Art In Conversation
with Charles Schultz
December 01, 2017 – January 04, 2018
Raha Raissnia’s first solo exhibition in a museum, Alluvius, opened in early December at the Drawing Center. Organized by the museum’s Assistant Curator, Amber Harper, the exhibition highlights Raissnia’s mixed media work on paper as a central element of her multivalent practice, which encompasses film, photography, and performance. The Rail’s Managing Editor, Charles Schultz, met up with Raissnia to talk about her formative years as a young artist, the animism of analog projectors, and how the abstract qualities of music relate to her work.
Raha Raissnia, Alluvius, 2016 Mixed media drawings. 12 parts, each: 12 5/8 x 19 3/4 inches (32.1 x 50.2 cm) Framed dimensions, each: 16 1/4 x 23 3/8 inches (41.3 x 59.4 cm). Overall installed dimensions: approx. 79 1/2 x 79 1/2 inches (201.9 x 201.9 cm) Courtesy the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York. Photo: Thomas Müller
Charles Schultz (Rail): When did you first know you wanted to be an artist?
Raissnia: Probably my first year at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I had financial problems and I thought I would have to drop out. I remember thinking if this really happens, what would I do? There was just nothing else I could see myself doing. That’s the first time, I knew then.
Rail: But you stayed.
Raissnia: Yeah fortunately. I really liked the school, I really liked what I was doing, and wanted to be there. There was nothing else. So you know, it worked out, I just have a lot of student loans now. But maybe it was good for me, because it kind of pushed me to appreciate the opportunity, and to work hard.
Rail: Did you have any teachers in Chicago who were especially meaningful to your progress there?
Raissnia: I studied closely with two women—Barbara Rossi and Susanne Doremus—who are still professors there. Barbara Rossi is one of the Chicago imagists. She taught drawing. Every semester I studied with her closely and she was very supportive. I studied painting with Susanne Doremus. They were both so insightful and intelligent…incredible teachers. I really looked up to them and felt grateful to be able to study with them.
Raha Raissnia, Alluvius, 2016 [detail] Mixed media drawings. 12 parts, each: 12 5/8 x 19 3/4 inches (32.1 x 50.2 cm) Framed dimensions, each: 16 1/4 x 23 3/8 inches (41.3 x 59.4 cm). Overall installed dimensions: approx. 79 1/2 x 79 1/2 inches (201.9 x 201.9 cm) Courtesy the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York. Photo: Thomas Müller
Rail: What were your drawings like back then?
Raissnia: They were I think better than now. [Laughter] Freer in a way, very visceral, very private, mainly because I felt so ignorant about art so I would do them secretly in a way for myself and would get very nervous when I had to show them in class. They were very much about my feelings and about my family. But I also responded to all the great romantic paintings in the museum: The Art Institute of Chicago that was in the same building. I was very much taken by Titian and all that flesh with his free flowing gestures.
Rail: You were in Chicago, where was your family?
Raissnia: My mom was back in Iran. My mom and I left Iran three years into the war in 1983. We went to Houston first because I had an uncle who was working there, and we waited for my father to wrap things up in Iran and join us. It took him three years. He came in 1986 and unfortunately had a sudden heart attack. He died after two weeks of arriving. I was just about to graduate from high school then and when I left to go to Chicago my mom returned to Iran.
Rail: How old were you then?
Raissnia: I was fifteen when we immigrated.
Rail: Fifteen, wow. And of course there was no email then, and international phone calls were not cheap. How did you keep in touch?
Raissnia: My father had the soul of a poet, he wrote a lot—maybe a letter everyday to us all when we left and before it to my brother because he had left earlier. In all his handwritten letters he describes and conveys much of what happened socially and politically in Iran during and after the revolution and the Iraq - Iran war that followed it. Of course the letters also describe what was happening to our family. My father wasn’t active politically, but then everybody was involved and affected somehow, you couldn’t not be. He was excited at first about the revolution but soon after with the war it became disastrous for everyone. We had to leave because of it, my family was torn apart.
Rail: Your father was also an amateur photographer, right? Did you ever get to go out shooting with him?
Raissnia: Yes he loved photography. He had a nice camera, many lenses, and slide projectors. He really liked slides.
Rail: What sort of things did he photograph?
Raissnia: Family and things around him like nature, mostly, when we went out of the city…everyday life. He was really into it and always had his camera with him everywhere. During the revolution he was very active in street photography, mainly of all the mass protests which took place downtown right near his office. Several times he took me to the demonstrations without my mom knowing! It was sort of dangerous, but he was so excited and wanted me to see it!
Rail: What was that like?
Raissnia: I remember everything very well. I was about ten or eleven years old. There are pictures of me from the day the Shah left, I’m holding flowers because everybody was celebrating. Life during the revolution was very very exciting and everyone was on the edge. My father had an amazing sense of humor and was very down to earth, so life was sort of pleasant I remember. I had a cool father. He was an avid reader of poetry and literature.
Rail: Did he encourage your creativity?
Raissnia: His influence on me was great but it was actually my mom that nurtured that in me and provided me with opportunities. She was the organizer. I did well in drawing at a very young age, but I didn’t do well in school mainly because it was severely strict. I couldn’t obey and always got into trouble. The only thing I had going was with art projects. All the students would ask me to do their projects for them and in return they would let me cheat and pass me the answers during exams [Laughter]. At a very young age my mom made it possible for me to study privately with a well-known painter—I think I was nine when I started. My Dad was anti-bourgeois, and that was too bourgeois for him. So he didn’t support it.
Rail: Who was the painter?
Raissnia: His name was Ostad Katouzian. He was a realist painter, famous for portraits of beautiful famous people, lots of women but also Dervishes and girls from the countryside with colorful folk outfits. He also painted still lives and landscapes. Later I went back and looked at his paintings and I’m not sure if I really like them.
Rail: But he was a good teacher?
Raissnia: Definitely. It was a great experience to hang out in his beautiful old house and garden with walls covered with his paintings. He only had three students, two older—one of whom became his wife later—and me. I was the young one. He would give me lessons and I would paint from still life and flowers in the garden. He also sometimes would let us watch him paint. He had models coming in everyday. Later I copied some of his paintings and learned a lot from that.
Rail: Did you take art lessons in Houston, before going to the Art Institute?
Raissnia: I arrived in Houston in the early '80s and I didn’t speak any English. I learned French as my second language. Somehow the school was so loose, so lawless, unlike Iran, and they allowed me to attend classes without knowing a word of English. But yes, I did a lot of art classes. That’s the only thing I did, I didn’t pass anything else, but somehow I still graduated [Laughter]. It’s kind of amazing.
Rail: Where did you go after you graduated from the Art Institute?
Raissnia: I went to San Francisco for a few years, then I moved to New York to go to grad school at Pratt Institute in 1995.
Rail: And that was when you got involved with Anthology Film Archives?
Raissnia: Yes, soon after I moved to New York I walked into Anthology one night to see a movie. I didn’t know anything about the place. I walked in and there was Stom Sogo sitting in the box office with a big smile welcoming me and my friends, saying go in, go in, don’t worry about paying! We watched a documentary on Thelonius Monk, and it was so great! I immediately knew what a special place it was. Stom later became my roommate and a very close friend. Sadly he passed away few years ago. Soon after then I dropped out of grad school mainly because I couldn’t pay for it and did everything I could to attach myself to Anthology and to all the people working there. I begged to do anything, clean the bathrooms, the theaters, take tickets, anything I could do and as always they were so welcoming. Later they paid me for what I could do. So for several years I was there just about everyday.
Rail: Do you remember the first time you met Jonas Mekas?
Raissnia: I knew he was very special right away when I first saw him. I remember specifically one time at Anthology he was signing his book I had nowhere to go. He greeted me with a smile and he signed the book for me. I’ll never forget that. I think that was the first time I interacted with him.
Rail: What sort of things did you do at Anthology when you weren’t cleaning or checking tickets?
Raissnia: I just hung around. I watched movies. I was friends with Dalius, and August who lived there—they were the artists in residence. August made posters, films and paintings, he had an art studio there. He also played a lot of music with Dalius and their friends in the basement. I sometimes moved boxes around in the library and sat in Robert Haller’s classes there for NYU. I watched a lot of amazing films.
Rail: Sounds great.
Raissnia: It was the best education! I felt blessed.
Rail: And was it at Anthology that you had your first shows in New York?
Raissnia: That’s right. Jonas—and really everyone there—was so open and generous. Even though I wasn’t a filmmaker, I was just some kid, you know!? But I curated two group shows—I put all my friends in it. [Laughter] Later on I did my first solo show there.
Rail: Can you tell me about that experience?
Raissnia: Sure. It opened a week or two after 9/11. I remember I had no money to buy the wine for my opening. One night I was doing my card invitations and the rumor was that the subways were dangerous so I rode my bike into Manhattan from Brooklyn, and right near Anthology as I was riding on the street at night with drizzling rain I found three bundles of cash on the pavement! Obviously it must have been drug money wrapped in rubber band. It was $2,200 dollars. I paid my rent for two months and bought several cases of wine for my opening. A gift from hell!
Strange things happened right after 9/11. It was in response to that show that musician Briggan Krauss invited me to collaborate with him and it was through this collaboration that I began working with film and performance for the first time. Briggan told me that he was inspired by visual artists. He liked Joseph Cornell in particular, I remember. So right away we came up with a system of working and named our collaboration “Systems.” We began with him giving me a short piece of music he made and recorded, I listened and responded to it by making a drawing which I gave to him to respond to by making another short piece of music to give back to me and on we went. We came up with other systems of working and only after a month or so two of my artist friends from Pratt who had just started a band invited us to open for them at a dive bar in Brooklyn.
Rail: That was your first performance?
Raissnia: Yes. So right away I was like, “what are we gonna do?” One thing I had was an old vintage projector lying around. It didn’t have a carousel so it right away suggested that if I were to use it I would have to make a long strip of film. I then very quickly got the idea to use hundreds of copies of slides of my drawings and paintings (back then I documented my work with slides), paint on them directly, collage and paste them down on colored Mylar and feed them through the projector by hand.
Rail: I’m trying to imagine this gig, how did it go?
Raissnia: Oh, the gig was so great. I think three people came, three special friends. There was no stage. I sat on a chair, put the slide projector on a table and projected on the wall. We played for ourselves basically and my friends in the band played their hearts out, I will never forget! Soon after that I had my first solo show at Thomas Erben Gallery in Chelsea and for that show Briggan and I did many performances and invited other artists and musicians to join in and collaborate with us. This happened in 2004.
Rail: And you’ve stayed with analog projectors. When I was at the Drawing Center I noticed a digital projector permanently attached to the ceiling, which you chose not to use. The analog projector has a certain legacy as a historical/cultural object, but it’s also noisy. That repetitious click and pop of the slides changing, it’s very steady—
Raissnia: Like a pulse.
Rail: Like a pulse, exactly. Is that part of your attraction to this object?
Raissnia: I’m very attracted to the analog projectors, perhaps because they are sort of like living things with animism. For example they behave unexpectedly, they get moody and respond differently with changes in temperature and so on. I don’t know, they are more fun to handle than video projectors. I also like them because I can take them apart, modify them to my need. I like getting my hands into them. I am open to high-end technology and make use of it when I need to but I like performing with film projectors, and so far I like how they work in installations.
Rail: What about the slides? They are all the original slides that you hand manipulated?
Raissnia: Right. You cannot reproduce those exactly in the same way. With slides, it’s light that is being filtered through actual images on film. If I were to use the scans with video projector, the images would be fake, just digits sitting on the surface. It’s never the same.
Rail: Are those the slides that you’ll use for a performance later on in the exhibition?
Raissnia: Yes, those slides are also part of another piece titled Nadir III that is only for performance. It’s the third part of a series. It uses a Super 8 film that is hand painted along with a double projection screen that is uniquely designed by me. I manipulate the film and the slides by hand in order to control the speed of their rotation and the amount of light they project.
Rail: Can you describe how you operate the projectors in your performances?
Raissnia: I often use several projectors at once, so most of my pieces are made with various parts that I combine and manipulate live in an improvisational manner. For Nadir II, I separate the slides into two carousels, so one hand can cover one slide while the other hand is manipulating the other slide being projected. I sort of fade them in and out covering certain parts, pausing and revealing other parts with another hand. The viewers often can’t tell what I am doing so they keep looking back and see nothing clearly in the dark.
Rail: When I think about the title of that piece, Nadir—the opposite of a high point—what compelled you to give this body of work that title?
Raissnia: It was something about the suggestion of the underground, the lower realms, which I thought to give attention to as a good thing, a positive thing. I thought it’s a good thing to celebrate.
Raha Raissnia, Vestige, (2017), Charcoal and mixed media on paper. 36 x 60 inches (91.4 x 152.4 cm). Courtesy the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York. Photo: Stephen Faught.
Rail: To celebrate what’s beneath. That makes me think of the large drawing in the exhibition, Vestige, which looks like a floor, but perspective is very close to the floor. I thought, “When do you see the floor like this?” When you’re lying down? Kneeling? It’s a perspective that aligns with a kind of nadir, too. What’s the story with this floor?
Raissnia: A friend of mine, Briggan Krauss, whom I talked about earlier, found a box of slides in the garbage where he works in the media lab at Brooklyn College. They were documents of a great abandoned mosque in India from the Sultanate period that lasted between the 13th and 16th centuries, a period magnificent for its Indo-Islamic architecture. I rephotographed all those slides from projecting them onto different screens in my studio and made a film work that Briggan and I performed once in Brooklyn, in 2013, I think. Vestige and the other large drawing Fountain that’s hung next to it are derived from that body of work.
Rail: So the mosque was abandoned, and the slides of the mosque were being abandoned…
Raissnia: That image of the floor is a segment of the floor of the mosque that I zoomed in on and photographed. When I was making work for this show, I thought of this body of work and went back to look at it carefully and found those two images to work with. They somehow related to the other works I was making for the show in an interesting way I thought.
Rail: How so?
Raissnia: I respond to images in a very intuitive way, so it’s difficult for me to say clearly. I think I was intrigued by the fact that they were less abstract and more specific and recognizable to a degree. There are other connections but I would need a lot more time to explain.
Rail: Well, I’m naturally drawn to the literary elements of works that, like yours, have such density that there seems to be more possibilities of meaning because the obvious meanings are obscured. When I was thinking of the title of that floor drawing, Vestige, it seemed very clearly linked to the word “alluvius,” which is both the title of your show and a body of work. Both words reference a trace of something that’s passed.
Raissnia: Yes well that’s the thing, with Vestige I was intrigued by that image of the floor, because of how many people had stepped on it, because of all the cracks and the holes in the floor. And yes, that relates so closely to what alluvius is. I only found this connection later as it’s always the case with my work. I seep myself in the images, respond, make work, and later find connections between them. This is my process.
Rail: The texture of that drawing, the labor of your hand, gives that essence to the image. A photograph, or a film still, could never create that feeling in the same way. The image would just be too flat, too smooth.
Raha Raissnia, Fountain , (2017), Charcoal and mixed media on paper. 36 x 60 inches (91.4 x 152.4 cm). Courtesy the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York. Photo: Stephen Faught.
Raissnia: Yes, I tried to do that. I tried to enhance the textural aspect in a physical way. That’s perhaps one of the reasons or the urge behind needing to draw and paint the photographic images I collect. When I make a painting or a drawing from a photographic image the challenge is always to make it come off stronger. It’s very difficult to do. I don’t always win!
Rail: Whether or not the viewer knows the source, everyone can relate to an image of a floor. It’s just so archetypal. And because it looks so heavily trafficked, it transmits this sense of age. When I think about how that sense of age correlates with the meaning of a vestige, as it relates to this well trodden floor, I wonder what these traces refer to?
Raissnia: Yes, the remnants of all the footsteps, the traces left, you know? I have a few small felt rugs that came from an old mosque in Iran. People used them to pray on for I don’t know how long. I love knowing that about them. I think I was drawn to the floor of that mosque through this.
Rail: Prayer takes place so close to the floor, and suggests to me the idea of being humble, or penitent. Recognizing that there’s something that’s bigger than you, that you can’t fully grasp or understand entirely.
Raissnia: Yes, and that’s why some people become believers in God. The ones with the big egos don’t usually. [Laughter]
Rail: So that image came from a found photograph, but when you go out to make photographs do you have a plan in mind?
Raissnia: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. For my last film, Longing, it just happened that I was up in East Harlem with time to kill. [Laughter] I got stood up and I was there for an hour, so I started photographing and recording with my phone. And then two years later I started thinking about that area and took out to see what I had recorded. I sensed that there was a lot there to revisit and so I made plans to go back in several trips. It’s not an easy place to photograph so I came up with ways of hiding my camera and had to adjust my attitude and the way I moved through space. So I switch from just casually carrying my camera as everyone does now to going to photograph in a more planned manner.
Rail: Can you walk me through your process behind all the drawings in the show?
Raissnia: Yeah, sure. All the works here were derived from my photographic works with 16mm film and slides. I went through a lot of raw footage and outtakes and carefully selected images I thought I could work with for this show. My process is very layered. I re-photograph, modify in the computer, print and reprint the selected sources until they are ready to be interpreted into drawings. I say interpreted because I give myself a lot of freedom to change the original image as I draw it and draw into it. As I said before the challenge is to transfer the photograph and bring to it a distinctly unique quality that only drawing can bring forth, a quality that is very different from a photograph.
Areas of some of my photographic works are of my paintings and drawings because in my studio images get recycled. I often project images onto paintings I have in studio and film and photograph them. So, the paintings and drawings enter back into the film and later get re-interpreted to other paintings and drawings. In my show at the Drawing Center the double screen I project the slides onto uses a painting. So there is a lot of crossover between the medias in my work.
Rail: The way your process feeds itself to create itself reminds me of the Egyptian snake symbol, Ouroboros—the tail eater.
Raissnia: I like the fact that I can photograph life; it’s food for me. Using a moving image camera and still camera that generates so many images—I love the fact that I can go through so much, pause and look at each image carefully from scans of films in my computer. I started as a painter and I am still fascinated by what a still image can carry. But then, of course, the moving image, the photographic material has its own magic and beauty. So I’m sort of addicted to switching between the mediums. When I exhaust myself in one I switch to the other, maybe similar to how painters like Picasso or Miró would switch from painting to sculpture, and of course one always informed the other.
Rail: Giving one medium a break enables you to see it in a different way when you return to it later.
Raissnia: Of course, that’s always great. I think the reason painters liked sculpture was the release from the flat surface. I think the reason Lucian Freud enjoyed looking at sculpture so much had to do with that. It’s a very different experience than looking at the model and translating it two-dimensionally. Similarly I receive something different from moving imagery and also moving through actual space to get an image than drawing and painting on a still surface.
Rail: Can you tell me a bit about that screen you use to project your slides on at the Drawing Center? It looked home-made.
Raissnia: In my old studio I used the same wall for my projections as I did for my paintings. One day I turned the projector on and it shined right onto my painting and the effect was very surprising. It gave me an idea to layer various surfaces to project on. For this piece in the show I have layered two different paintings on stretchers held together within a frame. The outer layer uses a sheer fabric that I have painted faintly with gesso. It both reflects the light and lets it penetrate through and hit the back layer that is a painting made with black paint on gesso. The surface of the black paintings is textured and varnished in parts glossy and in parts matte.
Rail: The painted background behind the screen reflects and absorbs the light, then?
Raissnia: There’s space between the outer screen and the back screen, so the thing brings much depth to the projected images of the slides, creating an optical effect that is sort of three-dimensional. Also richer in tone and texture.
Rail: I could just see the beginning of the effect in the gallery.
Raissnia: That’s often the problem with doing installations in a gallery—the lighting is always tricky. I need light for the drawings and paintings, but I need darkness for the films and slides. So when the room is small it’s difficult. But in this show unlike all the previous ones I have had I am intrigued with the faintness of the projection! It’s subtle.
Raha Raissnia, Canto, 2017 [detail]. Graphite and acrylic medium on paper. Ten parts, each: 9 x 12 1/2 inches (22.9 x 31.8 cm) Framed dimensions, each: 11 x 14 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches (27.9 x 36.8 x 3.8 cm) Courtesy the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York. Photo: Stephen Faught.
Rail: One of the things I was thinking about when I was looking at the Cantos drawings is how they seem to be variations on one another, and how an essential characteristic is this blur. In film, blur typically occurs because something has moved too quickly in front of the lens, or the lens has moved—the blur always refers to some kind of speed. So I was curious, in your drawings, how you thought about this blur as an aesthetic decision.
Raissnia: There’s no aesthetic decision, I arrived at the images through the use of superimposition and montage. Everything is from real life—the objects, abstracted forms, blurs you see and the spaces. I have this urge to layer and superimpose images. I kind of see it as a natural urge similar to the way our minds work maybe. As we go through life our minds jump around from one thing to the other and in this process we make sense of the world, or we don’t but just experience it that way.
Rail: I think it’s interesting how layering so many different images that are coming from reality removes you—removes the viewer—from a direct experience of reality.
Raissnia: Yes, I think what I am attracted to is how suggestive they become rather than being literal. This abstract quality, found similarly in music suggests in the viewer all kinds of feelings and visions that are not there literally!
Rail: We haven’t mentioned your series of screen prints, Nóstos, which also relate to the idea of memory. Can you tell me a little about how you selected those images, what you drew from?
Raissnia: I looked back at many of the recent works I’ve done on paper and made a selection carefully. In thinking about the title I suddenly saw them as scenes from a movie. It’s very nice to title works, because everything comes together somehow, always bringing with it meanings and metaphors. Nóstos in Greek means homecoming. In the Odyssey, Odysseus has gone through a tumultuous life or journey and longs to return home heroically. He has nóstos. But nóstos can also relate to nostalgia, which is a combination of longing for home mixed with pain. So, Achilles on the other hand in the Iliad had nostalgia and not nóstos because he decided to die heroically rather than returning home heroically. Several of the images in this series have the same head that is the same character in different settings. To me this head is my hero having nóstos. I envision him returning home at the end. I like happy endings!