Between intuition and intention: drawings by Nasim Hantehzadeh

The organic, amorphous forms that populate Iranian-American artist Nasim Hantehzadeh’s large-scale drawings occupy a space between abstraction and figuration. She describes her work as responding to the liminal space between memory and experience. At first glance the forms seem purely abstract, but as your eye travels across the plane of the drawing a subtle narrative begins to suggest itself within the composition. Do the shapes depict stylised figures or flora and fauna making up a landscape? Circular forms recur, reminiscent of seedpods and fertility motifs. Nasim’s visual language embraces and heightens this ambiguity, as she explains “I allowed the forms to create a sense of narrative or a sort of figuration.” It is up to the viewer to derive their own read of Nasim’s visual language and compositions.

Working in oil pastel and graphite pencil, Nasim employs a loose and repetitive style of mark-making. Using circular strokes, she laboriously colors in areas of the drawing and builds up depth whilst leaving the paper still visible through the marks. This style of working draws attention to the mark-making and process of creation. The interplay between positive and negative space as well as tactile sense of surface pulls the viewer towards the drawings, to explore the details and begin to decipher the narratives.

Nasim received her MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles. She has participated in numerous group shows and solo presentations as well as been invited on residencies in Italy and the US. This summer she will join the MacDowell Colony artist residency programme and has a solo show scheduled for the end of the year in Mexico.

AMM: Hi Nasim! Growing up, did you always know that you wanted to make art? What is your earliest art-related memory?

NH: Hi Layla, I knew that I wanted to become an artist since I was nine. I started drawing the images from my childhood sticker collection with color pencils when I was around the same age. I would draw them on A4 paper exactly the same as how they look. Sometimes I would change the color combination. As a child they were so precious to me.

AMM: How has your art changed over time? What has inspired or informed these changes?

NH: My work is relevant to my memories and experiences. Now is an experience, the minute before now is a memory. Memories and experiences can merge. Like how you taste a food in a new restaurant and the experience reminds you of a memory, like the food that your grandmother made for you when you were a child. That is when you have the memory and the experience merge. For me, location and time are elements that would influence the memories and experiences the most.

AMM: In what ways does your art express your own emotional and psychological state of being?

NH: For me, the process of making artwork is personal, however when the artwork is finished and on view in the world, it actively becomes social. It is not about my emotional and psychological state of being, it is about the conversation that the artwork creates with the viewer.

AMM: You’ve developed a stylised abstracted visual language of organic-like forms. Please tell us more about this and why you’re drawn to abstraction.

NH: When I moved back to the United States from Iran, I started a process of making everyday drawings in my sketchbook. Overtime, that mark-making in my sketchbook developed into a visual language. I allowed the forms to create a sense of narrative or a sort of figuration. The process is intuitive, yet intentional as I decide to keep the marks and gestures on the surface of the paper.

AMM: Do the abstract forms within your compositions have figurative associations for you? How should we begin to understand the narratives in your work?

NH: They do, I look at them as entities, or figures that do not have a specific social identification. For me, even the background is an entity.

My work taps on the juxtaposition of experience and memory, the state of being in between them, or have them overlap, separate, or become one. When I think about memories and experiences there is always a feeling there, an emotional state. During the process of making, the memories and experiences are also being processed inside my head. However, the process is so immediate.

I would like the viewer to enter the work starting from the colors and slowly move on to the gestures. I want the viewer to experience the process, similar to how I experienced it when I made the work. However, after the work is finished, I have to spend time with the work in order to understand it. In order to clarify what those emotions are loudly speaking about. And then I start the titling process. The titles are inspired by the conversation that I have with the work when it is finished. As if I am becoming the viewer of my own work. Usually the duration of my conversation with the finished work until I get to the titling point is a month or two. The title can be a clue for the viewer as well in order to get access to the narrative.

Nasim Hantehzadeh: Cloudy Day, oil and oil stick on canvas, 84 x 72 inches, courtesy of Gildar Gallery

AMM: What does your studio look and feel like? Do you have any rules or rituals for the space?

NH: My current studio is located in Downtown LA. I spend most of my time there. I have dedicated a small space for reading and office work, and the rest of the space is being used for art making. My art materials are usually placed in the middle of the studio, and I use the walls to make work. I can’t really store anything by the walls.

I usually read, write, or do research in the morning, spend the afternoons for running errands outside studio, and spend the evenings on making art. I can switch my schedule around but it usually looks like that.

AMM: In what ways do you use art as a form of social and political commentary?

NH: I don’t think I use art as a form of social and political commentary. I practice art. When I am in my studio, I think about the conditions that social structures impose upon the movement of human bodies in public, inside domestic space, and in nature. In particular, I am concerned with the violence that human civilization continues to perpetuate, whether consciously or subconsciously, and the way society normalizes this violence through the oppressive patriarchy that is concealed in systems such as nationalism, colonialism, and religion.

AMM: What themes or ideas are you currently exploring in your work?

NH: Currently I am interested in the freedom and the limitation that my studio space suggests. If I think of the human body as an entity or a solid form in space, my inclination to categorize people as I have been categorized diminishes, and I no longer think about otherness. Having that in mind, I imagine my studio space as a metaphor for social spaces. I cover the entire studio wall with paper and start with applying forms and gestures on the surface using a graphite stick. I walk from one side of the studio to the other. Sometimes I climb a ladder to reach the top of the paper and draw from the top towards the middle, while climbing down. After I apply the final gestures, I use oil pastel and color pencil to introduce color to the surface.

Though there is an implied freedom in this process, limitations still exist—like those that my studio space gives my body while I am making the work, affecting my decisions in making marks on the surface. My decision-making changes as the space in which I work changes.

AMM: Can you tell us more about the interplay between intuition and spontaneity for you while you’re working? Have you always worked this way?

NH: Sure, the moment that I start the process of mark making on the surface, I let the marks become the leader, however, that does not mean that I don’t have any control over the marks. Every mark that I decide to keep on the surface is intentional. I have started working this way after I moved back to the United States about eight years ago.

AMM: Your color palettes are restrained, and in your current work are muted and earth-toned. How does this relate to the subject of your work?

NH: I use color as a tool to attract the viewers’ eyes. The affection that color creates between the work and the viewer slowly leads the eyes towards forms.

Nasim Hantehzadeh: When the moon is out, oil pastel, color pencil, and graphite on paper, 46 x 60 inches

AMM: How do you use materials to explore the concepts or themes in your work?

NH: I am interested in experimenting with materials. There are so many possibilities in the simplest materials. Every time that I go back to the studio, I would like to re-teach myself different ways of using materials that
I personally enjoy.

AMM: In many of your artworks there is an interesting tactile element. Please tell us about your thinking around surface and texture in your art?

NH: I move the oil pastel in a way to keep parts of the paper visible, that way the viewer is aware of my hand movement over time, similar to when the viewer looks at brush strokes in a painting.

AMM: Where do you look for daily inspiration?

NH: I don’t look for them, they surprise me.

AMM: What mediums do you work in and why?

NH: Right now, predominately working with oil pastels, color pencils, and graphite on paper. I am interested in the immediacy and the directness of the material. For instance, using a graphite stick is a way to balance the movement of my hand with my conscious and subconscious decisions. That way I am able to translate that decision-making to a visual language on the surface.

AMM: What does working sculpturally offer you?

NH: The process of making three-dimensional work is inspired by the forms in the large-scale drawings. I carve the forms out of Styrofoam with a hotrod knife, as if I am drawing. The choice of material is based on the concept of the series that I work on. When the work is physically in the space, it challenges the forms in the way that they are being perceived.

AMM: What is your process of working?

NH: I don’t plan my work in advance. Every mark I keep on the surface is intentional, but I intuitively approach the process.

AMM: What are you reading, watching, listening to right now?

NH: I like reading and listening, not a fan of watching. Right now, I am listening to a few audio books such as The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, Orientalism by Edward Said, The Golden House by Salman Rushdie, Xenogenesis by Octavia E. Butler, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, and Discipline and Punish by Foucault.

I am always thirsty for poetry. Recently I have started to re-read Gulistan by Saadi Shirazi, and Jimmy’s Blues and other Poems by James Baldwin. I am also interested in reading diaries, notes and writings of other artists. My favorites so far are Louise Bourgeois and Maria Lassnig.

AMM: Any exciting projects we should know about? What’s next for you?

NH: Making art is the exciting project. I am happy that I will be joining the MacDowell Colony artist residency this summer, and working towards a solo exhibition that will be placed at Paramo Gallery in Guadalajara, Mexico towards the end of this year.

Find out more about the artist: www.nasimhantehzadeh.net

interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

Nasim Hantehzadeh: Floating on the river, oil pastel, color pencil, and graphite on paper, 58 x 76 inches