Saturday, 5 August 2017

Comics and Calligraphy: British-Iranian artist Jason Noushin – in conversation

Diaspora artist bursts onto international art scene with found paper and Persian script mash-ups. 

Multidisciplinary artist Jason Noushin employs antiquarian paper, discontinued bank notes and vintage comic book leaves alongside calligraphy to emerge with works examining socio-political narratives. 
Jason Noushin, ‘Ils Sont Fous Ces Romainsi’, 2017, oil, shellac, ink, pencil, turmeric and comic book leaves on linen, 48 X 48 in. Image courtesy the artist and Art Radar.
by Lisa Pollman, Art Radar

British-Iranian artist Jason Noushin is a self-taught artist whose work has been exhibited throughout the world, including CONTEXT Art Miami, Yale University and the Courtyard (United Arab Emirates). Currently, the artist’s work is on exhibition at Susan Eley Fine Art through 30 August 2017 and will be a part of Magic of Persia’s “Magic in Monaco Fundraising Event”.

Noushin was recently part of acclaimed group show “The Ocean Can Be Yours”  at the Gerald Moore Gallery in London, curated by Janet Rady. As Ms Rady told Art Radar, his collages were chosen due to their “unique” combination of sources:
I was particularly attracted to the fact that whilst he uses Persian script, the words he writes in his paintings are actually English taken from English poets and texts.  Similarly, in his portraits of Persian poets on manuscript pages from the Bible, he is blending the combination of Iranian and Western traditions.  In this way, he is speaking equally to both audiences in a unique and original manner.
Art Radar caught up with Noushin to learn more about his early years growing up in one of Tehran’s most well known contemporary art galleries and how this experience living between cultures continues to influence his work.

Jason Noushin, ‘Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for 3 Days’, 2016, encaustic and plaster on wire with ink, oil and shellac, 36 in (height). Image courtesy the artist and Art Radar.

Tell us about your interest in art. Who first introduced you to art and nurtured your creative side?
As it is with all children, I had an instinctive desire to make marks with whatever I could get my hands on. My art materials were supplied by my grandfather, Hossein Noushin, who frequently bought pads and pencils for my brother Simon and I. The encouragement also came from my aunt, Masoumeh Noushin Seyhoun, a respected artist and I believe the first Iranian woman to open an art gallery in Tehran in 1966. Living among my aunt’s incredible art collection was a silent and powerful early influence in my art practice.
Any interesting stories behind meeting some of Iran’s best known artists of the 20th century while living in Tehran as a youth?
I have many memories about meeting some of Iran’s greatest contemporary artists. A funny story involves Ghasem Hajizadeh, a master painter who now lives and works in Paris. It was about the time of the Revolution. Ghasem was a stud. He wore leather trousers, had a ponytail and rode around Tehran on a big motorcycle. He came for a visit one day and was greeted by Looloo, my uncle Houshang Seyhoun’s cranky black dachshund in the driveway. Looloo was barking like mad and Ghasem stomped his boot on the ground to scare the little dog. Instead, Looloo jumped and bit the cuff of his trousers and ripped a sizable piece off! He then walked into the house with that piece of leather in his mouth. That must have taught the motorcycle guy a lesson!
Jason Noushin, ‘Mafi’, 2008, pen and ink on antiquarian paper, 20.5 X 17 1/4 in. Image courtesy the artist and Art Radar.

How about your introduction to calligraphy through your relationship with Reza Mafi?
Reza Mafi was a complete gentleman. I believe he had fallen on hard times as all artists do and needed a place to stay. My aunt offered him our ground floor apartment and he moved in. My brother and I used to watch him work at his desk from a window on the steps and he often invited us into his makeshift studio. He taught us all the basics of calligraphy such as holding and cutting a reed pen, use of inks and writing. Even today, I feel his spirit is part of my calligraphy, though mine is by no means traditional – far from it. I have a small work of his above my bed from 1969, which I look at every morning after I wake. It was purchased by my aunt from Mafi’s first one man show at her art gallery. She nurtured Mafi and countless other contemporary Iranian artists for more than 40 years. They have all, in one way or another, made their way into my body of art but not by imitating their perfect structure, but rather by direct spiritual influence, if you know what I mean.
For a time, you had a career as a male model. When did you decide to become an artist full-time? Why then?
Being a model, that was fun for a time. I got to travel and meet a lot of creative, interesting people from all over the world. After four years, I threw in the towel and got a got a job in an American restaurant in Paris. I was pretty good at it and ended up managing two restaurants, the first in Paris and the second in New Haven, Connecticut. All the while I was drawing and painting on my days off and sometimes late into the night. Then came marriage, the antiquarian book business and three high-minded children. Making art full-time has been an incremental process for me. But it was always the only thing I never get tired of. I love creating ideas, tackling them and seeing their outcome. There is a sense of immediacy building art that is gratifying and highly motivating. Each work is born out of the success or failure of the previous. It’s trial and error. I compare it to cooking or architecture, both have similar elements which drive you toward the next challenge.
Jason Noushin, ‘LPS’, 2017, oil, pencil, plaster, henna, gold lining, shellac and comic book leaves on panel, 48 x 48 in. Image courtesy the artist and Art Radar.

You are a keen collector of antique books. What do you look for when making a purchase?
Well, collecting books and dealing books are two very different sports. Once I started dealing in antiquarian books and paper, my priorities changed. Collectors are more emotional about purchases and are willing to pay a higher price than a dealer would. They’re thinking resale. Still, condition is a top priority, even for rare items. One of my most memorable auction finds was a very rare book printed by Benjamin Franklin in London in 1773. This was an “Abridgment of the Book of Common Prayer” and only a handful are known to exist. I practically paid nothing for it and sold it to another bookseller for a large sum. With that money I paid off my credit card debts and used the rest for a down payment on our house. I’d like to think that Benjamin Franklin helped us buy our first home.
Tell us more about your United States Treasury Bond collection and how sheets of it are used in your artwork.
The Treasury Bonds are from the United State’s Mint and printed during the War of 1812. The United States was broke and desperately in need of money. These USD25 million bonds didn’t last long and were used by the printer as waste paper, fodder stitched into the bindings. I never used the bonds for drawing, but have used other sheets of paper from the same government printer in my work. The paper I use for drawing is generally from the mid-18th to early 19th century. Did I tell you that I collect paper? My earliest sheets at the moment date from about 1590. For larger drawings, I paste the edges of sheets together to create a support. I’ve also used discontinued paper currency, old newspapers, sheet music, used envelopes and cardboard (a favourite support for painting).
Jason Noushin, ‘IT-05-88/2’, 2010 , pen and ink on paper currency, 22.5 x 22.5 in. Image courtesy the artist and Art Radar.

Please tell us about your “Bosnian” series and how historically, the Bosnian War paralleled your experiences during the Iranian Revolution.
The Bosnian War was a brutal savage destruction of human life, identity and culture. It was genocide. By some estimates, 30 to 50,000 women and girls were raped and tortured, some as young as 14 were gang raped by soldiers. Up to 100,000 people killed and an entire region was ripped apart. I followed the war as it was unfolding from 1992-1995. I lived through a revolution and war, and could identify with the civilians caught up in the game of life and death. Standing in line for hours to buy a piece of chicken or a litre of cooking oil. Blackouts every night, curfews and armed police and soldiers behind sandbagged checkpoints. The Bosnian series began the day Radovan Karadzic was captured in July 2008.
It was during the Olympic games in Beijing that Karadzic was arrested after more than a dozen years on the run. The International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague had indicted 161 people for war crimes, and I wanted to include them all in a series of drawings and sculptures. I also wanted to include the stories of civilians and make work with material from the war zone. And money was the perfect vehicle for this. I started buying Bosnian and Yugoslav Dinars dating to the conflict on eBay. I never completed the series and left it unfinished after four years. The research for this work was painful and very difficult to process.
In an article about your work in the Yale Times, you are quoted as saying that “art is a vehicle to remind people of things”. Do you still believe this to be true?  What kinds of things are you trying to “remind” people of in your work?
I’m not a preachy type and I don’t care for art that’s sanctimonious. But the Bosnian series is a good example of that quote you mention. Many blunders were made by European and American leaders, which resulted in thousands of avoidable deaths in Bosnia. Today, we continue to make the same mistakes in Syria and Yemen with very catastrophic results. Instead of really trying to end these conflicts and perhaps feed the 250,000 starving people in Yemen, the United States boasts of selling USD100 billion (USD1,000,000,000) worth of arms to the Saudis, while Iran continues to be labeled “the biggest state sponsor of terrorism”.
Jashon Noushin, ‘Crow’s Nerve Fails’, 2016, oil, shellac, ink, plaster, pencil, turmeric, copper sheet, silver wire and encaustic on linen, 48 x 48 in. Image courtesy the artist and Art Radar.

What is a Persian talismanic drawing? How does your “creative combustion” reference this Persian tradition?
My first memory of a talisman dates to my early childhood. My grandmother took me to a mullah and asked him to write a prayer for my protection. He wrote the prayer, wafted smoke around me, folded the sheet into a tiny square and had it stitched in a little green sac that I was supposed to wear around my neck. Although I never wore it after that day, I kept it. Traditional Persian talismanic drawings, much like their Western counterparts, are prayers or spells designed to protect or harm an intended target such as a person, animal or object. For the past several years, I’ve been experimenting with elements of this tradition, and calligraphy plays a large part in this narrative.
Jason Noushin, ‘Namárië’, 2016, plaster, encaustic, ink, oil and shellac on chicken and barbed wire, 22.5 in (height). Image courtesy the artist and Art Radar.

Please tell us more about your sculpture Namárië. Is this piece based on a poem by J.R.R. Tolkien from The Lord of the Rings? Do you often use English poetry in your work? Why?
I’m half English and half Iranian. My Iranian father met my English mother in a nightclub in London in 1968. They were teenagers and had not planned to have a child. So, they shipped me to Tehran when I was three months old, and subsequently I was raised by my grandparents and aunt. In me, they instilled Iran and its rich cultural history of art, poetry and the power and persuasion of words. Using poetry and essays written by English authors and transcribing these into Persian Calligraphy mirrors my identity. Namárië was a poem written by Tolkien in his made-up Elvish language. The challenge was to transcribe this into Persian Calligraphy on a sculpture representing a bird. I think the outcome was successful.
Jason Noushin, ‘Take a Girl Like You’, 2016, pen & ink on antiquarian paper with string and clear shellac, 38 X 28.5 in. Image courtesy the artist and Art Radar.

I am particularly enamoured with your work Take a Girl Like You. Can you tell me more about her? Who is she?
The woman who appears in my most recent works is the same woman with minor variation. The calligraphy as the title suggests is from Kingsley Amis’ comic novel about a young teacher called Jenny Bunn. However, Jenny and the girl in the drawing lived very different lives. The drawing shows the profile of Chan Kim Srun, a Cambodian mother who was caught up in the madness of the brief bloody rule of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Her husband was accused of working for the CIA and on 13 May 1978, Chan Kim Srun, her newborn son and her husband were arrested and murdered shortly thereafter.
Jason Noushin, ‘Batman’, 2017, oil, shellac, ink, pencil, turmeric and comic book leaves on linen, 48 x 48 in. Image courtesy the artist and Art Radar.

Your work was recently shown in “Ocean Can Be Yours” at London’s Gerald Moore Gallery. Please tell us the impetus behind your work Batman.  
Paper has always been a central part of my life. Whether it’s reading, collecting or dealing in old manuscripts. I love the feel, smell, texture, pattern of typography and the history of the maker and marks left by the former owner. Batman is an example of my mixed media and collage work that has expanded to include vintage comic books that I collected in my youth. The night of the opening of that show [you mention], someone told me the work reminded them of a Klimt painting. The colourful squares of the storyboard and the yellowed paper, which dates to the mid-1960s, can be interpreted in many ways. I was thinking more pop but, Klimt? That’s fascinating.

Via Art Radar

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