Artist of the Week: Jordan Nassar

Jordan Nassar’s work addresses the intersection of craft, language, history, (geo)politics, and technology. Focusing on the intricacies of identity and cultural participation, as an Arab-Polish-American, Nassar treats traditional craft more as medium than topic, using contemporary visual language to examine subjects such as cultural heritage, ownership and exchange; geography, politics, and orientalism; symbology, codes and language systems; superstition and religious belief; historical representational and geometric abstraction; and contemporary computerized visuals. Nassar lives and works in New York City.

What are some recent, upcoming or current projects you are working on? I recently had my first solo show at Evelyn Yard in London. For the fall I’ll have a few pieces at some art fairs with Evelyn Yard, and am also in a group show at Exile in Berlin in September. Right now I’m super busy with work at Printed Matter, but once the NY Art Book Fair happens (opening September 17!), I’ll have much more studio time… and I’m working on my first artist’s book, to be co-published with Endless Editions.

What is one of the bigger challenges you and/or other artists are struggling with these days and how do you see it developing? I think the answer people expect for this is to be about money, rent, competition, working hard, vying for attention and shows, keeping your chin up, etc. That’s not my answer.

My answer is about struggling with making work you think people will like, making work you think people will buy, making work that won’t piss people off, but making work that will shock… all of these things are tied to what I think is the real struggle — shaking them off, and making sure that your work is what you want it to be, and that it is saying what you want it to say.

There are so many things to get distracted by, and I think the struggle is not to get distracted by things that will only make you frustrated or angry or less productive. Who’s in what show, rejections from residencies, etc etc etc.

I think the struggle is remembering what making artwork is supposed to be about, especially when you live in NYC or similar places, with such a glitzy glamorous scene, so much overhead to make each month. It’s hard but the struggle isn’t simply to “make it”, the struggle is to stay true. You’ve only got one life, you know?

How did your interest in art begin? That’s a hard one. I guess in some ways it came from a childhood interest in craft – as a little boy I was always doing origami, lanyards, that kind of thing, which, as I got older, expanded into crochet, weaving, etc. I’m constantly watching videos about, for example, how to cane a chair seat, or how Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest weave without warping the threads. I suppose as I got older I also became a bit more intellectual, and so visual art was a natural progression, to satisfy those conceptual leanings. My entry into the art world was via working in galleries and for artists as an assistant, in Germany, and then, once I came back to NYC, in the admin areas of Printed Matter Inc. — specifically running the NY Art Book Fairs and LA Art Book Fairs. Arts admin (especially at arts non-profits) is definitely something I find very satisfying, especially the PM fairs, where I have a hand in bringing that huge community together (we’re up to 370 exhibitors at NYABF, with over 35,000 visitors last year at PS1!).

 

As an artist, I started making work about four years ago, which I suppose was also a natural progression — but only started when, due to other events in my life, I started working through what I feel is my fundamental “issue” — Palestine, Israel, and growing up with the conflict as a second-generation Palestinian-(Polish)-American raised on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, who is gay and married to an Israeli. My work extends beyond those things — I’m also very interested in the 20th century ‘struggle’ of many textile artists to bring textile work out of the craft world and into the visual arts arena. Gender and sexuality also factor in, but more in a contextual/cultural way, rather than manifesting in the content… so far. Did I get super off-track with that answer?

If you had to explain your work to a stranger, what would you say? I recently boiled-down my one-liner to: my work addresses the intersection of craft, language, history, (geo)politics, and technology. Vague, right?

Do you have any guilty pleasures? Tell us about one. I spend a lot of time embroidering — like hours and hours and hours — and to pass the time, I often try to listen to news, educational podcasts, language-learning tapes, audiobooks, music… but usually end up (re)watching things like the entire series of Friday Night Lights (currently), or the West Wing (not so guilty?), or Brothers & Sisters, or Grey’s Anatomy, or (worse!) Private Practice. Guilty!

What are you listening to right now? This week, mainly the classics: Mariah Carey. Laura Nyro. Grateful Dead. Beethoven. Mozart. Lots of opera. Nina Simone. Oum Kalthoum. Zehava Ben. Nancy Ajram. Gucci Mane. Young Thug.

What artists are you interested in right now? I’m having an Etel Adnan phase. Well, it’s more than a phase — I think she’s changed me. More than simply being interested in her work, which is of course beautiful and I find very moving — I’ve become very interested in her biography and where the work she makes comes from. Reading her books, reading books about her, learning about her life, but most importantly about her own view and understanding of her life, as an Arab living outside the Arab World, outside the Arabic language, and her relationship to her Arab identity and how she navigates that relationship, has helped me understand mine in a way I had never been able put my finger on. It has to do with belonging to a group while being an outsider; about participating in the culture, and appreciating the culture, and understanding that it’s not exoticism, romanticization, or nostalgia, but in fact one of many valid ways for emigrants (in Adnan’s case), or second generation people (in my case) may relate to their cultural heritage. And it’s about finding a way to claim that. And it’s about finding a way to have that be enough.

What do you collect? I certainly collect art and artist books. Of course I buy things that I feel like I need to have, but the thing I love about much of the art on my walls and on my bookshelves is that many are gifts from the amazing artists I get to work with/around. It means so much to me to have mementos of the years I lived in Germany, and the years since moving back to NYC, via my small-but-growing collection.

What’s your favorite thing about your city? I don’t know… bagels? I don’t know. I was born and raised in Manhattan, so for me the city is more of a fact of life rather than something to dote on.

What is your snack/beverage of choice when working in your studio? Salt & Vinegar Chips, Iced Coffee, Seltzer.

What do you do when you’re not working on art? Other than quality time with my husband and trying to see some friends, I work freelance at Printed Matter Inc., as coordinator of the NY Art Book Fair and the LA Art Book Fair, plus I occasionally go to art fairs to run the PM booth, and work with artists to make Fundraising Editions to support PM. This takes up a ton of time, of course, but I feel so lucky to be a part of PM, such a truly good art world and NYC institution, full of and catering to such passionate people.

Can you share one of the best or worst reactions you have gotten as a result of your work? Planning an exhibition I had in London this past summer, I had a conversation that threw me for a loop, but in the end helped me find my way. The body of work we exhibited wasn’t, for me, political — I was playing with pixels, types of abstraction, geometry, computer graphics, etc, via cross-stitch embroidery — but because of the inherent political nature of the medium — in that it is traditionally Palestinian — there were some questions as to how we’d address that issue. I felt that I had to preemptively brace myself for a negative reaction — that Arabs might feel that, in making these embroideries blue and white, I was supporting Israel; and, conversely, I know that gallery had some clients questioning showing an Arab artist (who, me?) with work that is fundamentally grounded in traditional Arab culture and imagery. I felt an urge to downplay the “Arab thing” — after all, I’m very gay, tattooed, American — and shy away from it so as not to cause trouble — it was my first solo show, after all. Anyway, we figured out how we wanted to play it, BUT more importantly, between that experience and thinking about Etel Adnan, I have more recently whole-heartedly embraced the fact that my work is political, but more importantly, it should be political — it’s important for me to poke and prod at this conflicted part of myself — it’s what, I hope, makes my work important, relevant, and contemporary.