Portraits of the CEO as a Young Man: Nir Hod’s Budding Geniuses

Brushstrokes of Genius An installation view of Nir Hod’s exhibition of new paintings and sculpture at Paul Kasmin Gallery (Photo: Paul Kasmin Gallery)

Thomas Edison defined genius as one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, but he failed to mention the personality quirks, secret knowledge, and megalomania that often come along for the high-IQ ride. That’s where Nir Hod comes in. The Tel Aviv-born, New York-based artist (pictured at right) offers his own fascinating glimpse into exceptional beings with his first solo exhibition at New York’s Paul Kasmin Gallery. On view through Saturday, “Genius” consists of constellations of off-kilter kids whose sfumato surroundings, accusing eyes, and wafting cigarettes are as compelling as they are disturbing. Hod’s painted tots, with their arched eyebrows and superior hairdos, are knowing, demonic, and louche. Some stop just short of cartoonish, while others evoke the wacky proportions of folk art and lush ensembles of court portraits. More than one could be subtitled “Portrait of the CEO as a Young Man.” We talked to Hod about the origins of these spooky yet magnetic creatures, his working process, and what’s next for him and his jaded little rascals.

The work in “Genius” was three years in the making. Where did you begin?
I’ve always been fascinated by beauty and destruction. I’ve always liked the border between low tech and high tech, low taste and high taste, and this twilight zone when they mix together. I also started to read a lot about different kinds of taste, from very extravagant to weird decoration. A lot of the time, I have to say, I said “genius” about things that are really not genius. It’s easy to look at things, a look or a decorative style, and call it genius, especially when you see things from the past, particularly from the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.

What are some examples of things that struck you as “genius”?
One example was images from when people used to smoke on planes or on TV. When you look at it today, it looks so weird, but in such a beautiful way, you say it’s genius.

Where did the spooky children come in?
Everything started with this child that I did a single painting of for a show, an installation. The installation was supposed to be like an estate of a very extravagant personality, someone like Yves Saint Laurent. The collections that powerful people tend to surround themselves with are of very naïve, innocent images, but I was looking for something that would have some kind of twist. I wanted something that would tell a new story and take something we would call familiar and give it a different look, almost a new existence.

So I painted this child. I started with an image of a child that I photographed, and then for the first time in my life almost, or in my career, I made it looser and used more of my imagination. Before that work, I considered myself more of an image maker or a storyteller, and it was very important for me to be very precise about the images I used to work from. With this one, I decided to be more interpretive.

And how would you describe that interpretation?
I made this child, but I wanted him to have an impact or an attitude of somebody who knows something that we don’t. Especially when you see this in a child, it makes it more interesting, because we see children as people we are supposed to teach and play with. I wanted to create an image that would be more striking, that would look at you in some weird way.

From left, Hod’s “Genius ‘Rodhin,'” “Genius ‘Yoel'” and “Genius,” all 2010. (Photos: Paul Kasmin Gallery)

Did you have references or inspirations besides the photograph you mentioned?
I looked at a lot of portraits of very sophisticated people or the very rich or those with very strong personalities. They often have something very bitter and nasty in their expressions. I think it’s because they hold knowledge or they hide knowledge. They have something that they can’t share, and usually this makes them feel far superior to other people. This is especially true, for good or bad, if you’re talking about geniuses.

What led you to continue exploring these budding geniuses?
This child I painted has a very mature, kind of nasty, spoiled affect. It was hanging in my studio for some time, and all the time, visitors had something to say about this child. And I said, “Yes, this child is a genius. You have to talk about him in a different way, with different tools or a different perspective.” The way he’s holding his fingers, I wanted it to look as if he’s holding something or like in the wax museum, where they freeze life in a moment. We all kind of really like it but just for a short time.

And that’s where the cigarettes came in?
Instinctively, I put a cigarette in his hand—this had no meaning at the beginning—and it felt so right, because he became like a thinker or almost like a philosopher. It makes him more of a dandy and more timeless. There’s something very bohemian about it. And I always base my imagination on this kind of Dorian Grey and Oscar Wilde idea, all these dandy paintings. It seemed really right for this child. The combination of the way that he’s looking at you, staring at you, and something about the child with a cigarette, it becomes something so genius for me, in a cynical way and at the same time in a very romantic way—as a painting and also as an image.

All of a sudden, it felt so right and so tight. The narrative suddenly became so special: the way the child is holding the cigarette, the way he’s looking at the viewer, and that’s how I started. Over the next three years, I created this new world, and I worked from it.

The installation of the show at Paul Kasmin evokes an estate. Can you talk about how the work is presented?
We talked a lot about how to present the work, and from the beginning, as I was working, I knew that I wanted to hang it salon-style. Part of the reason is to group them the works by their strange color combinations, many of which are taken from different time periods or media, like poster art or advertising of the 1970s and ’80s. And I thought that when you walked through it, arranging them that way would make it so emotional, so romantic. This work doesn’t play games, I mean about what is right and what is wrong.

So it was more about feeling and look, nothing more than that, which I really believe in. To be honest with myself and the paintings, it was important just to hang them in groups but still in a salon style. I looked a lot at installations of shows from the 70s and the 20s. I just wanted to create a balance between the past and the present, something timeless that evokes different ways to present paintings, in estates or at Sotheby’s and Christie’s when they’re showing someone’s personal collection.

What are you working on now?
I’m continuing to do a few more geniuses and also some sculpture, but I want to create much bigger paintings. I think the paintings work so well in this scale [of the current exhibition], but I want to go to a larger scale. I’ve started on this new body of work, and it’s not completely different, but it takes these geniuses to a completely different narrative. It’s going to be very touching.

Even when you see the geniuses, you’re struck by a combination of beauty and loneliness, because there’s all this nastiness and attitude, but there’s also something very lonely. So I’m looking closer at this idea of beauty and loneliness, or beauty and death, and last year I started a project called “Mother” with a painting based on an iconic black-and-white photo from World War II. And it’s part of a larger body of work that will be shown next year at the Tel Aviv Museum. I just want to continue with this kind of mood and style but to take it to a different level. I even want to do landscapes, which I never thought I’d touch, but I’m thinking about the right way to touch landscapes. They would also have the same feeling and attitude of the geniuses. It’s almost like genius landscapes.