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Art AND: Pooneh Maghazehe

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Pooneh Maghazehe used to make art in secret. Back when she was an undergraduate wrapping up her degree in behavioral science at Penn State, it seemed easier to make work and hide it under her bed than to deal with a career change before she really had a career. The self-professed “science nerd” wasn’t sure what to do until she did a study abroad through Temple University where she was able to take art courses for college credit. When she came back from Italy, she knew she couldn’t go to medical school as planned, so she made a U-turn into the design world, opting for the relative security of a master’s in Interior Architecture from Pratt. Her training there helped her start a career in interior design, which remains a passion for her today alongside her studio art practice and a new full-time job as a mom to 7-month-old Ramona, or Remy for short.

But one master’s degree didn’t prove enough for Maghazehe, and after a couple of years she found herself enrolling at Columbia University to earn an MFA with a concentration in sculpture, arguably one of the most competitive MFA programs in the country. She explains the decision to go for her MFA: “I think part of that was my willingness to fail and really having an interest in free-falling and someone being there to give me some critical feedback on my work. That was a bucket list thing for me, for people to just talk to me about my work, just to have the space for that.” 

Maghazehe still works steadily on projects as an interior designer, still loves all things science, and has been consistently building her career as an artist and educator between Baltimore, Pennsylvania, and New York for the past five years. The frenzy of pursuing so much simultaneously doesn’t seem to rattle her, and Maghazehe clearly approaches her winding path with humor, laughing that she has lived “maybe three lives” at 42.

 

Pooneh Maghazehe, Miami Shell Station, 2019, found piano bench, particle board, pine, acrylic paint, RedGuard, Celluclay, plaster, cloth, ceiling jack, bricks, beach towel, aluminum panel, LED light, Ikea furniture feet, 44 x 12 x 129 inches (height dimensions variable). Photo by Charles Benton
Pooneh Maghazehe, One Giant Wipe-Y, 2019, particle board, PlastiDip, concrete, Diet Coke beach towel, hotglue, Celluclay, plaster, ceiling jack, foam, acrylic paint, found Ikea shelf unit, rubber vestibule mat, LED light, Santa artificial snow spray, 44 x 12 x 129 inches (height dimensions variable). Photo by Charles Benton
Pooneh Maghazehe, Ross Half Double Head, 2018, Hydrostone, acrylic paint, 16 x 9 x 9 inches. Photo by P. Maghazehe

Speaking over Zoom with Maghazehe from her spacious garage studio in rural Pennsylvania, she sounds like many of the artists I’ve spoken to lately: surviving and thriving in a new way but also unclear about what a future after COVID might look like for her and her family. In the “before,” Maghazehe and her partner lived in Brooklyn, where he works in advertising, but they decamped to their Kintnersville, Pennsylvania, home so Maghazehe could finish out her pregnancy with Remy without the added challenge of life in New York during a pandemic. Now they’re biding their time, thinking about the best time to return to Brooklyn and their lives there now as a family of three. 

Relocating away from an urban center has forced Maghazehe to get creative about making sure people still see her work. She has taken to renting a friend’s New York studio for a month out of the year and setting up work to host back-to-back studio visits. When she can’t do that, she shows pieces out of her Jeep. She describes the process of selecting which pieces to pack into the car and drive up I-95 to Brooklyn as assembling a “buffet of appetizers” of her bodies of work.

Maghazehe’s artwork could be categorized generally as sculpture, though she did produce a series of drypoint prints this year for a show at CPM Gallery, reviewed in this magazine. She is driven by material, choosing as her subject a small memory or moment and drawing from it an abstract rendering of the human form, typically female, and the applied implications of that femininity. There is a simultaneous representation of things as they absolutely are—a Diet Coke logo or a girl or maybe a porthole—and the denial that any of these things are real at all. Scientists observe, but Maghazehe seems content to let the viewer draw their own conclusions from the artifacts she presents.

The challenges of this year, adapting to living outside of New York, and being a new mom have made Maghazehe more efficient, she speculates. She’s still figuring out how to get everything into a day but she’s confident it will happen. An ideal studio day for her would be broken into four-hour blocks where she can move in and out of the studio, starting first with cleaning and organizing, and graduating to making later in the day. 

She explains that as she’s gotten a little older, she’s realized she likes to get started early in the morning and be done working by the time it gets dark out. She also recognized that out in Pennsylvania, there is “a really different sense of time because there’s so much sky. So the rhythms of the seasons and the rhythms of day and night have really structured how and when I make things.” As the seasons change, so do her materials. Moving out to the (recently unheated) garage during winter impacted what materials she could use as well: Because it got so cold, things would become brittle and break. Adapting and problem solving excite Maghazehe and motivate her materially centered sculpture practice.

Over Zoom, Maghazehe and I talked about how she selects her materials, the importance of asserting yourself, and what she was putting in her early-pandemic salads.

 

SUBJECT: Pooneh Maghazehe, 42
WEARING: Vintage Ecko Red zip-up, eyeliner, gold bangles
PLACE: Zoom

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

Pooneh Maghazehe: I like things that I can pick up and put down—I like hanging onto an excerpt from a page for a day. Minor Feelings: Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong—this book made me feel seen. Moyra Davey’s Index Cards is next to the chair where I often nurse my daughter Remy. I like how Davey talks about cleaning out a fridge and domestic survival. A copy of Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge is on the kitchen table. Daily Rituals, Women at Work is in my bathroom, next to the toilet (no pun intended). I like to read about people’s routines, how they configure their lives.

You’re someone who has very much carved out her own career path(s) so I assume “traditional” career advice didn’t hold much water for you. Is there any advice you have received or read that you have found helpful in your life as a full-time artist who is also a full-time designer and full-time mom?

I’d replace the term full-time with “fully committed.” My work as an artist, mother, educator, and designer are what I’ve committed to—each is wrapped up in its own quality of labor and value. Of the four, taking care of Remy is my new throughline—the remaining are on rotation, and never on my plate all at once. A mentor once told me that having a child taught her to use time more efficiently—10 minutes has more value now than I could have ever imagined before having a kid. There are a few mantras that have stuck with me, some passed on from people and some from constant trial and error: 

  • Respect time.
  • Go where the love is. 
  • Give yourself permission. 
  • Keep following the breadcrumbs and don’t worry about where they’re headed.

 

Pooneh Maghazehe, 0 SPF, 2019, steel drum lock, acrylic paint, PlastiDip, 24 x 2 inches. Photo by Charles Benton

You’re not from Baltimore, and you don’t live here, yet you count Baltimore in your “Bermuda triangle.” What makes Baltimore a great and unique place to be an artist? 

When I finished grad school, I emailed everybody that I knew about wanting to teach. One of the people who I emailed was David Brooks. [Brooks helped me] get my first teaching job in MICA’s interdisciplinary sculpture department. I taught Sculpture 1, and after that I just made myself completely disposable. I took the Bolt Bus so many times that I accrued free trips on the app. Baltimore is a special place for me because of the people I have met and the amount of space that is available to make work and to live. It’s actually possible to make it by working a job and making art without the intense pressure and stress that destroys many people’s desires (or interest, for that matter) in making art. It’s also nice to see former students choosing to stay in Baltimore after graduation. 

How would you describe your relationship with failure? Is there any advice you give to young people about dealing with the disappointment that is a natural part of any career?

I rely on failure to learn anything. Failure connects to risk, which is critical for any growth or new insight. It also connects to curiosity and presence. Failure resists oppressive attitudes that attach progress or success to linear achievement. It makes room for a revisionist attitude towards anything.

In our conversation, we discussed your interest in starting a conversation with your artwork. Who do you believe is your audience and do you think it is the responsibility of artists to engage an audience with their work? How do you do that in your practice?

In 2013, I began making figurative works, people’s faces and busts—I think this happened specifically out of a need for my work to literally look back at me. I think that’s a good way to describe a “conversation.” 

An artwork is engaging with everything around it the moment it is manifested, whether or not the artist is actively in pursuit of “engagement” with an audience. An artwork’s point of contact with the world immediately elicits an audience, so I’d say I’m the first audience member. It’s important for me to make the distinction that I am an audience member, because it separates the attachment between me and a work. The work is not me, it operates on its own terms and my position is a point of interaction, just as any audience member. 

 

Pooneh Maghazehe, Bikini Half Off (Detail), 2019, Ikea sofa frame, aluminum, pine, acrylic, Red Guard, beach towel, plaster, cloth, Celluclay, particle board, concrete, ceiling jack, LED light, Santa artificial snow spray, 114 x 19 x 129 inches (height dimensions variable). Photo by Charles Benton
Pooneh Maghazehe, 2FOR1, 2019, Installation image from Kathryn Brennan Gallery. Photo by Charles Benton
My materials work like symbols. They point to a line of thought, sometimes a person or a place.
Pooneh Maghazehe

You describe material as being essential to your practice and your ways of thinking as an artist. While your materials shift with the seasons and where your studio is located, has there been a throughline? Is there a material you use so much you should buy stock in it?

My materials work like symbols. They point to a line of thought, sometimes a person or a place. Over the past several years, I have used materials that are waterproof because I am referencing an event outdoors near the ocean, by the water.

I also think that it is intuitive for a sculptor to have such an essential relationship to material. It is of the world, in the reality that we also occupy. For me, material has the ability to transform meaning beyond functional use in real space and space to become more than what it once was. That’s kind of magical to me, and probably why I consider everything I make sculpture.

There isn’t one material that runs through all my works. I would say my approach to material is consistent, not the actual material in the work. Stock? Maybe hot glue? PlastiDip?

What do you predict is going to be the next big trend and when are we all going to catch on to it?

Maybe the next big trend can be the anti-trend, like the late ‘60s Anti-Art movement in Japan. I think we’ve experienced enough collapse in enough spheres to draw from comparisons to the fallout of WWII. What was the tagline for the Anti-Art movement? A “descent to the mundane”? But then would that translate to American Normcore in contemporary times? 

Trends used to really stress me out because of their momentum. They bother me because I find them mostly oppressive, but I can get down with a new cute look. I love that long fussy nails are back. That’s fun—it reminds me of the acrylic set my best friend used to do for me at her grandmother’s and mother’s beauty salon, Ultra Tech Hair and Nail in Tullytown, PA. This super femme movement hinges on drag, which I really enjoy. 

When you’re visiting Baltimore, what’s something you have to do? Do you have a favorite local restaurant or a go-to order? 

I used to love going to dinner with my TAs during my evening classes. We always went to the same place, On the Hill—I ate so many meals there. I also would have to go to the local bar, Mount Royal Tavern—I had so many great hangs at that bar. I would always get a bag of chips with my beer. 

 

Pooneh Maghazehe, A Place in the Sun, Sands, 2021, drypoint print, 21 1/4 x 14 1/2 inches. Edition of 10 + 6 AP, Published by CPM Editions. Photo by CPM Editions
Pooneh Maghazehe, A Place in the Sun, Sands II, 2021, drypoint print, 21 1/4 x 14 1/2 inches, Edition of 10 + 6 AP, Published by CPM Editions. Photo by CPM Editions

Do you pick your materials and then make something with them based on the material? Or is it the other way around?

I think it moves in both directions. I like pushing materials to their limits and I’ve learned to pay attention to the materials that I intuit. I use them as wayfinders into my work.

The materials that I’m using right now are waterproof or water resistant and they are connected to a storyline, like I mentioned earlier, that is set on a beach. I’m drawn to the elements and symbols from that place outside: Materials are made to come into contact with water, like plastics used for waterproofing, gestures that look like drawings in sand, beach towels, parts of an oil barrel trash can, parts of a blow-up kiddie pool, black contractor trash bags that line the trash can. 

Have you had any pandemic-influenced hobbies or things that came back into your life because you’ve had more time to reflect on them?

I was one of the millions of other people making really time-consuming slow meals, or just, like, indulging an hour in making a salad. I got into the routine of “unwinding” at a civil hour, ideally at sunset—which is something that I had to practice to learn. But all of these new habits may have been a function of being pregnant in lockdown! I also altered sweatshirts from Costco and dyed a lot of clothes.

I want to know what goes into the hour-long salad!

The hour-long salad is more about the extra time I had to make an overzealous midafternoon lunch and feeling trapped by the obligation to actually finish eating it—I’m talking jaw pain from chewing, regretting ingredient combos like peas with mangos, not being able to backpedal from said choice ingredients, guilt in having leftover salad, bloat from the commitment to finish what you started . . . 

 

Pooneh Maghazehe, B.O.G.O. Six Pack, 2019, particle board, PlastiDip, concrete, Diet Coke case, hot glue, foam, acrylic paint, found piano bench top, LED light, Santa artificial snow spray, 74 x 25 x 33 inches. Photo by Charles Benton
My work as an artist, mother, educator, and designer are what I’ve committed to—each is wrapped up in its own quality of labor and value.
Pooneh Maghazehe

From Instagram it seems like you have a really cool personal style. Do you have a daily “uniform” or specific favorite piece of clothing?

Eyeliner. I don’t leave home without it. It started with a brand of eyeliner I used to buy by the dozen when I was in Iran when I was a teen. It was called “Bell”—was very, very cheap. I used to warm the tip with a blowdryer to get a nice black line. I used that until I was about 25. Now I use Infallible long wear eye pencil by L’Oreal in Black followed by Revlon Colorstay Sharp Line in Blackest Black.

My mother’s gold bangles are always on my left wrist—she wore them when she migrated to the US in ‘78. There are ten in total, five in a braided pattern and five with tick marks. I only take them off to pass through TSA.

I often wear a dangly single silver earring on my right ear that depicts buffalos and sickles. It’s a vintage earring from Zanjan, Iran, the village where the paternal side of my family is from. My favorite great-uncle used to give me antique odds and ends when I would visit him in Iran—it was one of his gifts to me.

What are the last three emojis you used?

🍩🦇💎

Inspiration comes from everywhere, but in a career it is likely that you’ll be put into context with other people. Who do you see as your contemporaries? Whose art is yours in conversation with, or if there aren’t any other artists whose work you see your own in, are there structures, places, or other notable influences on you?

Too many to name but . . . Charles Atlas, Michael Clark’s choreography, “The New Puritan,” his dance videos, I come back to Bruce Nauman’s “Clown Torture” a lot, the Luri nomads in the mountains of Western Iran (Lurestan), Cy Twombly’s wiggly white sculptures, Islamic textiles . . . Stalinist, Maoist, Italian fascist propaganda art . . . the PathMark brand “No Frills,” Dunkin’ Donuts, Kevin Aucoin ‘92, Boy George ‘89, Douglas Crimp’s vision, Amy Winehouse as drawn by Rachel Harrison, the romance in Paul Thek’s works and handwriting, Sun Ra, the late MF DOOM, Madlib, all old ladies who wait for the 38 bus with me and complain, Levittown, PA, where I grew up, Law Roach’s long flat-ironed, center-part weave from the show Legendary

Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?

Yes, my sign(s) match my personality: Sag rising, Pisces sun, Pisces moon. In everyday exchange, astrology gives people a chance to figure out what to make of you. Astrology gets goofy when it is reduced to only zodiac signs or when it is compartmentalized as the single channel into a kind of esotericism.

 

Pooneh Maghazehe, Pubic Gemini, 2018, steel drum lock, acrylic paint, PlastiDip, 24 x 2 inches. Photo by Charles Benton

 

Who are your art or business heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why are they the coolest?

Whitney Houston is undeniable. Her February 2012 interview with Diane Sawyer. Her 2003 phone call with Wendy Williams. 1991 Super Bowl. After she passed, some of her stuff was auctioned for cheap, I bought the pair of fake diamond studded clip-ons she wore for the cover of Time Magazine. I framed the earrings, and they’re on the wall in my living room.

Tony Conrad for many reasons. The way he explained any idea. The respect he had for his students. His public service television station. The fact that his hero was Pythagoras. I would’ve loved to sit on a city park bench with him.

I appreciate works and people that have enough self knowing to let go. 

What would your teenage self think of you today?

Relief.

Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?

When I finished college, I felt lost, depressed, and gained 30 pounds. I moved back in with my parents and got a job at the local gym as the front desk girl. I checked in members and sold Philly soft pretzels. I always had the 5 a.m. Saturday shift, which often looked like: partying until 3 a.m., changing for work at 4:30 a.m., opening the gym doors at 5 a.m. for the swimmers, the smell of sweat and chlorine, the sound of middle-aged moms in step aerobics class, and the sight of their snotty crying children nearby. I would eat half of the Philly pretzels and sometimes the “diet” pound cake that they sold. I never worked out in the gym. Later, got a job at Borders books where I ate all the Lindt chocolates while cashiering. Also terrible.

What have you learned the hard way?

What haven’t I learned the hard way? If you asked my partner Nick to describe me in one phrase, he would say “No, No, Yes.” I usually take the long way to anything. There’s more to see and I think I’m better for it.

 

 

*****

Pooneh Maghazehe is doing a residency this fall at Kino Saito in Veraplank, NY

All images courtesy of Pooneh Maghazehe

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