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Person to Know: The Artist Who Is Selling Out Shows Just Two Years After He Started Painting

By Natalia Rachlin


Farzankia, 38, was born in Tehran in 1980 and came to Copenhagen as a refugee with his mother and brother in 1989. Just over two years ago, he gave up a successful career in graphic design and art direction to pursue painting full time.


A sculpture, shown here unfinished, in the artist Farshad Farzankia’s studio in Herlev, a suburb northwest of Copenhagen. The piece was later shown with Andersen’s Contemporary at the city’s Chart art fair.


Farshad Farzankia in his studio, located in an industrial complex in Herlev, a suburb of Copenhagen.


Unfinished works, some of which will go on display at Richard Heller Gallery in Los Angeles later this month, are stacked by the dozen against the studio’s walls. Farzankia works on rotation, beginning a canvas and then often letting it sit for months before he touches it again.


A corner for contemplation. The unfinished canvas in the background is based on the idea of an hourglass and is intended to be displayed either upright or upside down.


Watercolors, pastels, oil sticks, markers and chalk are arranged here and there around the studio. Most of Farzankia’s large-scale paintings start as small sketches on paper.


Though Farzankia works mostly in acrylic paint on canvas, he has also started to experiment with sculptures created from reclaimed scraps of wood. “They’re kind of like fragments of the paintings,” he says. “It’s like chopping them up, and it’s comforting to me to make them — it feels less formal.”


At just past 10 on a late summer morning, the artist Farshad Farzankia is sitting at a desk in his sun-seeped studio on the outskirts of Copenhagen, wearing paint-splattered Vans and old track pants, like a ’90s skater kid now fully grown. Nursing a can of Coke and occasionally puffing on a hand-rolled cigarette, he doodles on a sheet of printer paper. Stacked against the walls are the large hypersaturated canvases that consume his days (and often nights, hence the early soda fix).

Farzankia’s paintings are instantly appealing: Simple, figurative compositions of androgynous bodies, birds, plant life and obscure symbols, rendered in bright pop palettes, they are well suited to the age of Instagram. Less apparent is that he’s only been making this work for two years. In 2016, Farzankia, now 38, quit his day job as an art director at an advertising agency in order to turn his attention to painting, a hobby he had picked up some six months earlier, after years of idly drawing and sketching in his spare time. Since then, he has become one of Scandinavia’s most buzzed-about emerging artists. When, last December, the Los Angeles-based gallerist Richard Heller presented a selection of Farzankia’s work at Art Basel Miami’s Untitled fair, it sold out instantly. Now, he’s just opened his first major U.S. solo show, at Heller’s gallery in Santa Monica.

The exhibition, “Welcome to America” — a nod to the 1988 Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming to America” — features more than a dozen new paintings, and a few wooden sculptures, inspired by the films that preoccupied Farzankia during his childhood. Born in Tehran in 1980, Farzankia came to Denmark as a refugee with his mother and brother in 1989. As a newcomer who felt and looked different in a small and relatively homogeneous Nordic country, Farzankia reflected frequently on his own identity and belief system. Seeking both explanation and comfort, he often referred back to his Persian roots, not least through the films of the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami.

“I always wanted to make movies, and I guess that’s a bit what I’m trying to do now somehow: to tell stories, just maybe in single frames,” says Farzankia, whose work has a narrative bent. Specific characters and constellations, including two figures in discussion and family-like groupings, often reappear, as do themes such as otherness, multiple identities and cross-cultural exchange. Certain colours — pink, in particular — also tend to carry over from one canvas to the next, creating the impression of a cohesive story line that is continuously unfolding. “It’s the kind of work that makes an initial impression due to the graphic intensity, but there’s also the slow burn,” says Heller. “Farshad’s pieces grow on you and reveal themselves over time.”

Before Farzankia had gallery representation, he made his first sale, in 2017, through Instagram, to the Japanese billionaire and megawatt collector Yusaku Maezawa, who famously bought Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 skull painting for US$110 million last year. Maezawa purchased two paintings from Farzankia, both nearly seven feet wide, including “Tehran Blues” (2017), a striking cobalt work featuring three eerily blank visages and a fervent, Basquiat-like energy. Soon after, Galerie Kornfeld in Berlin and Andersen’s Contemporary in Copenhagen both approached Farzankia about representation, and last winter, Andersen’s Contemporary sold out a solo show of his work ahead of the opening night.

“Farshad’s a total outlier, an anomaly,” says the gallery’s owner, Claus Andersen. “He wasn’t formally trained, he came out of nowhere, and in Copenhagen there tends to be skepticism around that. But his work speaks for itself — you quickly understand that this is an artist with no Plan B. He feels there is no other option but to paint.” Institutional interest is also increasing. Recently, the Arken Museum for Modern Art, one of Denmark’s most prestigious contemporary museums, purchased two of the artist’s paintings for its permanent collection.

For his part, Farzankia is working as much as he can. He wants painting to be a sustainable career, and believes that “you get out of it what you put into it.” He is in talks with his Berlin gallery about a solo show early next year, and plans are afoot for an exhibition in Paris, also in 2019. But first, America, which Farzankia coyly admits feels like his biggest moment so far. It’s a place that featured heavily in his favourite movies as a teenager. “I wouldn’t be going to Los Angeles if it weren’t for these paintings,” he says, “For me, it illustrates that art is always the winner: With art, you can work around ideology or religion, it can take you anywhere you want to go.”