Zahra Nazari: Metamorphosing Gestures

Zahra Nazari, Tatlin’s Tower, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 68×56 inches, photo courtesy of the artist

In her lush paintings and complex installations Zahra Nazari draws largely on architecture and her Iranian roots both in terms of cultural heritage and personal experience as an immigrant, while utilizing gestural forms invoking early 20th modernists like Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in Munich, or mid century Abstract Expressionists in NYC. This fertile amalgam of cultural cues makes her work current and thought provoking. Zahra Nazari shares with Art Spiel her experience as an artist, her approach to art making and some of her projects.

AS: You were born in Iran, studied art both there and in NY. Tell me about your journey and what brought you to art. 

Zahra Nazari: My passion for art and specifically painting began to flourish when I was seven years old. Growing up, my family surrounded me with artistic practices: My older brother was an avid photographer, acted in theater, and directed documentaries. My father was a collector of ancient artifacts. My mother made carpets, clothing, and painting on glass. So, at seven years old, when I started painting, my family was very supportive and it was no surprise to them.

In my teens, I was formally trained in photorealistic painting. I began assisting other students and in return, I was granted free access to an art studio to create work and tutor others. Working in my own private studio was the first time in my life that I painted outside of my home in a professional setting. I still remember it feeling exceptionally comfortable, like I was in the right place. I was unable to see myself doing anything else. My art training continued throughout high school and college, when I studied painting from life with different mediums, then naturally coming to focus on surrealism eventually.

After my education, though, I found a number of limitations to the Arts in Iran. There are few major museums and the international art scene is rather small. While I wasn’t sure what I was missing, I knew that I too, was limiting my body of work, inspiration, and community. I knew that if I did not leave Iran, I would not escape these limitations. So, I immigrated to the US to pursue my master’s studies. Ultimately, I landed right where I want to be, in New York City, what I believe is the heart of the contemporary art scene. Besides my Masters, I have been able to further my education every day by seeing all the exhibits and artists that come through New York.

Zahra Nazari, 520 West 28th Condo, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 68×56 inches, photo courtesy of Jessica Davidson

AS: How do you think growing up in Iran, Iranian culture and art inform your art?

Zahra Nazari: While limited in the contemporary art scene, Iran has a significant ancient history, and with that comes a cultural impact that one can’t ignore. My hometown, Hamedan, for instance, is at least 2700 years old and believed to be the oldest inhabited city in Iran. Many historical sites around the country are UNESCO world heritage sites. Additionally, there are magnificent palaces and mosques from the 16th and 17th centuries, where I spent years exploring and appreciating.

My own curiosity about architecture and physical space was driven by the architectural elements from the Four Iwan Style mosques, with spacious courtyard and massive columns. These monuments are delicately decorated with painted mosaics and calligraphy, which in a way, bridge between art and architecture.

My visits to archaeological sites and ancient ruins left a significant impression in my mind, which later on became an important inspiration for my work.

AS: You are working in both painting on the wall and painting installations which engage the inner space of the gallery yet they still seem to be mostly flat. Tell me about the relationship between them and the genesis of your installation. Let’s take “Inside Out” from 2014 as an example.

Zahra Nazari: After many years of paintings with architectural subject matter, I became more and more interested in the architectural spaces. Never having left my memory, the way space is used in the design of ancient Persian architecture influenced my creative process. I started using cutaway devices to reveal the interior abstraction of buildings in my work. As a continued gesture of acknowledgement to these ancient designs of space within architecture, I started making work intended to be immersive. I wanted onlookers to feel a part of the pieces. This was the genesis of “Points of Departure, my first large-scale installation.

I took great pleasure even in the process of hanging the installations, and continued exploring spatial dynamics with “Inside Out.

Zahra Nazari, Inside Out Installation, 2014, acrylic on wood panels, 100x110x36 and 48x30x36 inches photo courtesy of the artist Site-specific Installation, Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Arts Center, MD

AS: In “Points of Departure” at the Samuel Dorsky museum, from 2014, you create a vibrant dialogue between ceiling and floor. The shapes from the ceiling remind me of a Baroque celestial scene and the flat rectangles on the floor reflect the turbulent scene on top with a geometric rationality. What was your idea and process behind this exhibition?

Zahra Nazari: “Points of Departure”, installed at Samuel Dorsky Museum merged ancient and contemporary architectural forms. This resulted in large-scale painted structures surrounded by suspended architectonic shapes. The installation’s elements relate both physically and artistically to the Music Room of the Ali Qapu Palace in Isfahan, Iran. The Music Room’s objective was to resonate sounds and beauty upwards, towards the Shah, so does the visual flow of “Points of Departure”. I made a connection between Middle Eastern kite building and the design of postmodernist buildings, specifically the Hearst Tower in NYC, in which the contrast of its base structure with its tower is an exquisite combination of old and new. At the museum, the audience was able to walk around the installation, and while doing so, look up to watch these light hanging papers drift on wafts of air created by the onlookers’ own movements.

Zahra Nazari, Points of Departure Installation; (back view) 29 Architectonic kite forms and 2 shaped canvas structures, 2014, acrylic & ink on canvas and Asian paper, 60×35 to 18×40 inches (suspended pieces) 100x73x30 and 73x 210x 30 inches (freestanding pieces), photo courtesy of the artist Site-specific Installation, Samuel Dorsky Museum, NY

AS: And “Metamorphosis” in 2015?

Zahra Nazari: While I was a teaching artist in residence at the Cooper Union, I created “Metamorphosis”. As Cooper Union’s New Academic Building (of the architectural firm Morphosis) was designed inside out, so too was “Metamorphosis”. I finished the interior paintings before completing the outside of this installation, which was to represent the exterior. The gray tone color and usage of aluminum sheets are all reflected in this piece as it echoes the Cooper Union building’s structure.

The way this piece was hung enabled the audience to enter and see the abstracted imagery of looking inside out. The inside was painted very minimal and referred to seeing the outside through a glass, reflecting on how we see our surroundings differently according to what side of the glass façade we are standing. 

AS: Let’s talk about your paintings. I see in them a strong calligraphic element. Like “Revolve”, 2018 or “Chinese Temples”, 2017, “Persepolis”, 2017. What is your take on that?

Zahra Nazari: My artistic education in Iran included Persian calligraphy. That training is still beneath the surface, and it comes out in my paintings every now and then. The repetitiveness of lines and curved forms in some of my work can easily be read as a decorative calligraphy. 

AS:  It seems like your earlier paintings read as more explicit narrative landscapes, like “Fall of Waiting,” 2008 or even “The Observer’s Eye”, 2016, and then you are still referring to landscape and architecture but in what appears to be a more abstracted way, as in “Tatlin’s Tower”, 2018.  Do you see that as a direction or rather as parallel exploration?

Zahra Nazari: I see these works as parallel exploration. I started as a photorealistic painter and gradually moved to surrealism. “Fall of Waiting” was a part of my body of work around then. Eventually, by the time I started my master studies I became more of an abstract artist. In my work I go back and forth between bringing more details and refining elements, versus creating more loose and abstracted areas. There is a part of me that can’t let go of bringing realistic elements to the work.

Zahra Nazari, Transformation, 2017, Exhibition View, The Gallery at Penn, PA, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: I see on your web more work on mylar in 2019. And It is has a different presence and flow than the work on linen. What can you tell me about it?

Zahra Nazari: Mylar is a tricky material but once I got a hold of handling the paint on the surface, I found it difficult to stop working with it. I first tried out working on Mylar in 2015 and wasn’t really satisfied with the result. In late 2017 I gave it another try and this time fell in love with the texture and surface. 

The different flow you mentioned is due partially to the longer process of drying as well as the slipperiness of the Mylar, itself. In order to add layers, the paint must be left on the paper over night and because of the low viscosity of the paint, the piece must remain flat on the ground to dry. Layers of transparent paint on the translucent martial add another dimension to the work and give it more depth and room for breathing.    

Zahra Nazari, Pink Mosque, 2019, acrylic on mylar, 56×42 inches, photo courtesy of the artist
Zahra Nazari, Fantasy, 2019, acrylic on Mylar, 42×56 inches, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: Where do you see your work in context of contemporary art?

Zahra Nazari: My work is often categorized as abstract expressionism because of the gestural forms in the paintings. But integrating elements of my personal experience- my immigration and memories of my home country – adds another level of context that is more contemporary. 

Zahra Nazari, Point of Focus, 2019, acrylic on linen, 72 x 51 3/4 inches, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: What are you working on these days? 

Zahra Nazari: One of the projects that I am currently working on is about immigrants in Queens, funded by The Queens Council On the Arts and The Puffin Foundation. 

This current project is my most experimental yet. Up until this point in my career, my artwork has always been a solitary expressive form; a visualization of my own feelings about home and transition, both cultural and physical. My current project explores the stories of immigrants in Queens, using not mine, but their physical and emotional transitions to inform my art.

While my artwork is not political in nature, I do find this project extremely relevant to the current political climate. I believe that anti-immigrant sentiment is largely due to lack of empathy for the immigrant experience. Since my work is so closely tied to experiences over the course of my immigration, viewing this series will be an opportunity for the audience to share in this state and hopefully walk away with a sense of emotional growth.

Zahra Nazari in her studio. Photo Credit: Dino Reyes