In her Interiors painting series, American Iranian-born painter Zahra Nazari draws on prominent features in classical Persian and Islamic architecture—decorative botanical motifs, arch, and particularly, iwan, the large, vaulted hall semi-enclosed and usually walled on three sides, with one end entirely open. Many scholars believe its origin can be traced back to the Parthian era. While looking at Nazari’s luminous surfaces, it may be interesting to keep in mind the dual role of the Persian arch—it serves both decorative and functional purposes—this richly decorated key aesthetic element in Persian architecture functions not only as an ornament but also as a structural support that provides stability. It is also designed to moderate the amount of sunlight that enters space, especially in iwans or other open spaces. Nazari’s frequent use of Mylar as a surface stirs a play on the notion of external and internal light, and simultaneously, her saturated color palette invokes a hot and arid climate with bright, sunlit days and crisp nights. Repetitive and rhythmical, these motifs coalesce into energetic, translucent, and luminous surfaces, evoking an interior space in flux. Zahra Nazari elaborates on her ideas and process in this interview with Art Spiel.
Tell us about the body of work at the Hollis Taggart show.
The works in the exhibition are selected from a recent and ongoing series called Interiors, mainly on mylar. Curated by Paul Efstathiou, Interply focuess on artists who use different materials in a unique way. In this series, I investigate the form, movement, and color of interior spaces physically and psychologically. These works are inspired by a wide range of significant architectural elements, from botanic decoration in classical Persian architecture to spiral staircases. The idea I have been exploring in these works is to achieve a sense of an endless space. The translucency of Mylar adds extra depth to the work because of the way it reflects the light.
Originally, I became interested in the idea of “endless space” based on Frederick Kiesler’s concept. This idea has roots in my sense of identity as an immigrant and the desire to create a unique environment based on drastically different elements and locations. The oval and circular forms are most prominent in these paintings. These both come from floral elements in architecture and the feminine side of the work, which is something new I have been exploring. I also see these interiors as a way of looking inward and internalizing my surroundings. These works are meant to reside between representation and abstract expressionism.
Let’s take a closer look at two of your paintings from your body of work at the Hollis Taggart show. What can you tell us about your process, ideas, color, and sources can you share?
The Blue Interior is largely rooted in my earlier inspiration from my homeland of Iran. It depicts a spiral staircase as a focal point and domes and arch forms from different perspectives. This piece represents recollections of different places and my journey as an artist. It invokes motifs and colors from Islamic-painted mosaics with floral imagery in deep blue. Growing up visiting archeological sites with my father sparked my interest in history and architecture. The arch form in many of these sites symbolizes unity, strength, and simplicity for a culture that has survived thousands of years with resilience.
Creating the work was similar to my regular process: I started by going through a series of images and selecting a combination of them, which I later edited out or combined for the sake of the composition. I start with abstract and gestural movement and then add more representational elements. The choice of a specific color palette responds to the emotions the piece inspires.
Pendent, one of my most recent pieces in the show, is a work on mylar, and like most of my pieces, it has architectural influences but in a more abstract way. It also has a more distinct color palette, a variety of purples and pinks, with some accents of blue to give it a more dynamic energy. As the title suggests, this piece has a suspension feeling to it as well. In the top right corner is the view of a dome’s interior with a window to the night sky. Balanced off to the bottom left corner of the tracks and rails of a spiral stairway.
In the past couple of years, I have been making two pieces simultaneously, sometimes as a diptych, but other times to develop these works in a way that they respond to each other and are in a dialogue. Pendent has a paired piece in the show called Seeking Light that, with its mostly blue palette, brings Pendent‘s warmer tone to light and vice versa.
You have several shows in parallel. Can you tell us about them?
I am currently part of an exhibition at Penn State University titled Invisible Bodies, curated by Emireth Herrera & the Border Gallery. This exhibition has been carefully curated to emphasize works about immigration, labor, and the contribution of migrants that are often overlooked. My piece Cuba to Spain, a part of my Uprooted series, is included in this exhibition. Funded by the Queens Council in 2019, I interviewed a series of immigrants in Queens, and each piece was created based on the narratives and imagery they provided. This exhibition opened on October 21st and will be on view through February 18th, 2024.
The other exhibition is also in Pennsylvania at the Main Line Art Center, where I was originally awarded the Meyer Family Award in Contemporary Art and a solo exhibition in 2016. The current exhibition is the Betsy Meyer Memorial Exhibition, 20th Anniversary Retrospective, where all the previous award winners showcase their work. I am exhibiting Night View of Persian Homes with Stained Glass Windows. The exhibition opened on November 10th and will be on view through February 17th, 2024.
All photos courtesy of the artist.
About the artist: Zahra Nazari (b. 1985 Iran) is a New York City-based painter, sculptor, and installation artist focusing on multicultural architectural themes. Nazari has given artist talks and participated in panels at institutions, including NYU, Columbia University, Cooper Union, and Pratt Institute in New York City. Her work has been reviewed and published in Artefuse, Art Review City, Hamptons Art Hub, Hyperallergic, and more. Nazari’s work has been featured in exhibitions at The Bronx Museum of the Art (New York); Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art (New Paltz, NY); High Line Nine Gallery (New York); New York Academy of Art (New York); China Millennium Monument (Beijing, China); and Saba Institution (Tehran, Iran) amongst others. Her work is found in private and public collections internationally. Nazari has been awarded the Creative Engagement Grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (New York), an AIM Fellowship from the Bronx Museum (New York), and a Visiting Artist Fellowship from MASS MoCA (North Adams, Massachusetts).
Interplay at Hollis Taggart Gallery 521 West 26th Street, Second Floor, New York, NY 10001 November 30, 2023 to January 6. 2024