Nazafarin Lotfi at Regards, Chicago
Passing by the Yoko Ono’s billboard mural “HAVE YOU SEEN THE HORIZON LATELY?” on the side of the Ogden Museum of Art in New Orleans as part of the Prospect.4 triennial, I asked myself how an artist could take something so elemental as the horizon and remind the viewer to see it in a different way? Thinking of the notion of a simple line that we may take granted in our everyday life made me think of the deep approach of Nazafarin Lotfi to the meaning of horizon in her works. “The sculptures have an internal horizon line that is not accessible, but is imaginable. I like the horizon line because it touches both the land and the sky,”says Lotfi.
“Negative Capability” at Regards, is a recent solo-show by Nazafarin Lotfi, an Iranian artist formerly based in Chicago and now living in Tucson, Arizona. This show is the first solo exhibition since her 2014 exhibition Poiesis at Fernwey Gallery, Chicago, bringing together various mediums of multi-layered paintings, sculptures and, drawings for the first time under one roof. Through the years, distinct from many other Iranian artists both still in Iran and in the diaspora, Lofti has exerted a consistently abstract lingua franca in her work. Inspired by Siah Armajani (b.1939, Iran) and, in more recent works, Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935, Russia), Lotfi explores, in her words, “interior and negative spaces and their implications for subjectivity, experience, and identity.” Yet, what strike me the most in Lotfi’s work are the possible subconscious references to her memory of growing up in Iran and her concerns and questions these subjective, subtle abstractions poses for the audience. Coming from an Industrial Design background as an undergraduate at the University of Tehran, Lotfi’s forms, whether as a mass-produced chair or a distinct post-industrial sculpture containing newspapers with Persian and English text, show a deep attention to the way the objects are constructed, yet move these objects far from a functional referent.
I’ve been following Lotfi’s work since 2013 and this exhibition is one of the climaxes of her career with pieces that admirably speak to each other, respond to Regards’ austere space and also invite the viewers to contemplate their subtle references to both personal and broader political narratives. The necessity of such an exhibition in this complex and hectic time for an artist from Iran in the U.S. is not camouflaged to anyone. As there is presently a huge interest in the work of artists with political and social aspects depicted visibly in their works – particularly for Iranian artists – staying on the path of abstraction and avoiding flashy statements remind us that Lotfi’s objects are an invitation to keep calm and listen. This time enables an edifying silence of her forms that you need to get close to be able to read the details within. An inside that an artist is more in interested than an outside.
Throughout the exhibition, the work shows a clear attention to an object’s hidden and inaccessible parts. For instance in Mending Wall, Lotfi brings Persian text into her work through newspapers that she recalls collecting from the Westwood neighborhood in Los Angeles – a hub of the large Iranian diaspora community – where we see the English words written in Persian transliteration “Khitāb bi Farsi Zabān-hā” (Addressed to the Persian-speaking audience). Bringing this kind of material into her work raises up a question of how Lotfi, an artist who is typically hesitant to bring text, color and any exuberant intricate ornamentation into her work that would distract the audience from the unification of her work, here not only brings text, color and fabric into her work, but also applies text in her mother-tongue that is inaccessible for many in a Western context? To me this act proposes a polemical argument by Lotfi.
We fathom that the Khorasan newspaper, from one of the distinct political regions of Iran, and the artist’s hometown Mashhad, makes these geopolitical tensions ambiguous but present in the piece. Based on a short conversation with Lotfi, these newspapers were found in a package sent by her mother from Iran as a packing wrap – a subjective, familial trace. In a time that Iranians are banned from the borders of this land, what would be significance of these traces that came all the way from an allegedly hostile territory?
Throughout the exhibition Lotfi also uses a square frame for her paintings. Their square shape suggests fixation and immutability, perhaps again referencing Malevich’s square abstractions. Mending Wall, Vanished Like Smoke and, Open Facade offer a healing process to the concerns and upheavals that one has experienced related to the earth and place. As Lotfi has mentioned elsewhere, her work is about the interior spaces of objects which are usually inaccessible and, in this case, the inside gives us this hint that they grapple with complicated issues of isolation, identity, displacement and fear. Through this interest in inaccessible interiors, the work opens onto questions of inaccessible borders and citizenship, perhaps showing us what it is to be ‘inside’ yet excluded.
In the Domestic Dimensions series, the artist’s propensity to manipulate perspective in various dimensions forces the viewer to pause and think about the flat surface of the drawings. This series is inspired by the floorplans of domestic spaces such as the artist’s room, kitchen and studio. The first thing that comes to my mind as someone who has studied Islamic paintings for a long time is the structure of Persian miniatures that incorporates multiple perspectives (perspective chand vajhi). As one of the main characteristics of Persian painting that was especially common during the 15-16th centuries, this structure has an interesting commonality with the logical vision of Lotfi. Not to forget, these floor plans let us to observe the private and domestic spaces as a viewer that has no place there. However, an interesting aspect of these drawings is the coefficient texture of shading traced by pencil-coloring around the floorplans. This has made the white surface of the plans to be highlighted and bolded. Could this suggest the artist’s honesty and serenity within these domestic interior spaces versus the tumultuous outside?
Secrets from the Center, with its repetitive dark blue brush strokes constitutes a rhythm that this time brings “time” to the forefront. In this piece from 2013, which is one of the earlier works in the show, I cannot help but think about the bird’s eye view of gardens and yards that homes in the artist’s motherland are usually arrayed with- tiles that in 1970-80s Iran were used in all Iranian homes. Speaking of this floor covering, the image of the cover for the show references a childhood memory of the artist playing in the garden with her sisters pretending she was a bus driver navigating the city. Given Lofti’s consistently aimed abstractions, having this image as poster of the show articulates how an artist grasping from her past and memories into the work that is only hinted at, but remains undisclosed within the exhibition itself. The exhibition’s title, “Negative Capability,” references the capacity for an artist to exceed even their own intellectual understanding of a work. Through her singular pursuit of the horizon, in these works perhaps we see an outside after all.