Shirazeh Houshiary (b. 1955, Shiraz, Iran; lives and works in London, United Kingdom) makes painting, sculpture, and animation that seek to challenge viewers’ perceptions of time, space, and materiality. Her works often engage opposing ideas and states of being, including transparency and opacity, sound and silence, surface and depth, and presence and absence. From a distance, her paintings are reminiscent of a swirling galaxy, but as the viewer draws closer, the meticulousness, detail, and hidden Arabic letters that make up her amorphous forms begin to unfold. The universe, with its contradiction, paradox, and complexity is a core subject matter in her work. The Arabic words embedded in her compositions are a juxtaposition of the opposing phrases “I am” and “I am not,” oscillating freely between focused and unfocused states, where the meaning of our existence becomes superfluous and lost in Houshiary’s imagined cosmos.
Houshiary’s painting technique involves the successive layering of pigment and line, a laborious process that often takes several months to complete. Her surfaces are composed of intricate patterns that appear to pulse, undulate, and recede into the canvas, like a veil or membrane. She takes a similar methodical approach to her dynamic sculptures, constructing towers out of glass or aluminum bricks that, layer by layer, seem to emerge from the floor. Each vertical plane of bricks echoes the original shape of the structure’s footprint incrementally rotated to the maximum degree the form will allow before the resulting helix shape becomes unstable. For each work, Houshiary attempts to visualize subjects that are inherently intangible—an echo, human breath, or memory.
Houshiary graduated from the Chelsea School of Art in London in 1979. Select solo exhibitions of her work have been organized at Espace Muraille, Geneva, Switzerland (2016); Singapore Tyler Print Institute, Singapore (2016); Tate Liverpool, United Kingdom (2003); SITE Santa Fe, Santa Fe, NM (2002); British Museum, Islamic Gallery, London, United Kingdom (1997); and Camden Arts Centre, London, United Kingdom (1993). Select group exhibitions featuring her work include Artists and the Rothko Chapel, The Moody Center for the Arts, Houston, TX (2021); Ink Dreams: Selections from the Fondation INK Collection, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Los Angeles, CA (2021); Abstraction and Calligraphy − Towards a Universal Language, Louvre Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (2021); Breaking the Mould: Sculpture by Women since 1945, Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, United Kingdom (2021); Epic Iran, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom (2021); Celebrating 800 Years of Spirit and Endeavour, Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury, United Kingdom (2020); l'Oeil & la Nuit, Institut des Cultures d’Islam, Paris, France (2019); Regarding Spirituality, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO (2018); Drawing Dialogues: The Sol LeWitt Collection, The Drawing Center, New York, NY (2016); Phantom Bodies: The Human Aura in Art, Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, TN (2015); Love Story: Anne & Wolfgang Titze Collection, 21er Haus and the Winter Palace, Vienna, Austria (2014); Pattern, Broad Art Museum, East Lansing, MI (2013); 50 Years of Collecting Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY (2013); Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, United Kingdom (2012); What is Painting? Contemporary Art from the Collection, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, NY (2008); Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (2006); Happiness, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan (2003); and Thinking Big: Concepts for Twenty-First-Century British Sculpture, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italy (2002). Houshiary has participated in multiple biennials, including GLASSTRESS 2017, 57th Venice Biennale (2017); GLASSTRESS 2013, 55th Venice Biennale (2013); The 1st Kiev Biennale (2012); and the 17th Biennale of Sydney (2010).
Houshiary’s work is in numerous international public and private collections, including the Arts Council Collection, London, United Kingdom; Berardo Museum Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art, Lisbon, Portugal; Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX; British Council Collection, London, United Kingdom; British Museum, London, United Kingdom; Cass Sculpture Foundation, Chichester, West Sussex, United Kingdom; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci, Prato, Italy; FRAC – Pays de la Loire, Carquefou, France; Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.; IAC – Institut d’art contemporain Villeurbanne/Rhone-Aples, Villeubanne, France; Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, India; Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands; Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Museum of Contemporary Art, Prato, Italy; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Qatar Museum Authority, Qatar; RISD Museum, Providence, RI; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY; Southampton City Art Gallery, West Sussex, United Kingdom; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands; and Tate, London, United Kingdom.
Artist portrait: Photo by Dave Morgan