Works by Iranian-born, Chicago-based artist Azadeh Gholizadeh are on view in “Dawn to Dusk” at Goldfinch gallery. As the major exhibition opened of tapestry and embroidered works, on view until April 9, Newcity spoke with the artist to discuss the pieces and how her process of making has evolved over the past three years.
How much do Iranian tribal textiles and weaving traditions inform the language of these tapestries?
There’s some influence of Persian miniature paintings and rug design that I grew up with, surely. I’m interested in the borders of these works, on the potential of what they can and cannot hold. Similar to Ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock prints, the perspective is flattened in a way that captures the nuances of the landscape. These may be at the back of my mind, but the patterns don’t come from Iranian textile design at all. There may be a partial translation of mosaic designs from mosques or Persian gardens of historic sites in Iran. But the forms truly emerge from the landscapes I experience here.
How do your drawings inform your fiber works, or is it vice-versa?
I like shifting between mediums, as it influences my perception of the medium and the way I can use it. This body of work developed from a small work I now keep in my home. I love keeping firsts of any new body of work, as I feel like it is an opening into a whole new world. It started with a wire mesh I used in my earlier sculptures. I wound thread around a square within the mesh to enclose its opening. I love the square and the infinite nature of the grid. It moves beyond mere surface level entanglement, and I feel like I am not limited by any proportions of form.
How much does scale matter in this body of work?
A lot. It’s almost part of every concern, while “Blue” (2021), is a smaller-scale piece, the mathematical methodology of making it is identical to the making of, say, “By the Campfire” (2022). I break the grid at every two points on both, but because of scale, they read totally differently when standing before them… “Blue” reads as more pixelated, and “By the Campfire” appears more organic. This back-and-forth—between depth, scale and point of view—guides my hand. It comes down to perception… Changing our perception allows us to define our identity. If we can define our identity, we can heal from the things that distress us and move on. In this way we’re no longer defined by the systems and paradigms we’re placed in.
So self-determination is key?
Exactly. We are not defined by the way society ascribes meaning to us, or by the ways other systems try to define us. We are always dissatisfied because we can’t find a place to fit.
Because there is no unit of measurement for an immigrant? Is this similar to how attempts at translating cultural notions often fall short?
Yes. But the thing that excites me about the act of translation is the double-sided nature of it. We live in a system of language, right? And our identity shapes within this language system. When you move from one to another linguistic system, it changes how our personhood manifests. For example, I have a difficult time explaining this body of work in Farsi because I’ve made the work thinking in English.
You mention in your introductory essay that you’re “conjuring” memories of another place through a window overlooking a Midwestern landscape. I couldn’t help but notice these “windows” are square.
The decision to create images in a square format is because it allows the eye to focus more on the subject of the composition, for it to not read as landscape necessarily. The views I wanted to realize were primarily of trees, mountains and changing light conditions. The square removes them from being viewed as a portrait or landscape, as one normally views an image along a long edge of a frame. Without the long edge, there isn’t a directional read. I love the equality of looking at square compositions because the eye constantly moves to settle somewhere in the middle.
Do you work on these pieces in simultaneity or are they made individually?
For smaller pieces, I need to focus on them one at a time, but for larger works or sculptures, I tend to work in parallel. Since these can’t be made sitting on a couch, I need to move around an embroiderer table at the studio. Passing yarn over and under a surface within four wooden bars, I have to sit under, then stand over the piece, repetitively passing lengths of yarn. “By the Campfire” was a test of how long I could stretch a single yarn without it becoming lax.
In the larger pieces one can see the function of the wooden elements, but in smaller works, my first impression was that you’d somehow debilitated these armatures.
Some of them, like “With Giants II,” 2020, the wooden strips hold the tapestry in place. But in “Blue in Green,” 2019, the wooden strips extend the boundary of the composition, out of the frame. If anything, the central image holds the wooden strips in place as a framing device. I then have to resolve what happens between these elements. When elements move outside the square, the composition has to be readdressed.
You speak about “memories of home derived from the present locale”—how memories are summoned by people transplanted from one place to another. Do you think we live in search of associative markers to perhaps comfort ourselves?
Did you know a majority of Iranian immigrants settle down in the West Coast because of the quality of light there? A lot of my work has been about light—the absence or existence of it. This specific body of work is about that moment at twilight. It changes so quickly but has so much meaning in it. It triggers my memories of Iran—the intensity of light and saturated colors, the brightness and contrast of light on an Iranian landscape.
Your work stems from photographs of landscapes, correct? So light is the beginning point.
Yes, in all of these pieces actually, it’s about the quality of light at a moment in time, not the image itself. Fog, for example, is most comforting to me. It makes the world so small. When you’re walking through fog, the distance the eye can see is the limit of your world. This is so relaxing, coupled with the mist on your skin. It reminds me of the moistness I’d feel by the Caspian Sea. I get comfort in making images where there is a partial absence of information. In “Twelve12 views 08” (2020), there is a mountain peak concealed by clouds and fog. It’s a reflective moment where the patterns and composition imply something is in the background.
While all the pieces seem to feel like they’re in a similar vein, “Behind” (2022), has a distinctly different feel. I don’t know if it’s the warmth of the color palette or composition.
You’re touching on something. This was from a photo I took at sunset at the Morton Arboretum. The photograph originally captured trees in their entirety, but I worked with the photo to find the moment the light caught my eye. The contrast between silhouetted trees with the light shining behind the tree. Pure contrast! In “Twelve12 views 08,” I was staying with a more muted color palette so natural elements wouldn’t contrast each other very much. A hint of tonal variation was enough to distinguish between the elements.
Thinking about embroidery as a shared communal activity, but also as a skill passed down from one generation to another… Does this vertical and lateral sharing of knowledge come into your work?
To me, needlework is a space of complete freedom, reclaiming a small space of my own. In Iran, textile works involving silks and yarns are still largely made by women. For me, it’s an act of comfort. I’ve seen it growing up, seated by my grandmother and mother while they made things.
How does “The Tree” (2022), live in relation to the tapestries?
I wanted to make a tree at sunset within the context of the tapestries. If one were to see the exhibition in its entirety, it may appear as multiple views of a garden. A long-distance view, a closer view, as though a person is walking past trees at night, or catching a reflection of a tree in a pool of water.
The body of the tree is made of purple heart. The treetops and bushes at the bottom are structured to serve as a loom of sorts. Yarn winds around each block and then connects one block to another. I am interested in creating shadows at the intersection of blocks, in creating depth. The sculpture works off the same schema of scale and symmetries as the two-dimensional works. I like to work with materials that have their own structure, allowing me to test how much I can push the material to get what I need, while being open to what it reveals. If the wood serves as the warp, the yarn serves as the weft by how I place them together. I chose colors that compositionally hold the characteristics of the tree together.
So much of your work is based on the rationale of the grid.
The square really is everything.
Is there some reason, other than sacred geometry, that led you to align so strongly with the grid?
I think it started at a young age when I wanted to redraw certain works. My mother taught me how to draw a grid over the original design, to scale the drawing up or down. This idea of scale became really important to me because it’s truly the proportion that makes an image. If the proportion changes, the entire perception of the image changes.
How much of this is a negotiation of power—between materials, or status as an immigrant in the United States, or a woman working in the art world?
Power is a big part of my work, as I feel like I am in complete control in the making of these pieces. In the studio, decision-making is influenced by the structure of material I engage with, be it a canvas or a grid system. They allow for patterns to break or come into existence. I stick to a sequence of points to make a line or a shape and this specific system affects the way the adjacent pattern forms.
So there is contingency in between forms, a kind of comfort in control. As immigrants, we constantly struggle with control, especially when imposed on us.
Yes! There’s often a feeling of no control in a period of boundless time. How long can one wait for governmental processes to provide clarity? Finding balance in not-knowing is very difficult.
So these two digits [the way the artist measures points on the grid she embroiders on] in a sense are an interruption of reality, through the grid?
The action of connecting adjacent forms through grid-based composition is very comforting to me. Equally spaced divisions and how they shape figures within a square format create compositional relationships that work in multiples and fractions. It’s important to think of the translation of three-dimensional space in two dimensions.
Do you feel like there are some slippages living between cultures? As someone writing in English about Indian ways of knowing, I often feel like I’m grasping at threads to fill a chasm.
The thing about translation is that it has two sides. You bring one perspective, and you take on another’s perspective, but this meaning-making is so subjective. Being able to bring another system of thinking to a more dominant system takes many people repetitively doing the same act of translation or image making for it to make sense in a new context. What I may know in Farsi and how I translate this to English, through image-making, allows me to connect to where I am now. A tree is a tree and a landscape is a landscape, no matter where you are. I’m interested in creating something which we can all understand. There is a sense of longing to be free, to not be determined by a specific identity.
There are so many limitations in your experience of living here and yet you place yourself on a grid.
These limitations led me to allow myself to feel more freedom within a chosen structure. Placing a grid on myself in a sense is to negotiate where I am, who I am, and to find my place.
I have been grieving for such a long time, not for the physicality of home… But I have not seen my motherland for so long, I do not see my parents any more. So grieving in this sense is strange, as it has no boundaries. It’s impossible to talk about the boundless nature of grief because, if one cannot put boundaries around it, to designate it space, how do you begin to address it? There is no criteria to begin a healing process. I’ve found labor intensive, step-by-step techniques to relieve me from this. Order and pattern helps me make sense of an otherwise ambiguous situation.
A repetitive system helps me understand myself better and it changes the way I perceive my condition, thus helping me heal through making. To be brave enough to say, “This sucks. But this is how I can move forward.”
As a navigational tool of sorts. So much of this has to do with the stories we tell ourselves and the narratives we internalize.
The more trauma you undergo, it either strengthens or it breaks you. It’s a question of finding a framing device. This often goes under the guise of “resilience.”
So thinking of these works really as spaces for psychological transformation.
That’s certainly the basis of the work to some degree, allowing the grid to open up multiple divisional processes that can be seen as multiple ways of seeing and understanding.
Starting with a photo, I choose, say a light blue, for the sky. But I keep a very limited palette of colors at hand as I get overwhelmed with excess information. So I simplify the endless possibilities of decision making in color. I don’t intentionally mix colors. Instead, I use yarn for its colors, placing them in context and adjacent to one another. With one decision-making step removed, they sit in direct relation to one another, making sense in context.
You use the word context very often to describe your work. This is so different from how I think of context, as something ample and crawling with detail.
I’m obsessed with context. We are constantly defining our context. Who I am in the context of Iran is different from this context. Like trees that can move and not stay rooted in the soil we were planted in, we change while changing the landscape we traverse. Change is a part of the body and the sooner we learn to embrace this, the better for us. Change and context work hand in hand.
So the empty grid is the big, blank context for you.
Yes! The context of each of these images is totally different, they cannot be perceived as the same. The way the lines are next to each other horizontally, vertically, diagonally and the way one forty-five or other degree angle meets another… Everything is dictated by the context, the structure it is built on.
A mathematical context. Even units of measurement come with their own implications.
Yes. I’ve finally embraced the Imperial system of measurement now! What I like about an inch as a unit of measurement is that you can show it on the body. So twelve inches makes sense as you can visually measure it, say against your arm. Everything is based on this, versus the metric system which is not really a visual system.
On the other hand, I have not yet adopted the Fahrenheit system. It makes absolutely no sense to me when someone says, “thirty-five degrees is very cold.” Because where I’m from, I can tell you, thirty-five degrees is really quite hot!