Iranian-American Zahra Nazari’s abstract architectural paintings bring together two distinct worlds
Zahra Nazari’s work is a unique composite of gestural abstraction and intricate architectural painting. This combinations creates a compelling visual narrative with a mixture of pure abstraction and geometry gives the viewer a reason to stop, stare, and wonder. Today, her artwork is known for its gestural rhythms, layered density, organic feel, and the use of architectural and floral influences inspired by traditional formats from her native land of Iran. The artist herself offers a captivating tale of an artist who risked everything to break into the New York artworld–more on this later.
After getting a sneak peek of her latest exhibition at Cinema Supply–the recently renovated former warehouse building at 217 W 21st Street in Chelsea, NY, and a tour of her new studio, Art Review City is pleased to share her unlikely, and often surprising, story with our readers.
The artist is a prolific creator, proactive with every aspect of her career. Nazari paints every day and is constantly completing new work. Since her emigration to the United States in 2011, she has participated in 18 artist residencies across the globe. The 37-year-old painter and sculptor has lived in New York City since 2015, and has created monumental and easel-sized paintings that have been shown worldwide. Nazari rejects the concept of focusing on just a single idea, instead utilizing broad composites of investigation which she has explored to the fullest across her 10-year professional career.
Her recent exhibitions include Uprooted at a temporary space in Queens, NY hosted by the arts non-profit Chashama– founded by Anita Durst; and Unification, a blockbuster exhibition at High Line Nine in Chelsea curated by Roya Khadjavi Projects. Her work has also been featured in collective exhibitions at Bronx Museum, Mana Contemporary, and Denise Bibro Fine Art, and appears in numerous public and private collections internationally.
Running through October 31st, 2022, Nazari’s untitled solo show is the first in collaboration with Cinema Supply. The exhibition offers 35 works in a retrospective format across three floors of the venue. Featured are her acrylic on canvas and mylar paintings which are uniquely inspired, balanced, and utilize interesting takes on space and perspective.
Nazari recently began the unique partnership with Cinema Supply, which provides space for working artists and modern businesses. Formerly Star Cinema Supply Company, the global supplier of cinema equipment in the 1970s and 80s, it has been home to painters, photographers, art dealers, and animation studios since the 90s. Working in her new lofty and naturally lit studio has allowed the artist to work on medium and large-scale paintings that combine flowy abstract elements, with nods from across the canon of art history, with classical Iranian and American architecture.
Nazari is passionate about letting the paint flow and drip naturally while she initiates a new painting on the studio floor. There is always that magical moment where she feels the work is close to being finished and puts it up onto the wall for the final touches that define her intricate paintings.
Her roots are strongly ingrained with Iranian culture in terms of heritage and personal experience as an immigrant to the United States. The paintings and installations she’s created in the US contain elements of identity, immigration issues, and how globalization is changing our perceptions.
Nazari knew from a young age that she was always going to be an artist. Her older brother was also passionate about the arts and spent many years acting and as a filmmaker and photographer before going on to become a professional architect and civil engineer. Her father is an interested and knowledgeable amateur archeologist and ancient artifact collector. Nazari accompanied him to many architectural dig sites, and was moved by ancient ruins and the historical objects he discovered. Persian history and art were important to the entire family, and like most Iranian families after the revolution in 1978-79, they were intent on passing the history to the younger generation.
Culture and language, and even family structured were ingrained in their history and in literature; kings, demons, and superheroes were documented in Shahnameh, or “The Book of Kings”, by the poet Abul-Qâsem Ferdowsi Tusi as one long continuous poem that talks about the mythical and historical past of the Persian Empire from the beginning of the world up until the Muslim conquest in the seventh century. Music is an equally important part of the Persian culture, as are carpets, calligraphy, mosaics, and floral paintings in traditional mosques. Nazari was raised with all of these artistic influences surrounding her life and getting ingrained into her mind.
Nazari quoted the Persian historian and archaeologist Arthur Pope:
The supreme Iranian art, in the proper meaning of the word, has always been its architecture. The supremacy of architecture applies to both pre-and post-Islamic periods. Iranian architecture displays great variety, both structural and aesthetic, from a variety of traditions and experiences. “a marked feeling for form and scale; structural inventiveness, a genius for decoration with freedom and success.
Nazari fully dedicated herself to painting in high school, with an early focus on photorealism, although her father was pushing her towards her other interest of art restoration, or even better, a more practical path with a steadier paycheck. The artist knew she was more interested in creating her own work. Her mother on the other hand was immensely more supportive of her continuing on as a fine artist, as she herself was passionate about the arts and was a gifted artist and creator herself, painting beautiful and ornate works on glass, making elaborate carpets, needlepoints and textile works, colorful clothing, and other crafts. Her mother was also a very modern woman who married and had children later in life, and was very successful as an artisan. Her brother was not as lucky, and did not get to pursue a profession in cinema or photography as he wanted to. His parents pushed him towards a more secure path with a stable income. He knew how much giving up on his dreams affected him, so he helped convince their father to let his youngest sister Nazari pursue a career in the arts as she had always dreamed about.
Reflecting on her Iranian heritage, Nazari states:
Life in Iran always had many unsettling times. All these events have shaped and influenced the style and subject matter in my work. I grew up during the Iran-Iraq war, and Iran’s revolution and rise of the current regime occurred a few years before I was born. In 2009, the Green Movement, or Persian Awakening, occurred after the Iranian presidential election, with numerous protests taking place since.
I left Iran one year after the Green Movement began, and I am now proudly watching the brave young women in my country who are demanding their rights. I am prouder than ever to be an Iranian woman.
After finishing her BFA from the School of Art and Architecture at the Islamic Azad University of Tabriz, Iran in 2007, there was the big question of what happens next for an emerging artist. Iran itself provided very limited opportunities for women, far less than in Europe and the United States, and she knew it was not the best place for her career. Though she did have a moderate level of success with a solo show at Baran Gallery in Tehran, and participated in exhibitions at Homa Art Gallery, Saba Institution, and others, but it wasn’t enough.
She began to build a commendable collector base, but still wanted to be more than just a local artist with just a moderate following. Being accepted into the MFA program at SUNY New Paltz in 2012 was the sea change needed to launch an international career, and escaped from everything holding her back in Iran as quickly as she could with nothing but her clothes and some of her favorite paintbrushes and art supplies.
Though unable to see her parents and brother for seven years after emigrating on a student visa due to the complex relationship between the US and Iran, she immediately knew she had made the right choice.
Her first few years were challenging with dealing with leaving everything she knew behind, and also still felt as an outsider looking in, while also trying to get comfortable in her new home and struggling to make it in the trying artworld. She knew in her heart that she would push through the challenging times ahead of her to share her message with the world.
Upon walking into her current career-spanning solo exhibition, one is immediately confronted by the monumental work Melody of the Oculus, Federal Hall. This major painting has prevailing tones of cooler purples and blues, with an abundance of light soaking every inch of the large 80 x 150 in | 203 x 381 cm 2017 acrylic on canvas work. It is the largest work in the show, and a solid introduction to the wonder that is Nazari’s amalgamation of abstraction and blueprint-type architectural renderings. The subject itself is a grant reworking of the historic building at 26 Wall Street, and the painting was originally created to hang at Federal Hall itself as part of the Portal art fair.
The building is actually part of the National Park Service as a national monument, so when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the US government, Portal had to abruptly change venues to 435 Broome Street in SOHO. Federal Hall is a historic building at 26 Wall Street in the Financial District of Manhattan in New York City. This Greek Revival–style building, completed in 1842 as the Custom House, and features a prominent oculus that lets in copious amounts of natural light.
The other paintings on the first floor of the venue are consistent in palette and composition with works from 2017-2018 inspired by architecture including Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International and the 520 West 28th Street condo building designed by architect Zaha Hadid.
When Nazari was painting in Iran, her work tended towards grays and monochrome compositions. New York has provided a positive influence on the now mid-career artist with a changing interest towards color, light, and energy that she didn’t previously articulate back home. This influence seeps into her work which often still begin with a monochrome palette, but she now tends to balance the compositions with a colorful glow built up with layer after layer of paint, in a manner similar to Brooklyn-based Kylie Manning or Romanian-born Lydia Dona.
Her work combines a foundation of gestural abstraction layered with detailed architectural drawings and renderings, creating a complex synthesis of the emotional and the analytical, and unlike these contemporaries, the fore and backgrounds merge together as equally important to the finished works. The clustered and buildings and interiors added onto the flower-inspired stained backgrounds are almost Cubist with its flattened geometric shapes suggesting the three-dimensionality of the architecture against the depthless ground, creating shifting planes and evocative new takes on perspective.
The second floor of the exhibitions is the artist’s most recent paintings from 2021-22, which take the concepts developed in the 2017-18 paintings and provides a more evocative imagery focusing on broader strokes, more flowing overpainting, and more attention on interiors and lighting. The contours of the insides of architectural works provide more of an internal thought process, which the artist mentions was a newer focus of wanting to see architecture inside out, with interiors more as metaphor.
These looser painted works emphasize mid-ground more than foreground, which creates a deeper and more organic blend of abstraction and reality. The scale and perspectives tend to further askew the buildings they are founded on, and most of the titles no longer reference specific architecture at all. The finished works tend to be more interesting, increasingly dynamic, and visually become a purer abstraction to the casual eye. There is a distinct purpose and direction, which evokes thoughts of a song seamlessly segueing into the next movement.
Her mark-making has noticeably advanced to a mastery level, and the range of linear subjects and variations in scale and color makes these newer works appear vastly distinct from any other artist, and also Nazari’s older work itself. Another advancement is a clearly visual pathing across the works, which lets the eye transition through the work in a slower, but more direct, way. The viewer is naturally draw in to spend more time with each painting.
Two of the most successful pieces in the show are the red and pink-tinged 56 x 43 in | 142 x 109 cm acrylic on canvas painting Stepping Up, and Condo #4, a lighter toned 60 x 45 in | 152 x 114 cm acrylic on canvas. The closest comparison would be late period Willem de Kooning or Arshile Gorky’s 1943 Garden in Socchi. Nazari’s images blur and play with the expectations. They hint at the subject matter, but do not invite the viewer to actually allow them to be completely understood.
These newer works begin with a color palette in mind, and are built up in thinner transparent layers than before. The story of how it was made is intrinsic in the work itself. The paint leads the path, and the end work shows the entire journey. With less brushstroke, more concise yet bolder colors, and more blank white surface area, they are the most mature and inspired works Nazari has created so far. A not-so-obvious influence for this series is actually James Turrell’s blend of light, space, and sky. She wants to create flattened pictorial spaces that blend the natural with the painterly.
Each floor in the exhibition presents a different space, range of emotions, and architecturally distinct feelings. She has fully utilized the presentation space to the fullest, and the works on the third and final floor tell yet another story. Merging her vast approaches and working on translucent mylar offer something impeccable.
Nazari intentionally used some of her older color combinations from back in Iran, and started many of the works with historical architecture for these paintings. These paintings are softer, and more delicate and airier than the 2017-18 works like the works on the second floor, and offer more specific architectural references in the foreground. Less densely packed in the frame, more light and open space, and the white of the walls show through the thinly painted mylar presenting yet another fascinating combination of elements.
The artist’s personal narrative shines through in this series with her interests in classical architecture, calligraphy, and Persian carpets. One can see that the artist digs deep into her past, yet presents history in the present. She observes what is happening in the world, and has even reflected on destroyed UNESCO World Heritage Sites in her paintings. She also taps into her Iranian roots and her family history of passion around classical art and architecture. She’s a proud Iranian, and its rich history as one of the oldest countries in the world is not lost on her, giving her works a unique perspective.
Because this exhibition space also housed the artist’s studio, there were a few unfinished works that she had just removed from the floor and hung on the studio wall to examine the layers of paint built up over several days. It was like a secret sneak preview of the next major works: one could feel the hours and days spent evolving these paintings, and how the underpainting was balanced and harmonious before Nazari would go back in to finish the architectural elements that just begin to appear in the first iteration of the piece.
Nazari’s work combines the best elements of 20th century abstraction with architecture from now and then, alongside a deep understanding of Iranian culture and history. This balance is personal, but also strategic, and has been serving her well since she first picked up a paintbrush in her youth, and remains one of the most interesting things about her work.
No matter what story is given to a particular work, the audience can still come to their own story and history. For Nazari, it’s not Persian, and it’s not American; it is a blend of everything the artist has seen, and everything she has experience. The artist encourages the viewer to understanding the references and her internal dialogue, but what she finds most satisfying is what her audience and patrons discover in the work.