Jordan Nassar’s favored subject is landscape. He embroiders his compositions, which are framed by, and built up through, repeating patterns adapted from traditional Palestinian motifs. At first glance his scenes seem innocuous enough. They comprise rolling hills, rendered sometimes in vibrant shades of red, while other times in more muted grays and browns. These hills are framed by a dramatically hued sky: oftentimes blue, as we might expect, while in other works it is pink or orange. In these the effect is of distant peaks dappled by the rays of a setting late summer sun. This idyll, which initially seems like an abstract anywhere, turns out to be imaginary, yet specific. The artist is of Palestinian descent, but was born and raised in New York City. Extending from this, his work evokes a very particular kind of imagined space: the sort of utopian vision of Palestine held by the displaced constituents that comprise the region’s diaspora.
In devising these landscapes it is important that Nassar always works from his imagination, rather than from photographs. His spaces are visionary and hopeful, but also tinged with recognition of the inescapable fact that their realization is foreclosed, at least for now, by political realities. We are made aware of this context for the potentially anodyne landscape images before us by the physical lens through which they are made and consequently framed: the traditional Palestinian patterns out of which Nassar composes his canvases. He first adapted them from books, and more recently has worked directly with female weavers on the West Bank, collaborating with them to develop works where the women select the colors and stitch the patterns, after which Nassar fills them in with his landscapes. Nassar relies on a modular patterned grid to compose his works. Incidentally, this is how this series of stitched works began, devoid of figurative content beyond the abstractions inherent to the patterns Nassar started out by copying.
Each recent work begins with Nassar creating a composition out of these patterns, sections of which he designates for the landscapes. He then sends this work to women in the Hebron region of Palestine who embroider the patterns in colors of their choice, sending them back to Nassar, who responds to their choices in his renderings of the landscapes. As such, two cultures coincide in Nassar’s canvases. The longstanding familial, matrilineal transmission of the embroidery tradition in Palestine with the Western, painterly impulses of Nassar’s upbringing and context as a diaspora Palestinian living in New York.
The decorative motifs themselves prompt a conversation about the relationship of Western and non-Western traditions. A distanced engagement with cultural heritage, as when Nassar worked from books of patterns, raises the issue of cultural transmission and appropriation. It was only after participating in a fellowship in Israel that he made contact with actual embroiderers on the West Bank. It then became important to Nassar to shorten the chain of transmission, collaborating directly with cultural producers, rather than filtering history and promulgating its decontextualization.
Nassar does not simply import or recontextualize Palestinian traditions, he brings them in contact with his own Western artistic background. For example, while several of the patterns suggest—as a Western eye might expect from “traditional” motifs—evocations of regional flora, as in the leaf-like forms in You Still Remember and the floral elements of You That Keeps Me Awake At Night. Others have geometric compositions that conjure the history of Western abstract art. For example, the radiating lines of Who Are You Thinking Of? suggest the concentric patterns of Frank Stella’s stripe paintings. This draws our attention to the pre-modern and non-Western context in which such uses of geometry emerged. These were decidedly aesthetic but, in our terms, “non-artistic” contexts. In Nassar’s works they frame a landscape rendered in Western, one-point perspective, causing the Western and non-Western to abut one another, existing both in clear distinction from one another, but also ultimately in harmony.
The interaction of the stitched pattern with the image it establishes, as well as frames, is a key aspect of how Nassar’s works operate, formally speaking. For we are not simply viewing a painted depiction of a landscape. Indeed, there is no paint to speak of in Nassar’s “paintings.” The color is entirely that readily available in commercial threads, which perhaps lends the work a sense of both coloristic vibrancy and accessibility via our instant familiarity with Nassar’s readymade palette. Further, the fact that the components of Nassar’s compositions both accumulate to form a singular vision, and break down into these compositional building blocks means that we are never seamlessly and securely transported into some imaginary beyond.
These patterned components of Nassar’s scenes can be further broken down into the individual stitches, which are legible upon close inspection. These evoke not only time honored craft, but also a digital context, via the sense of the stitch as a primitive pixel. Nassar takes us back to a technological moment even before that of the loom which, in the 18th Century, became the first machine to use a binary code, via punch cards that “programmed” patterns. We readily access the analogue between the individual stitches, which are readily visible upon close inspection, and the ways in which digital images are made up of accumulated data, even if at this point that data is largely invisible. To break it down in this manner, is to thus render the constructed nature of information self-evident to the viewer.
The invitation seductively extended by Nassar’s work, his landscapes seeming to beckon us to enter them visually, is always qualified by our sense of this as also a picture: an artificial, constructed entity. This brings us necessarily back to the imaginary aspect of Nassar’s landscapes, and allows us to understand them as utopian visions. In this sense they are unrealizable. But it must also be acknowledged that because of this the possibility is opened up for them to serve as ciphers or reservoirs of collective hope, anticipation, and thus perhaps even action. Of course these canvases are far from direct incitations to act. Rather, they can be seen as setting a stage, as having the capability of triggering a response, aesthetic and intellectual, that might subsequently develop into an action. It is in this sense that they might be understood as political, an important valence for Nassar since he recognized this potential in the reception of his more abstract work in a 2015 solo exhibition in London, where the question of his identity was consistently raised, leading the artist to decide he wanted to embrace and foreground, rather than elide, this aspect of the work.
It is fitting that a hero of Nassar’s is fellow Middle Eastern diaspora artist, the Lebanese painter and poet Etel Adnan, who also favors landscape as the subject of her work. Since much of the conflict in the region centers on land rights, especially as they relate to histories of colonialism, it makes sense that topography would feature prominently in the work of artists with a connection to this region. However, the work of Adnan and Nassar is not nostalgic, or even confrontational. Precisely by selecting imaginary landscapes, they evoke the impossibility of ever reclaiming this ideal space while retaining the importance of having some sort of imaginary image in order to direct and concentrate affective energy. Hopefully towards more realistic, incremental political ends.
Alex Bacon, New York, December 2018