Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.
Photographs, no matter how high-resolution they are, cannot capture the complex textures of Farzad Kohan's paintings. He creates them by building up and removing multiple layers of materials using a painstaking technique that he has developed over the last few years. Nor can they satisfactorily show the minute details of text, image and color that are hidden all across the surface of the canvas or wood ground. The only way to fully appreciate one of his paintings is to stand in front of it and move gradually closer to it, letting it share with you its secrets, one by one. The artist has moved from one world to another, and still looks back with complex feelings at his old world, while at the same time pushing himself to explore what is around every corner of his newer life.
Kohan was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1967. As a teenager, he stood out from the other kids at school, choosing to wear jeans and grow his hair long, rather than conform to more acceptable modes of dress. By age 18, he knew that he would not be able to live the life he wanted if he remained in Iran, so he left his country and made his way to Sweden, where he spent five years. While there, he studied electrical engineering, but still didn't feel that he fit in socially in the Scandinavian culture. So, he made his way to the United States, where he has now lived for over 20 years and reinvented himself as a largely self-taught artist.
Over the two decades he has lived and worked in Southern California, Kohan's work has undergone various transformations. For many years, his primary focus was sculpture, most notably a series of human figures of varying sizes braided from a mixture of clay and wood chips laid over a wire frame. For Kohan, the frame of these Giacometti-esque figures represents "our human core, free of gender, race, culture or anything else that we use to judge one another." Although Kohan's work is largely apolitical, many of Kohan's wire sculptures cross over into socio-political commentary, like "No More!" (2003), which depicts a slender white figure of a man struggling to topple a giant pistol. In 2008, a time when U.S / Iran relations were particularly tense under George W. Bush, Kohan created an installation in which he suspended several of these figures from the gallery ceiling in various poses. They appeared to be naked and floating in space, either naked or lost, depending on the interpretation of the viewer, reflecting Kohan's own uncertainty at that time about his place in the world.
More recently, Kohan has directed his creative energies towards painting and drawing, producing a substantial body of paintings on canvas and wood over the last decade and over 2,000 drawings in sketchbooks over the last two years alone. "The most interesting thing about my work," says Kohan, "is that I don't know where I'm going. I just keep moving. Art making and being an immigrant are very similar. Both have a lot of unknown elements. The challenge is to make something of it." Although Kohan labels himself first as human, rather than an Iranian or an Iranian-American, his recent paintings do deal with issues of identity and the complex identity of the immigrant, who he describes as a mixture of all things. He straddles two different worlds linguistically and culturally: "I speak English but I still have an Iranian accent." This duality is apparent in recent paintings, some of which at first appear to be abstract creations bearing a single calligraphic phrase in Farsi. The inscriptions are phrases about love drawn from Kohan's memories, both from Persian poetry and pop songs, and so represent a lyrical and emotional connection to the land of his birth. Intriguingly, in works such as "Without Borders" (2012), these Farsi phrases are in fact the final element on a surface that is in fact built up from multiple layers of newspapers and magazines. The sheets are glued together onto the canvas or wood panel and then ground away in sections to reveal words and sentences and splashes of vivid colors. The areas of text that peek out from beneath are English. By burying English beneath Farsi, Kohan inverts our presumption of an immigrant's linguistic layering of new language -- supplanting old, suggesting instead the resilience and indelibility of childhood cultural acquisitions. In a series of skull paintings painted in 2013, loving phrases inscribed in black calligraphy, form the eyes, nose and mouth of a skull. "The works represent commitment," explains Kohan. "When we love, we make a commitment to love forever, or till death." The tattoo-like quality of these images is deliberate, as tattoos are also a permanent commitment.
His most recent paintings have taken a more complex cultural and emotional turn. In his work, "Always You Always Love" (2015), we see a surface made up of a grid of undulating lines, and blending analogous red and green tones that evoke the patina on ancient bronze. Looking closer, though, it is possible to make out lines of Persian text melting across the surface creating a ghostly pattern interlacing the grid. The Farsi no longer rests on the surface, but like the English letters from the strata of newspaper pages beneath, these words and phrases too have been buried and then excavated out again. The title of the work, "Always You Always Love," reflects Kohan's philosophy on cultural integration that, "Love is the only way to unite us." In this work, just as language has melted into pattern, time and space seem to have lost their boundaries, as the contemporary grid-like composition is blurred and softened by the ancient patina. What is left is what any immigrant, and indeed any human being, yearns for -- warmth, solidity, integration and peace.