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.