Zahra Nazari’s recent work, now on view in an exhibition curated by Roya Khadjavi Projects at the High Line Nine, treats the built world as a site for exploring the tensions between representation and abstract expression. For Nazari, it’s also the lynchpin for merging different worlds of experience into delicate harmony. These paintings and sculptures attempt several syntheses at once – of time, style, and aesthetic traditions – and largely succeed, peppering visitors with dynamic meditations on form and color. More compellingly, though, they also push us to confront the psychology of architecture.
Nazari’s most powerful paintings offer up fragments of memory, at once specific and vague. In “Pathway,” a striking sketch of acrylics on paper, we’re given the partially rendered outline of an interior walkway retreating to its vanishing point. Nazari’s confident lines, composed of blues and blacks, provide the distinct sense of a place remembered even as other identifying details, like texture and decoration, have been washed out by time.
These get filled in somewhat by “Elements of Design,” which provides a greater sense of depth. Here we get shadows and gorgeous splashes of color that build out a more fully realized space. Nazari’s impressionistic accents are paid for, though, with the retreat of the strong lines that powerfully structure “Pathway.” The lines are now slightly out of focus, slowly bleeding into the general background, or disappearing altogether in the distance – a hint, perhaps, that Nazari is subtlety postulating a theory on the mechanics of mind.
The progression away from realist representation toward riotous abstraction continues in “Elements of Design #2.” In this work, color overwhelms the hallway’s architectural design, which in disarray, as if reflected by a shattered mirror. These three paintings, in sequence, lead us to an uncomfortable truth: memory won’t allow us to have it all. Our minds may register and recall specific details of an experience, or its broader gestalt, but not both at once. As we attempt to isolate one, the other grows obscure.
Nazari pushes on this paradox more explicitly in a series of studies of Persian architectural design. Two of them stand out. “The Complexity of Looking” hums with clean, unbounded expressions of color, but the representation of the space itself feels rough and distracted. Conversely, in “The Complexity of Looking #2,” Nazari articulates her detailed study of a domed interior with great intensity, but the colors are dim and muddled, suggesting a resonance that’s registered but not recognized.
It’s here that we find entry into the exhibit’s central insight, namely, that the designed world not only shapes our experience of the social world but profoundly conditions our memory of the past. This is as true for the individual as it is for the group. Buildings, and the architectural aesthetics underpinning them, express the relations of power that govern privilege and place in organized society, and bolster the civilizational myths that animate national identities – not to mention the struggles waged in their defense.
Nazari underscores this point in her study of the opulent Ali Qapu Palace in Isfahan, once the home base of the ruling Safavid dynasty, and gateway to its administrative seat of power. There’s no mistaking the wealth invested in its vaulted ceilings and the overpowering delights of color that radiate from all directions. Similarly, in “Beyond the Visible World,” Nazari allows us to luxuriate in the fine contours and colors which breathe life into another Silk Road-style interior, gesturing to the ways that architectural majesty functions to legitimate earthly rule by connecting it to the spiritual transcendence which these spaces encourage.
More broadly, Nazari’s work recognizes that just as aesthetic design conditions our sense of the present and past, it also informs the bridges we build to the future. Nazari grapples with these possibilities in a succession of architectural “deconstructions” on paper and mylar. They’re a noisy lot. Far from the calm order of her Persian sketches, these works are jammed-packed with competing shapes, sharp edges, and bleeding colors, seemingly intended to express the frenetic arrangement of our modern sensibility, but held together by Nazari’s sense of compositional balance.
If the deconstructions represent the contemporary state of architecture, they are complemented by a series of meditations that look to the future of urban space and design. The spirit of the late Zaha Hadid inhabits these works, which urgently integrate the influences of history and culture but envision new frontiers in form and function. Nazari fulfills this promise most compellingly in “Unification,” a stainless-steel sculpture of sweeping, interlacing lines that recall Hadid’s masterful feats of engineering, and beautifully recalls the wild-stylings of Reza Mafi’s calligraphic art.
But it’s in her futuristic turn when it hits you: Nazari’s work is empty of people, an especially haunting recognition in light of the ravaging Coronavirus pandemic which turned thriving cities into ghost towns overnight. Considered alongside the growing threat posed by irreversible climate change to the world’s coastal metropolises, Nazari’s futuristic dreamscapes, with their lurid blues, purples and grays, take on a different weight. She offers the first inklings of a future that aesthetically reconciles the past. Whether we’ll be around to see it, or in what state, remains an open question.