “Anyway, there’s always the hope.“ And for good measure, “At the end, what stays is the honesty of one’s work.”
Calling on a phrase from the old days, I can only add, right on.