Scripts and sensibility: Iranian-American Pouran Jinchi – interview

Pouran Jinchi uncovers beauty amidst strife and uncertainty.

Art Radar catches up with Pouran Jinchi to learn more about her latest series that examines what the artist describes as the “language of aesthetic culture of the military” and how her work employs hope in times of despair. 

Pouran Jinchi, 'Bruised 1', 2014, transfer paper, 18 x 18 in. Photo: Brian Buckley. Image courtesy the artist and Leila Heller Gallery.

Pouran Jinchi, ‘Bruised 1’, 2014, transfer paper, 18 x 18 in. Photo: Brian Buckley. Image courtesy the artist and Leila Heller Gallery.

Pouran Jinchi (b. 1959, Mashhad, Iran) is a professionally trained Civil Engineer, who pursued painting at the Art Students League of New York and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The New York based artist’s signature style combines language, religion, history and art with abstract expressionism to emerge with “recognizable yet illegible” inscriptions.

Jinchi’s work has been exhibited throughout the world and is found in select public and private collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Federal Reserve Bank, the Farjam Collection and Zayed National Museum.

Pouran Jinchi. Photo: Robin Holland. Image courtesy the artist.

Pouran Jinchi. Photo: Robin Holland. Image courtesy the artist.

Do you consider your art autobiographical? If so, how?

At some level, I think all creativity stems from our own life stories. My art is rooted in my surroundings, in what is happening in the larger world. My own background as an immigrant perhaps heightens my sense of empathy when I see so many affected by war, conflict, and violence. My impulse is to reflect on current events. I read, look at art, listen to music and then all of these influences get reworked in my imagination. In a sense artists are like writers— we take it all in and use it in our work. But as artists, it gets expressed in a visual sense. So the concepts that stimulate my art are a combination of autobiography, my research, the imagination, and a basic empathy towards suffering, pain, and injustice that I see in the contemporary world.

Let me talk about my artwork “Noon 1” to give you a sense of how this all comes together in my art. I live in New York City, and the 2008 financial crisis hit the city hard. I made this series in the aftermath of that crisis, when hope seemed very frivolous. What do people do in times of despair? For some prayer is a kind of refuge. So I was really thinking about the role of prayer and faith in times of utter despair and turmoil.

I was born and raised in Mashhad, which is home to the Imam Reza shrine. So for Iranians, it is a sacred city, with a spiritual sensibility. I began collecting prayer stones from Mashhad, which I used in this series of drawings. As I was making the work, I sensed there was a parallel between the use of repetition in my art making—repetition of texts, markings, gestures—with the rituals of prayer and chanting. The drawings take on different shapes—circles and crosses; these shapes originally appeared in nature and were then adapted by different cultures. In a sense, the series became my way of mapping prayer, as a way of understanding the effects of sacred ritual in times of crisis.

Pouran Jinchi, 'Noon 1', 2012, mixed medium on Okawara paper, 188 x 99 in, from the collection of The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy the artist.

Pouran Jinchi, ‘Noon 1’, 2012, mixed medium on Okawara paper, 188 x 99 in, from the collection of The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy the artist.

You received a degree in Civil Engineering from George Washington University. Does this background impact your work? How?

There is a certain kind of pressure in Iranian society to work in technical fields like medicine and engineering. So in the 1970s, when I came to the United States for college, I pursued a major in engineering. But I never practiced the profession. I had a career in fashion, working as a window dresser at Saks Fifth Avenue. I was making art all along, but then I reached a point when I decided to devote myself full time to art. There is a certain discipline, an attention to methodology in my art practice that may stem from my math and engineering background. My use of color and pattern, my attention to detail and presentation – these are probably to some extent influences from my time working in fashion.

Pouran Jinchi, 'Hanged, 18 strands' (detail), 2015, copper, paint and safety pins, approximately 7 x 18 in each. Photo: Brian Buckley. Image courtesy the artist and Leila Heller Gallery.

Pouran Jinchi, ‘Hanged, 18 strands’ (detail), 2015, copper, paint and safety pins, approximately 7 x 18 in each. Photo: Brian Buckley. Image courtesy the artist and Leila Heller Gallery.

You did train as a calligrapher in Iran and some of your art draws on Persian calligraphic elements. In your opinion, is it important to know Farsi to understand your work or is your art universal?

I did study calligraphy and then later studied art at UCLA and at the Art Students League in New York City. Calligraphic training in Iran is very rigid, orderly, and rule-bound. My art training in the United States, on the other hand, was focused on abstract painting. Some might see traces of both in my art, but I’m also rebelling against their respective formal boundaries.

Persian script is really a starting point for me, but there are always more layers of meaning to my work. I don’t really see a script — I see geometry, I see lines, I see curves. All languages are really codes and scripts are markings of these codes. I have always been preoccupied with language and text as forms, as a way to explore space and perspective. I am fascinated with how we use words to make sense of the world, to communicate with one another, and to cover up the essence of things. In this sense, any language can be turned into art and can be read universally. There is a tension in my calligraphic art, because it is always illegible. So even those who can read Persian can’t really read the texts in my artworks. But the sensibility in my art is open to broader interpretation and can be read universally.

Pouran Jinchi, 'Tajvid Red' (detail), 2009, ink on paper, 156 x53 in, from the collection of The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. Image courtesy the artist.

Pouran Jinchi, ‘Tajvid Red’ (detail), 2009, ink on paper, 156 x53 in, from the collection of The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. Image courtesy the artist.

What is a “noqteh”? How is it used in your work?

A noqteh is a dot. It represents the beginning. Each word we write, each line we draw begins with a dot. To quote one of my favorite artists Paul Klee, “A line is a dot that went for a walk.” In Arabic and Persian, dots are also used as diacritical marks — they are the signs that determine the shape and sounds of letters. Without them, language becomes vague and unclear. And yet when we write, they are often overlooked, written in swift gestures, almost as an afterthought. So in some of my art, I focus on dots and diacritical marks — as codes that can either reveal or obscure layers of meaning. I have a piece in the collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University called Tajvid Red from 2009. On two large scrolls, I reproduce only diacritical marks. In a series I made in 2015 that I called “Inked,” I made over two hundred noqtehs or dots. Each one has a specific and unique design.

Pouran Jinchi, 'Inked' (detail), 2014, pens on paper, 15 x 11.25 in. Photo: Brian Buckley. Image courtesy the artist and Leila Heller Gallery.

Pouran Jinchi, ‘Inked’ (detail), 2014, pens on paper, 15 x 11.25 in. Photo: Brian Buckley. Image courtesy the artist and Leila Heller Gallery.

You’ve said that the artwork “Inked” and the larger series it is part of, called “Black and Blue,” were influenced by the Iranian novelist Sadegh Hedayat. Why were you drawn to his writing, and how does it become manifest in your own art?

My series “Black and Blue” was inspired by the novel The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat. He was a modernist who wrote his classic novel in the period between the two World Wars, a particularly difficult and dark time in history. The novel’s main character is an artist who is confronting pain and violence in the world. As a teenager in Iran, I was fascinated by the book, which was banned. When I reread the book as an adult, it had a profound impact on me. The book revealed so much about the impact of suffering on the human condition. Reading it in these times when we are confronted with the disastrous effects of war on humanity and the environment was really moving. So the art from “Black and Blue” is a departure for me, my own visual interpretation of its sensibility.

In “Inked,” I made a series of over two hundred drawings, mapping all the dots and diacritical notations from the first page of the novel. Some dots are filled with delicate patterns and geometric motifs; each one is completely unique. As though each one is a tattoo. Tattooing is an act of asserting one’s individuality through inflicting pain on our bodies as a personal choice. It’s about marking our bodies with art and with pain.

My piece Pierced is a quotation from the book that reads, “I write only for my shadow, which is cast on the wall in front of the light. I must introduce myself to it.” Each word in that quotation is fragmented, hacked, pierced, disembodied. I stitch the letters together but out of order, making them purposefully illegible. Here too I’m referencing piercing as a painful way to decorate the body. So the series stems in part from Hedayat’s novel, but is a larger more universal reflection on the ways pain is experienced by humanity, on the enduring impacts of violence. And about the role art can play in times of conflict.

Pouran Jinchi, 'Foxtrot', 2016, 81 pcs, enamel on wood panels, 102 x 54 in. Photo: Brian Buckley. Image courtesy The Third Line Gallery.

Pouran Jinchi, ‘Foxtrot’, 2016, 81 pcs, enamel on wood panels, 102 x 54 in. Photo: Brian Buckley. Image courtesy The Third Line Gallery.

In an interview with Dr. Shiva Balaghi, you say that you “like to experiment with new forms, new materials and new colours”. What are you working on at the moment that is new for you? 

My practice encompasses drawing, painting, and sculpture that are made with various materials, sensibility, and subject matter. What binds them together are my process of discovery, my exploration of language, my desire to understand and penetrate human relationships and spirituality. Materiality has its own language. My use of materials and colors is deliberate and intentional to support my ideas and larger concept. In my art practice, there is always some continuity and some innovation. There’s a balance between reiterating certain forms and concepts and extending my art into new directions. There are some central ideas that are at the root of all of my artwork. But over time, I tackle these issues in different ways. I absorb the changes happening in the world around me. I discover new materials to work with; I get inspired by new color palettes.

At the moment, I am working on a concept I call “coded abstraction” for my next solo show, which opens in September 2017 at The Third Line Gallery in Dubai. There is a shift in the new work—a transition from the calligraphic to a coded abstraction. I’m delving into the language of aesthetic culture of the military. I’m exploring the ways that coded language is used to keep critical messages hidden; the ways insignias and badges are symbols of authority, power, status, and rank; the ways flags can convey meaning and mark space. So I’ve been doing research on phonetic military alphabets, on morse code, and maritime signal flags. These provide the colors, shapes, and forms of my new artwork. So in the new artwork, I use colorful thread to embroider on handmade paper and on linen. I use graphite to draw lines and grids, dashes and dots on carbon paper. I am making sculptural pieces using brass; painted colorful stripes on these pieces reference military ribbons and medals. These sculptures are my artistic take on “military brass.”

In works like Foxtrot, I reinvent and deconstruct phonetic military alphabets using enamel on wooden panels. The large works are made up of dozens of square shaped tiles. The enamel works are my artistic interpretation of the aftermath of a military invasion. The tiles are aesthetic illusions to buildings that are destroyed in violent conflicts. The pattern that emerges in my artwork suggests the disarray of destruction. The pieces represent the architecture of violence.

But like all of my art, I am mindful of their aesthetic appeal—all of my art is intentionally beautiful. This has multiple meanings. I want my art to be approachable, for the viewer’s experience of my art to be contemplative. But the beauty in my art is also ultimately a hopeful sign, that even in times of utter destruction, what is good somehow remains. The hope that even through the fog of war, we can somehow find our way back to what is beautiful.

Lisa Pollman

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Related Topics: Iranian artists, calligraphy, art as meditation, interviews, Islamic art

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