Dividing his time between Brooklyn and Los Angeles, the 38 year-old artist Vahid Sharifian takes equal pleasure in dividing bodies in inventive paintings.
My most meaningful online experiences with erotic art have been extremely haphazard; it’s never as simple as pulling up a gallery site, appreciating what’s there, and going about my day. No. Because there is such an infinite range of work online, much of it unsourced, these euphoric moments — Stendahl digitized, if you will — often entail chance encounters on social timelines, reverse image searches, and even direct correspondence with the artists who’ve moved me. As a writer, COVID-19 has indeed bound my hands and limited my real-time engagement with art and its makers; yet with the shuttering of galleries, museums, and conventions (many of which will be permanent), artists are similarly bound.
Thankfully, it’s from within the shackles of pandemic circumstance that we’re able to — finally — make contact with one another, perhaps more authentically and effortlessly than before.
This fall, I worked up the nerve to slide into contemporary artist Vahid Sharifian’s DMs. I wanted to ask him about — of all things — penises. At the time, I was beginning a cinema project that, in part, explores penis envy, specifically where the femme fatale is concerned. Think: Sharon Stone’s ice pick in Basic Instinct. It was during this dick-crazed delirium that I first encountered Sharifian’s paintings through an off-the-cuff Instagram post by the American art critic Jerry Saltz. I knew I stood to learn from him.
In his work — exhibited internationally at Ropac Gallery (Paris) and the Venice Biennale — ethnically diverse subjects, often coupled or throupled, and often feminine, engage in sexual scenarios well beyond the limitations of the human body. At times, characters are dismembered or modified to enhance their pursuit of physical pleasure. While blood and bone have negative connotations in visual art, especially in depictions of women, these felt loving and important: pleasant arguments for bodily autonomy and self-determination. I saw femme fatales, and even myself, in his fantastically lash-batting ladies; especially when they were grasping or wielding their own surreal hard-ons in proximity to another.
Mercifully, Sharifian humored my questions. While he was quick to dismiss the rigid application of gender binary and sexual orientation to his artwork (good on him), his responses reaffirmed what many of us already know, but might need to hear again, and especially now: the body — unmodified, reconceived, or some variation of the two — deserves profound experiences with touch. And on a more political level, most of us — cis or not — don’t want to be wholly void of genitalia. One simply wants theirs to work in their favor.
As Sharifian illustrates, there are many ways of meeting that need — and many which have yet to be, and must be, imagined.
Pornceptual: How do you gender or sexually classify your subjects? Are they whatever the viewer wants to experience? Or they transcend labels entirely?
Vahid: Any label is overrated! They’re what they are. I think “gay,” “lesbian,” or whatever limits the nature.
P: Very well. How would you respond if a lesser art writer asked, “Why portray women with penises?”
V: I would say again, there’s no male, female, or trans in my paintings. They all are humans.
P: A few of your works feature animals – namely, dogs. Tell me more about the meaning behind all of the puppies.
V: Puppies are kinda symbolic in my paintings; they’re under control. The dog was the first animal that was trained by humans; they’ve become a part of our families. They have everything in their character that we do. They’re wild and calm, loyal and needy, all at once. Like the penis and vagina.
P: I’m so curious about your process of conceiving and delivering an artwork — ah, the metaphors of pregnancy are appearing. Just as they sometimes appear in your work. Do you experience euphoria or titillation when your brain conjures a new scenario?
V: About the first part when my brain conjures a new scenario, what I experience is creativity. I get full of joy when I nail it when painting. When I am reading a novel or poetry, sometimes there’s nothing funny in the words, but I start laughing suddenly because I find it unbelievably creative and unique. It happened a lot when I was reading Proust.
P: The work is so imaginative, as though you are rearranging puzzle pieces that will always somehow fit together, and their final image will always make sense.
V: Yeah! Sometimes, friends or followers will send me ideas, but when I do a painting. I am doubly careful. It could become a cartoon, a weird porn illustration, or material for a cliché meme. In order to create a new aspect of sex that is poetic, melancholic, and erotic, I select ideas very carefully. Even if it’s a wild scenario, I like to enjoy feeling the splash of warm blood on their faces.
P: You’re extremely prolific. Do you capture your ideas for paintings and save them for later, or do you work as ideas strike you?
V: Oftentimes, they come to my mind when I’m tired and about to pass out in bed! Hopefully, I’ll wake up to find my notebook to start writing or sketching them. It’s kinda like torture and orgasm at the same time.
P: You mentioned embracing gender fluidity in a past interview. Very cool. How do you identify sexually? Omnivorous? Your art certainly feels that way.
V: We all are. I never could understand why we’re looking for sexual and gender identification! Has Nature ever identified us? My neighbor has two dogs. One is called “she” and one is called “he.” They’re always playing and sometimes She, who is bigger and younger, tries to play-fuck him. They’re pretending, but they both enjoy it. I always say that the variety of genders is unlimited as the population of the world! “She” and “he” date back to religion and religion dates back to uncivilized tribalism.
P: Let’s talk about blood. I love that some of your images use it, even though the encounters depicted seem very pleasurable. Is blood innately violent to you?
V: Not at all. In my soul, blood is the total opposite. It’s a vital part of the body and the body is a part of nature! It’s beautiful. My figures haven’t been butchered. They’ve just been separated. Yet they are still alive.
P: Do you ever use symbolism? Your illustrations, even though fantastical, seem so serious, as though these are real encounters and body experiences that are happening in a world we’ve yet to even envision; a parallel earth where the life forms are far more evolved. I am thinking of the woman with a kangaroo pouch in her abdomen with a small dog tucked inside.
V: Some parts can be read as symbolic! It’s really up to the audience. Maybe sometime in future, we’ll have this next-level cosmetology! I do have my own world, which is real, but the reality of that only exists in my paintings. Maybe they’re enjoying those papers when I create them.
P: Do you have a favorite movie about reinvented bodies? Sometimes, when I look at your work, I think of Pan’s Labyrinth, Suspiria, The Perfection. I think of horror, but don’t feel horrified. These are all very beautiful films.
V: [Of the titles mentioned], I only can remember The Perfection! I’m obsessed with the history of cinema and I’ve been affected by movies as well as visual artists. I love acid western movies and folk horror movies like El Topo, The Wicker Man and, Midsommer; I also love movies by Peter Greenaway, Alejandro Jodorowsky. Pier Pasolini; Teorema is one of my faves! And imaginatively I think Lynch and Buñuel are my parents. Maybe I should make a movie…
P: Would you call your art fetish art? Insofar as these exaggerations of the body are often things kinksters enjoy; I’m thinking of blood but also the size difference between subjects (giantess fetishists), fisting imagery, etc. This isn’t to say that fetishes are wrong, of course. I think everyone has them.
V: “Fetish” is simply what happens when we spend more time on sex and making love. People are stuck in a capitalistic world that doesn’t let them to think enough or spending time on sex with their partners! It’s why this series of my work got more attention! I mean, people just “do sex” when they’re thirsty or horney, or — at worst — when they’re gonna make a baby. If we spend time on sex, a lot of beautiful obsessions come out. Some people call it “fetish,” but I don’t! They are very beautiful till the both side or all sides of a sec are satisfied with! I don’t call my works “fetish arts.” They’re just deeply natural.
P: So, fetish is a natural part of patient, continual desire?
Human desire is full of beautiful fetishes! You just need to get close to a flower to be able to smell it.