The artist begins with a black canvas. In an effort to locate her body in relationship to the canvas, she assigns herself a task—to make an arch with arm outstretched. Slowly she applies the paint. Dashes of white trace the length of her arm. Hour by hour, she turns, circles and shifts the canvas until the surface is covered in tessellated scales of gray.
“In my paintings I’ve been drawing a lot of horizontal lines,” explains Nazafarin Lotfi. “I was thinking about language, going back to when I started as a seven-year-old kid, and how I learned to write in Farsi by drawing simple lines.”
“Untitled,” 2013, is a series of five blue squares. Each sheet of paper is marked with the hatching and cross-hatching of a Bic ballpoint until the pen runs dry. Layer upon layer of monotonous markings are transformed into delicate gradations of blue.
The artist grew up in the years after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. As a child she observed the teeming metropolis of Tehran where exhaust fumes mingled with the smell of jasmine. She imagined stories of buildings and the crows that sat gently perched on the telephone wires. The stories became drawings, and the drawings became animation, brought to life by a makeshift zoetrope fashioned from cardboard and carefully incised with vertical slits.
On a warm Sunday afternoon, I visited the artist in her small Hyde Park apartment. We went on a long meandering walk. “Living by the edge of the city, I see the line of the horizon,” she said. “It gives me a sense of grounding, locating, placing. It is a way of knowing.” In a series of digital photographs titled “Encounter,” made this year, she pixelates the line of the horizon line by placing a sheet of paper meticulously punctured with holes in front of the camera lens. No longer able to distinguish between earth and sky, foreground and background, the viewer is left in a state of disorientation.
In 2008, she left Tehran to study painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “Here I learned the language of abstraction.” In “Gray Field” from 2014, on display at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, thin lines are drawn and redrawn with pen and ruler. “In my paintings, you see what you want to see,” she explains. Often, interpretations result in the projecting of politicized narratives. “Someone told me this painting looks like the geometric arabesques of Islamic architecture. The funny thing is that I did not grow up surrounded by the decorative surfaces of Islamic architecture. I grew up in an ugly concrete building just like the buildings in Chicago.”
“What I have been told about the Middle East is not what I experienced.” Escaping stereotypes of how to be “Iranian,” the artist explores the space of abstraction as the space of possibility. (Annette Elliot)
Nazafarin Lotfi shows at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, 835 West Washington.