The COVID-19 pandemic may have put a stop to traditional art fairs and gallery openings, but it didn’t stop Kimia Ferdowsi Kline from showing her work around the world. On the contrary, she’s been more active than ever. Since the pandemic took hold in March, Kline has participated in fifteen group shows with galleries in New York, Los Angeles, and beyond—eight of which were virtual. Six of her recent paintings were shown at this year’s virtual edition of the SWAB Barcelona art fair by 68 Projects in Berlin. Her work was shown in Canada for the first time thanks to Galerie C.O.A. in Montreal, which included three of her paintings in a group show aimed at challenging idealized representations of the human body. She also contributed two paintings to recent auctions for the Lebanese Red Cross following the explosion in Beirut and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Radius Books recently approached her about publishing a monograph on her work.
A rising star in the art world, Kline is widely admired by her fellow artists, gallerists, and collectors like famed chef Francis Mallmann. Known for her exuberant use of color and dreamlike compositions, she received a B.F.A. in painting from Washington University in Saint Louis and an M.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute. As an Iranian-American whose parents fled during the Iranian Revolution, she makes work that explores her multifaceted identity.
Like Picasso in his blue period, Kline went through a period of painting gardens, courtyards, and other landscapes that represented her ghost homeland as she imagined it based on stories and images by other artists and photographers. Over the past couple of years, though, she has moved away from that type of work to focus more intensely on human figures. Many of her paintings feature two people who appear to be embracing or perhaps strangling each other—the ambiguity is intentional.
“I would say that my work is now very much about the duality that we have as humans in the sense that we really need each other, we’re social creatures, but sometimes those relationships can feel very restricting or toxic,” Kline said. “And just as my roles have shifted from single woman to married woman, wife, to mother, there’s obviously some joy and beauty that comes with that role, but there’s sometimes claustrophobia that comes from that role.”
She also started working with different materials, including papyrus and thread. “When I was pregnant with Cora, I couldn’t use oil paint because it’s toxic and it’s not good for the baby, so it forced me to look outside of my normal tool kit and find materials that were safe,” she explained. As she was rummaging through the drawers in an art store looking for something else, she serendipitously happened to find papyrus, a material she didn’t realize she could get but that she feels a connection to because of its origins in the Middle East. “I started sewing it using thread and what thread does is it stitches something up the way you get stitched up after childbirth, which I thought was very beautiful but also very haunting,” she said, adding that thread has historically been associated with women’s work.
The last three years have seen some seismic shifts in Kline’s life, which are understandably reflected in her art. She became a mother (her daughter is now two) and left her longtime home in Brooklyn and moved back to Nashville, where she grew up. Though she and her husband only planned to stay for a month or two to ride out COVID-19, they ended up buying a plot of land and are now designing a house from the ground up. “I don’t want to say we’re post-geography, but the bounds and limitations of geography have been broadened because of COVID,” she said, reflecting on how the shift to virtual meetings and even art fairs and exhibitions is changing the way people around the world live and work. In addition to showing her paintings in exhibitions, she has taught virtual seminars at Yale, SUNY Purchase, Temple University, Lipscom University, FIT, and MICA and has been teaching a weekly critique seminar for the NYC Crit Club.
Now that she’s putting down roots in Nashville, she wants to find ways to expand the city’s art scene, which has always taken a back seat to the music scene. “The potential of what I could do in Nashville for the artistic community is vast because it’s in the early stages of development,” she said, explaining that historically there hasn’t been much of an audience or collector base, but she thinks that’s changing. “I’m interested in starting a residency here and bringing artists to Nashville. I have all these connections in New York, Berlin—why wouldn’t I bring people here where there’s space?”
If there’s one thing that Kline excels at, it’s finding and nurturing artist communities. She’s been doing it for years as the curator for Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel, where—before the pandemic—she organized artist residencies, shows, and other events. When the world returns to normal, she plans to continue that work, going back to Brooklyn frequently, but her presence in Nashville will certainly have an impact on the city’s burgeoning art scene.