Iranian visual artist Farzad Kohan on using social media in art practise, and challenging the self through a fragile new medium.
Los Angeles resident Farzad Kohan employs physical methods to shape his work. Art Radar spoke with the artist to find out more about how he uses social media to connect with others near and far, and what it means to be an “immigrant artist” in Los Angeles’ vibrant contemporary art scene.
Farzad Kohan (b. 1967, Tehran, Iran) is a self taught artist who has resided in Los Angeles since 1991. His work has been shown widely in California, as well as Amsterdam and the United Arab Emirates, and has been offered through Christie’s Auction House and the Young Collectors Auction. Kohan’s work can be found in private collections in the United States and the Middle East. He is represented by Ayyam Gallery in Dubai.
Khaled Samawi, Founder of Ayyam Gallery has high praise for Kohan’s work:
Farzad is one of the hardest working and most underrated artists in the world … time will prove his importance.
Art Radar caught up with Kohan to learn more about his experiences as a diasporic artist and how his work addresses the idea of migration and finding oneself through a unique blend of mediums and techniques.
You were born in Tehran in 1967, spent time in Sweden at age 18 and moved to California when you were 25. What was it like being a diasporic artist when you first arrived in the United States? Is it different now?
I got my first, serious taste of culture shock at age eighteen when I moved to Sweden. Moving to California was somehow easier. Los Angeles is such a big place with so many interesting things happening! Many people move here, so it is not a big deal if you are from somewhere else. It felt like home when I arrived and many years later, although I am an immigrant artist, it still feels like home.
Things are certainly different now, the city has changed and the people have changed with it. Artists are finding different ways to communicate with people on many different levels. Social media has really helped with this. The use of social media has connected artists with broader communities throughout the city and the world.
One example of me using social media to connect was my “Lost Paintings” project. It started in April 2010, when I wondered what would happen if I put small pieces of my art outside around the community, similar to the lost cats and found dogs posters one often sees. I was curious – would people take my art seriously if they saw my art on a wall outside? I started by making smaller paintings, with the idea of giving them away and seeing how far they migrated.
The idea was to push the boundaries and make the art very temporary and environmentally friendly. It changed the role of the viewer and gave him/her a chance to interact with the painting, touch it and even take it home. I relied upon random strangers to help me with this through social media. I numbered and signed everything. I mailed the finished pieces to whomever was interested and then these “collectors” put it out into the world for someone else to find. The “lost” paintings were trying to “find” homes. They went to twenty-three countries throughout the world! Several pieces even ended up in prominent European museums and went all the way to Iran. In the end, I had around 300 odd pieces out.
This project was a good reminder to me that we all move around and find different homes. Sometimes we get lost and sometimes we never make it. Sometimes we find places that we call home or we adapt to them.
Although you were interested in the visual arts, your primary objective towards moving to Los Angeles in 1991 was to change the Iranian music scene there. Is there a creative connection between your interest in music and in art that can still be seen today?
I come from a background where all of my brothers are musically talented. I started playing keyboard at age five. My older brothers taught me how to play simple songs and I will never forget that moment when I changed a song I had learned. It felt powerful, like I had changed it to something new and it was all mine. Music taught me how to trust my feelings and instincts and allowed me to express myself, something I still do on daily basis but I use different materials to do that now.
In addition to being a sculptor and a painter, you have a daily drawing practice, where you often use Persian letters and numbers. Are your drawings different to your paintings? How? What purpose does this daily practice fulfill regarding your creative journey?
My drawings and paintings are two completely different bodies of work. I have been trying to make marks with a lot of things that I find around me, from coffee and tea to motor oil and milk, sand, water, and so on. Beginning in 2013, I started drawing in sketchbooks. Before that, it was always on separate sheets of paper or surfaces. This was great because at the end I have a book documenting my daily experiences through the process of drawing.
The works range from my own thoughts and ideas to figures; from complicated forms to simple words, and from things that pass my mind in the moment to a memory that appears in my head. I try to capture anything that makes sense to me. They can be funny at times or dramatic or something that I encountered. They can be stories that I hear here and there. I have made over two thousand drawings, and I am only adding to the collection. In a way, it’s kind of cool to be able to say that I have more than two thousand drawings!
Please tell us about your experience teaching the Children’s Creative Art Workshop in Glendale, California. What did this experience teach you about creativity in both children and adults?
I started The Creative Art Workshop about seven years ago. I work with elementary school children and I teach them different ways of making images, how to use different mediums and mix them. Sometimes children have a hard time painting because they want to make a picture that looks very close to the real thing. I try to teach them that their art does not have to look like anything else – it is great the way it is and we can work together towards making it better. More than anything, I am helping building these kids’ confidence through the experience of making art, and I think I am very lucky to work with them.
Much of my work as an artist over the last two decades includes stories with kids, like when my “River of Life” paper boat project expanded beyond the context of its exhibition space and many local schools were invited to contribute to it. Of particular note was a child named Alex who was born with certain conditions and part of this programme. Most children in his class did not know how to make a paper boat when the teacher asked them to participate in my project. Since Alex was the only child who knew how, the teacher asked the rest of the class to learn from him. This allowed him to become friends with his classmates, something that never happened before because of a condition that limits him.
Your work has been described as containing layers or strips of meaning. What hidden narratives might someone see in your artwork?
I use many layers of advertising and magazine clippings, found paper, and paint. I build up these materials, refine and then paint over the resulting surface with multiple layers. I repeat this process over and over again. My work is very physical. My friends think I am sitting in my studio, sipping wine, having a great time! They have no idea that I am covered in dust, working with noisy power tools.
Our lives are constantly bombarded by paper. I am trying to make sense of this chaos by using paper in a way that recycles it back into my art without the element of advertisement being the primary focus. Sometimes you can see a slight glimpse of what it originally was but again, that is just a sign of day-to-day life in contemporary society, and I use that to make art.
Please introduce some of your series to us.
Soulmate belongs to a series of works that I did between 2013 and 2014. In this series, my skulls represent the commitments that are important to us and those we keep until we die. They do not go anywhere and are like a tattoo on our skin. Each skull is made up of words that construct the figure, repeated in the eyes, nose and lips. It is like they are seeing and saying and smelling the same things, the same commitment.
One Thousand Moonlights on Your Lips belongs to a body of work that I am working on at the moment, entitled “Love Letters”: a series of works on paper. It is a very challenging body of work, as I have eliminated the wood panel and am working directly on paper. We will see how far I am able to push the formalistic limits of this new series, which makes it even more interesting to me. It is as though all of a sudden nothing works the way it used to! I have a new reality in front of me, and I have to make it happen the best that I can, which for me becomes an analogy for migration. When you leave home and move away from what is familiar, you are dealing with unknown realities, different languages, cultures, etc.
My work is very physical and at the same time, very fragile. It’s a search for me to uncover something new. This new series is like that. The best part is that I really don’t know where it’s going. It’s a search for me more than anything else.
Tell us about the contemporary art scene in Los Angeles. Are there many Persian contemporary artists in California? If so, is it a tight-knit community?
Los Angeles has a great art scene. A lot of great works are created in this city with influential galleries and museums and lots of street art. Pretty much anything you would like to see can be found here. Los Angeles has a strong history of art that has been receptive to immigrants; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was one of the first museums to acquire Middle Eastern contemporary art for their permanent collection, and there are a few galleries that concentrate on Middle Eastern artists.
There are some contemporary Iranian artists in California but not too many. The art world is a small place. We are not a tight-knit community when it comes to visual artists – the support for other artistic disciplines is much more visible, but it is changing and people are learning about supporting visual artists and the importance they carry.
Any upcoming shows, exhibitions or auctions during the next six months where people can see your work?
I am preparing for a major solo exhibition in Dubai in 2016 and will also be showing my works on paper at Abu Dhabi Art this November.
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