Artist Spotlight with Taha Heydari Portrait of Taha Heydari


Artist Spotlight with Taha Heydari

Posted: Jul 10, 2023

ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Taha Heydari as part of our Artist Spotlight series.

Taha Heydari received a BFA in Painting from the Art University of Tehran (2010) and a diploma in painting from the School of Visual Arts in Tehran, Iran. He then received an MFA from LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art (2016). Heydari has participated in international solo exhibitions at Haines Gallery in San Francisco, CA; Ethan Cohen Fine Arts in New York, NY; Ab-Anbar Gallery in Tehran, Iran; and Gavlak Gallery in Palm Beach. He received his first solo museum show at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His work has also been featured in several group exhibitions including The Armory Show, New York; as well as shows at Patrick Parrish Gallery, Kravets Wehby Gallery, and at Ab-Anbar Gallery in London and Lyles & King in New York. His work is currently on view in the permanent collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice? 

Taha Heydari: I create paintings that engage with how ideology manifests in lived experience. As a member of the generation that emerged following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, I incorporate different modes of mark-making to reveal and deconstruct the binaries that have shaped my identity: East and West, body and soul, past and future. To destabilize these oppositions, I create large-scale paintings composed of a chaotic interplay between machine-like grids and bodily gestures, using imagery from Iranian history and modern pop culture as a point of departure. I’m interested in moments of glitch where visual disruptions suggest the incomplete or failed moments of ideological order that expose its own presence. Unraveling and disappearing grids, which can suggest both pixels on a screen and woven threads in a frayed Persian rug, reproduce this point of instability. The large scale of my compositions also emphasize the material components of the paintings’ making, and this throws into conflict the banality of “how” something is made with the grand narrative of “what” is depicted. This tension is stressed by my appropriation of historically and culturally charged subjects—such as the last royal family of Iran and pre-revolutionary magazine covers—as compromised, decaying images. 

AE: You moved to the US to pursue your MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in 2014. How has your practice evolved since your arrival to the U.S., and what are some continuities that you maintained within your work? 

TH: The inability to create a cohesive sense of self in relation to time and location is built into the experience of immigration. So sometimes I have a hard time remembering what was prior or after moving to the US. My fascination with technology in general has been continuous. More specifically the ways in which we (humans) use technology to create different representations of what reality might be. I tend to use computer terminology to clarify for myself our complex digitized existence so I think of my move to the US as new updates for the original OS (operating system). The foundations are there, like the first codes are all in Farsi, Shia Islam idealism is there, and now I am living in English; the new updates are all different versions of late capitalist, pluralistic material life. During one of my most constructive critiques with Joan Waltemath, the director of LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA when I was a student, she directed her critiques towards my unawareness of materiality in my painting and introduced the idea of painting existing as an object, not only as an image. That critique triggered a material investigation of my new life, gradually unraveling the ideology I was brought up in. 

AE: When composing your paintings, you engage with a variety of political, historical and social themes. What is your process of researching the subjects that inform your work and how do you go about gathering your source materials? 

TH: I constantly collect images on my phone, which I consider to be the immaterial extension of my studio. There is a continuous visual flow from pixels and algorithms on my phone to acrylic and water on my canvas. And there’s also a one hour walk between my home and my studio during which I usually listen to podcasts focused on history and philosophy, and I carry that into the studio as another part of my research. Either themes or objects that hold the quality of being banal and charged simultaneously grab my attention. For example, a meteorite in a museum—a very mundane piece of rock charged with historical and scientific significance—or a yellow microphone that appears in one of Khomeini’s famous speeches. The images that I happen to paint in some ways contain this contradictory force within them, being politically charged or historically significant but also appearing mundane, or vice versa. I would paint something mundane in a complex and layered way, and then I would paint something that is charged and sublime in a banal manner. There’s an inverse relationship between my choice of source material and the way I paint it. 

AE: How has your relationship to the medium of painting shifted throughout your practice? 

TH: My dad is a painter and takes it very seriously. Being around the medium of painting from a young age and connected to the academic environments where he taught, I grew up taking it very seriously too. I felt like I could talk about things through painting. I usually loaded my paintings with things that could be shown. I’m not entirely over that, but I’m on the way to accepting the muteness of painting. So painting has become less a desire to communicate and more of a means of resistance to language. It’s a material condition that has become less about showing and more about hiding for me. This has been a slow realization. 

AE: Tell us about your ongoing Zan Rooz series that you began in 2018. What interests you about this pre-revolutionary publication from Iran and what kinds of tropes or insights from these archives are you incorporating within your own work? 

TH: Zane-e-Rooz is an ongoing project focused on the cultural shifts which took place in Iran before and after the 1978 Islamic Revolution through the lens of women’s magazine covers. The project began five years ago with the help of my sister, who has assisted in my research by sending me archival images. To date, she has sent me eight DVDs of more than 200 scanned editions of the Iranian magazine Zan-e-Rooz (“Woman of Today”). Before the Iranian revolution, its pages often sported photos of models, including the celebrated Miss Iran. After the revolution, the magazine attempted to use the platform to define the role of women in an Islamic society. Employing a complex arsenal of applications, I reproduce cover pages from both periods of the magazine’s history as highly detailed paintings in order to question how patriarchal ideology both sustains and conceals itself through representation, while simultaneously revealing its fragility. These paintings encourage slower looking than the fast consumption of typical magazine covers and underscore the nature of such images as unstable moments in a shifting society. This is a quality embodied in my work by a combination of decomposing grids and gestural marks. 

AE: What or who are some of your major creative influences, and why? 

TH: I grew up in a household with a lot of art books, so I was looking at whoever my dad was studying. El Greco and Titian were a big deal from early on. When I was twelve years old I took classes in Persian miniature painting, and that really brought a new vocabulary to my practice, and I still see traces of that in my work today. The patience and principles that traditional Persian miniature painters require is still a part of my practice. 

When I was an art student in high school we copied from Old Masters and Russian realists. At the Art University of Tehran, where I attended college, I was introduced to more contemporary artists, thanks in part to the university’s great library of art books and expanded access to the internet. With this perspective I realize that Gerhard Richter and Luc Tuymans have had the greatest influence over my practice over the last fifteen years. I keep going back to them because there is an awareness of the medium of painting; they don’t take painting for granted and are aware of the state of painting today in relation to photography and the internet. Their work has roots in the history of image making, and what inspires me is the sociopolitical conversations they engage with through this history. The whole school of phenomenology has also been crucial in terms of forming a new understanding of painting — figures like Martin Heidegger and the way he highlights tools and technology and brings them to the foreground of our attention. I’m also engaged with more contemporary thinkers, like Graham Hartman and Timothy Morton, who are interested in nonhuman objects and agencies. 

AE: What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2023-2024? 

TH: I’m still working on the Zan-e-Rooz series as an ongoing project, and I’m also thinking about the idea of sci-fi in painting and what the future looks like through a dystopian, post-anthropocenic lens, drawing from pop culture and video games. I’m interested in how we will wrap up this human project. So many of my recent and ongoing paintings display melancholic and phantasmagoric landscapes with almost psychedelic color palettes and objects and figures which appear in states of decay and unraveling.



Instagram: @taha_hey