Shirazeh Houshiary in her studio in London. 

Shirazeh Houshiary

UK Iran
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

During London’s morning rush hour, as commuters crowd train platforms and stream toward the city center, I head in precisely the opposite direction, traveling to the placid southwestern suburb of Barnes, home to Shirazeh Houshiary’s studio. The site of a wetland conservation center—rather than the sort of postindustrial decay sometimes associated with artists’ studios—Barnes’s juxtaposition of city and nature is an oddly appropriate fit for an artist whose abstractions across various media are at once intense and calming, suggesting something beyond a standard urban setting.

Born in 1955 in Shiraz, a major city in southwest Iran traditionally known for its art and literature, Houshiary has been in London since 1974, based in varying neighborhoods before settling into her current studio in 2008. The Chelsea College of Arts graduate first attracted wider attention for her sculptures in the 1980s, and more recently has been celebrated for projects such as East Window (2008), the playful and esoteric permanent installation of cross-shaped etched glass and steel in London’s renovated St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, and her 2003 four-channel video installation, Breath, which juxtaposes chanted prayers from major world religions. The Turner Prize nominee—in 1994, for her installations Enclosure of Sanctity (1992-93) and Licit Shadow (1993)—is sometimes presented as an Iranian artist, but doesn’t see her work as innately bound to a single nationality. “I’m actually a Londoner. I’ve lived here most of my life,” she says, smiling as she shares her love for England’s capital, before adding, “Quite frankly, I like to be a nomad.”

Even a wanderer needs a home base, and Houshiary’s can be found down a quiet residential lane in the modest-looking brick building that her studio shares with her husband Pip Horne’s architecture practice. Her workspace spreads over three expansive floors organized by media. Videos and installations are created in a small basement; she makes sculptures with the help of an assistant on the slightly more workshop-like ground floor; and she creates her detailed paintings on the airy, high-ceilinged top floor.  The structure was discovered by Horne and refurbished by the couple to let the surroundings in through skylights and a large window in the back of Houshiary’s painting space, overlooking a tranquil wooded area.

“There are not many artists here,” admits Houshiary, as an interplay between somber cloud cover and bursts of sunshine play out over her canvases. Petite and dressed casually in clothes that echo the cool colors of her work, she enthuses about Barnes’s proximity to London, its gardens and the beauty of her daily walks along the Thames. She grows more animated as she discusses her work. “I have an obsession, and this obsession is quite powerful, and it’s very useful. But you don’t want to not have another life—because that’s not good,” she says with a laugh, after recalling moments when she had to be “dragged out” of the studio at the end of the workday.

Houshiary’s desk in her painting space, including a postcard of Pierro della Francesca’s Madonna Del Parto (c. 1450–75), an inspiration for her work.

It is easy to see how Houshiary can get caught up in her work. Her large-scale paintings, most of them measuring more than a meter in height and in width, take two months of daily work to complete. “Nobody realizes how physical these are,” she sighs. She works with the canvases placed on the floor, first pouring a wash of pigment over them, and then building up intricate feather- or scale-like textures through pencil or paint. The pencil shavings tidily collected in bowls on her desk speak to the exhaustive work that goes into each piece. Pointing out a painting, Soar (2015), a two-by-two-meter wash of cloud-like blue clusters, which would soon after be sent overseas for an upcoming show at Lehmann Maupin gallery’s branch in Hong Kong, Houshiary explains that piece’s texture comes from repeatedly writing two Arabic phrases—“I am” and “I am not”—until they vanish into the canvas. Microscopic and abstracted, the form created by the words resembles chain-mail armor rather than text. “These words are not about meaning, because actually they dissolve, you can’t really read them. But they’re more about . . . the contradiction of saying ‘I exist,’ ‘I don’t exist,’ like breathing,” she explains. “I mimic, in a way, the inhalation and exhalation of breath. That’s why they are pulsating like a generative force.”

The artist’s painting Soar (2015).

Bowls of pencil shavings created as a by-product of Houshiary’s painting process occupy a corner of her desk.

Considering the ethereal, organic feeling that Houshiary evokes through these paintings, as well as the spiraling, ascending shape of her glass and metal sculptures, there is a tendency for writers to reach for words like “spiritual” and “transcendental” when describing her work. Such descriptions have “become very banal now,” she laments. “My work  is actually very physical,” she says. “I’m very interested in our senses, our sight, our hearing. We are [each] in a body . . . Out of my body, I don’t exist.”

While there is undeniably an intangible quality to Houshiary’s work that reaches beyond daily experience, her range of inspirations is far wider than reductive ideas about spirituality. The austere white walls of the studio’s top floor are countered by a pile of books casually strewn in a corner, ranging from a collection of ancient Chinese poetry to a volume of paintings by Spanish Baroque artist Francisco de Zurbarán. “I spend my life looking into things and trying to understand,” Houshiary elaborates. “I’m not just fascinated by making art, but I’m also fascinated by nature, by science.” Searching for a postcard of Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca’s Madonna Del Parto (c. 1450–75), she recounts how moved she was seeing the painting in Italy. “It still vibrates . . . there’s so much tenderness.” European paintings of religious subjects may appear to be an unlikely reference point for Houshiary’s non-figurative work, yet as she explains it, she’s trying to move beyond the “narrative” of traditional art while retaining the “the colors, the structure,” and the human touches that grant it emotional resonance.

In a similar manner, Houshiary’s sculptures draw on equally disparate influences, from the genesis of their inspiration to the very materials used. The twisting helix-like shape of Flux (2013), which reaches the observer’s eye-level, was inspired by the outline of a randomly dropped elastic band. The sculpture is composed of anodized glass bricks made in Italy, though Houshiary has previously used aluminum blocks for similar pieces. She has been experimenting with the subtle, varying tones possible with blue- and purple-tinted glass, yet the root symbolism of the brick has remained constant. “These are human,” she says, holding up a glossy blue brick measuring roughly ten by four centimeters. “We have created shelter by this building block, just as we have created sense out of words.”

Music also figures in Houshiary’s creative world. Classical melodies softly emit from speakers in her painting room as we walk down to the basement, where she brings out a scale model of the sculpture Chord (2014), a piece she hopes to eventually transform into a public installation roughly 12 meters tall. A smaller version, also titled Chord (2015), appeared earlier this year at London’s Lisson Gallery, which has mounted regular exhibitions of her work since hosting her first solo show in 1984. Five ribbons of dark metal intertwine as they reach upward, reflecting, she says, both the chord’s fundamental role in music and the way in which sound is “actually completely chaotic.”

Flux (2013), one of the artist’s many recent sculptures made of Italian anodized glass bricks.

A model of the proposed piece Chord (2014), which Houshiary hopes to integrate with an interactive lighting system.

While turning on a projector to demonstrate how moving-light displays could open up Chord for collaborations with artists, dancers and musicians, Houshiary discusses the role of technology in her work. A computer sits at her desk among books, postcards and small trials on paper. Though she steers away from a high-tech sheen in the finished product, she’s not averse to using computer design programs or 3-D printing to model new pieces. Preparing for her September residency at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute when we meet, she outlines her plans to layer papers with text in various languages to respond to the city’s multicultural makeup, and then place the assemblages in backlit Perspex boxes to reference computer screens’ current monopoly on communication. “If you take the technology, it’s just a tool—what makes us human is our feeling,” she offers. “If you have that quality . . . you can use any tool.” Fittingly, Houshiary has managed to capture a distinctly human quality across varied media, from wall-covering canvases to monumental sculptures and video installations, creating a genuine connection through subtle and delicate work built on organic forms and shared experiences.

The rear window on the studio’s top floor offers a view of the surrounding neighborhood’s lush greenery.