“I focus on the body as part, and apart, of the environment. While I try to integrate with the environment, the conditions of being human limit me.” — Zehra Khan
I was introduced to Zehra Khan’s artwork prior to the lockdown in 2020, at “Fakeries,” her solo exhibition at Tiger Strikes Asteroid Chicago. I was taken with the gilded and fairytale-like yet humorous and accessible nature of her hot glue and gold leaf wall tapestries. I was also impressed with a reading event programmed in conjunction with Khan’s exhibition, “Praxis + Liberation, a reading,” produced by Char Lee, as a conversation about practice, which is the connective tissue of their shared work. Newcity spoke to Khan about this multidimensionality, which is a thoughtful reflection of a rich, material-driven, and generous approach to a restless studio practice.
Where did you spend your formative years? How long have you been based in Chicago? How does either inform the work you make, or not?
I was born in Indonesia in 1983. My Pakistani father was working as an architect, and my mother was a diplomat from Idaho. Moving for my parents’ professions led us to Paris for seven years, Switzerland for three, before moving to Lexington, Massachusetts at age eleven.
I went to Skidmore College, graduated in 2004. Then I got my MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art & Design in 2009, at a low-residency program at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. After graduating, I moved to Provincetown full-time for ten years, where I made art and worked odd jobs mainly as an artist assistant, which is what I still do.
I love attending art residencies and have been to a dozen or so. In 2018 I attended an art residency at Ox-Bow, which introduced me to many Chicago artists. They convinced me it was possible to live in the city and find an artistic community. I moved to Chicago a couple months later.
Jaclyn Jacunski was my studio mate, which has sparked a friendship and artistic dialogue.
I originally connected to Chicago by meeting Julia Klein at a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in 2012. (Julia Klein founded Soberscove Press in 2009, a Chicago-based independent press that publishes books about art and culture.) Julia volunteered to be a performer in a project I was working on at the time, “Johnny Flea and his Merry Maniacs Present The Circus,” and later I created a children’s book with her publishing company, Soberscove Press, with the book “A Sunny Day for Flowers.”
What are your current interests? Or what are you looking at, reading, smelling, eating, or listening to that you are excited about? How is this informing your work?
I’m continually watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Fascinated by the presentation of gender. I am very interested in what makes a woman or what is valued as feminine… As RuPaul says, “We are all born naked and the rest is drag.”
Painting on friends creates a social and collaborative side to making art. I wanted to break out of my solitary painting practice and engage with people differently in my studio. I always doodled and drew on myself and friends as a way to play and be informal, and as an act of trust and affection.
Body-painting puts immediate constraints on the painting session: work fast, react to the needs of the painted person or environment, and embrace the spontaneous. These are reminders to trust my gut, and the process informs my work in every medium.
Animals evoke fairytales, fables, religious deities and ceremonies. Using animals as protagonists allows for the viewer to distance themselves. My creatures act like humans, with the same habits and foibles. Rats became a particular favorite subject because of the strong reaction they cause in the viewer. Seeing one creature as opposed to a swarm.
What materials do you work with?
I like to use materials available on hand: found materials, trash around my studio, and recycled paper and cardboard. I favor low-tech materials and practices. I love the uniqueness inherent in objects that are made by hand; that reveal the mistakes and deviations.
What are some recent projects that you participated in? I thought your recent online performance, presented by The Moving Company and organized by Essex Flowers, looked really interesting and I’d love to learn more about that.
I participated in a performance Zoom-sharing event. It was very interesting creating a performance in my home, as opposed to in a studio or gallery. My performance was called “Indoor Light Making.” I painted on myself with acrylic paint, in an attempt to integrate within a nest of paintings and drawings on bedsheets.
I’ll try to describe your live virtual performance: painting dots on yourself while immersed in a nest of sheets covered in a hand painted polka-dot or pointillist style. As you paint dots on your body they begin to vibrate against the patterned drapery. The proliferation of dots in the foreground and background become camouflage and edges between figure and space blur. It creates a rich and confounding virtual space that flattens 2D and 3D space. It reminds me of Yayoi Kusama’s Body Festival “polka dot happenings” and painting on women’s bodies. I found this to be a playful yet intimate and interactive response to the quarantine and remote nature of the past year. Also the way you make eye contact with the camera or viewer makes me aware of my own looking or gaze, I am drawn to art that pulls me out of myself to have awareness of my perception. I am impressed by your unique way of organically weaving materials, experiences, and relationships together fluidly.
I started painting on people long ago, and realized that the act itself was intensely personal, and normally a private studio practice. I began experimenting with painting on people with an audience, inviting them into a kind of surreal look at my artistic process. In effect removing and divulging my process. I have done three live performances at art openings, starting with one at Gallery Ehva in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 2010. Kusama is a huge influence with her surreal playfulness. I am very interested in intimacy and home, which led me to work on bedsheets, blankets and make quilts.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a Chicago cityscape project for installation in the MANA library windows. I have always been fascinated by the make-up of the city, the stacking and clashing shapes of buildings, scaffolding and bridges. My hot glue shapes mimic the skyline seen from the window, while emphasizing abstract patterns.
I created a similar project during my art residency at Tiger Strikes Asteroid last February, when I installed hot glue shapes onto the window of the gallery. My upcoming project in the library offers a completely different view… A wide vista of the Chicago skyline.
And you have invited artist Jaclyn Jacunski to have a solo exhibition that opened in May 2021 at Tiger Strikes Asteroid Chicago. Tell me more about what you see in Jacunski’s work and why you selected it for TSA.
Jaclyn’s work demands interaction. I was immediately drawn to her work with reflective surfaces and bedazzled chain link fences. Jaclyn explores the visual language of barriers, and is influenced by the politics inherent with living in Chicago.
“Jaclyn Jacunski: Burning Oneself Out” is at Tiger Strikes Asteroid Chicago, 2233 South Throop, Unit 419, through June 26.