I have been a fan of Kamyar’s work for a while. His life trumps the brain drain trend currently plaguing Iran. He went from California to Iran. Not the other way around. His bright colourful darkly humorous works are hard to fully grasp: a rubrics cube of ideas and visual cues, somehow all circulating around the same axes. I spoke with him over Insta Video from Tehran to learn more about his practice and what makes him tick as artist.
Billie Eilish told Vanity Fair last week that she wrote a new album during lockdown and grew a stronger artist. I on the other hand I just grew in KGs and don’t have much else to show for this time. How has the past year been for you? Both creatively and emotionally? To be honest my life didn’t change much. I generally spend my time being isolated and alone working away in my studio. What it did do is encourage me to be focused, I read on history and psychology, and quit smoking. I think extended times of introspection can be helpful for creative folk. Gives us a chance to really focus on our craft.
In your piece Shahrak Gharb (below), the foam-like spongey buildings remind me of the instability, and frankly bonkers circumstances Iranians experience everyday. But it is still funny. Humour is such an important part of Iranian culture and how it deals with difficulties. Do you think you are funny? Do you think your work is funny? I don’t actually try to be funny, that’s not my goal and I don’t think my work is funny. I can’t deny there is dark humour to the work but it is still serious. The bright colours and comic-like figures can be deceptive but that is part of how I engage viewers. How I invite them in. When they least expect it, they may end up seeing things they might not find funny at all.
Yes Ex-Party (below) is a great piece that got me all excited about a party scene until I looked up close. The bot-like figures all filled with toxic looking battery fluid. All different but all the same. So often people think that being happy is about going to parties and getting really messed up. Always in search of the next escape. It’s become so automated.
Does painting help you process (emotionally generally….)? Absolutely. But right now it’s my job. I work 10 hours a day at it. So this changes things slightly. Nevertheless, I still try to turn negativity into colour. Its therapeutic.
People have written about your work saying it takes reference from classical Persian book illustration. Personally, I see much more contemporary references with vibes from Seth Macfarlane’s world (American Dad/Family Guy), or Where’s Waldo books or even Mexican wrestling. How does this comment sit with you? I started learning painting from comic strips. My entire practice started from Lucky Luke, Asterix and Obelix and these wonderful illustrated works. But I don’t follow other peoples styles. I try to forge my own way and create my own visual language. Nevertheless, I do admit that like Seth Macfarlane (and comic strip writers) I am an entertainer also. I try to push my audience, to engage them and to provoke them to use their imagination. Each person will view my work from their own unique perspective and take away different things. I
It’s like you make these crazy busy universes of sardonic humour with so much happening. As a viewer you just can’t stop looking even if it’s making your head spin. With so much going on like Ex-Party or Parkway (see above) how do you know when a work is finished? Ex-party took me 4.5 months to complete. Its actually a larger piece 160 x 120 cm. I have a process whereby like a novelist I first research my subject matter extensively. Once that bit is done I do sketches and start to prepare the visual universe I want to create on canvas. I focus on colour balance and slowly in a calculated way bring everything together. Then I scan the canvas, up/down right/left, making checks and signing off on each part. Once that bit is done I move on and don’t look back.
Do you make cameos in your work? I feel like I see you here and there. Yes sometimes. There are also re-appearing characters (like a small yellow bird). I think this gives a continuity to my work. Threading one piece to the next and so on. It can also be very entertaining for those who know my work to look out for cameos.
Your colour palette is very bright, often florescent sometime almost toxic. The skies in New Rich Man (above), Miss Sunshine (below) look poisonous. How do you feel about climate change? Does it make you nervous? Since I can’t change the existence of climate change, it doesn’t make me nervous, it makes me sad. However I am a big time environmentalist. When I lived in LA we would do clean-ups and I would work and volunteer with organisations that were pushing the cause forward. At the moment I try to live responsibly, be plastic conscious, re-use as much as a can. The situation in Iran, like in most developing countries is not great so we all have to do our part.
In Iran, artists do not really receive much financial support from the government, grants are not common, commissions few and with the effects of sanctions, collectors less reluctant to buy new talent. But the “art scene” is extremely vibrant with artists working in the most remote locations really pushing the bar. What do you think motivates them (and yourself)? Historically, times of turmoil have always resulted in progressive art. When society goes backwards artists grow. It is a resistance. Ultimately, pressures push artists forward.
Kamyar tells me that at his shows, he stands outside to discreetly read the facial reactions of the those who have just been to see his work. Have they enjoyed themselves…has it made them think…have they come away having had an experience? This struck me as a little voyeuristic but in the end, if part of what drives his practice is to somehow “awaken” his viewers then this behaviour is surely legitimate. For me engaging with Kamyar’s work is like eating a bag of gummy bears. I just can’t stop until each and every colourful bear is consumed. Then I feel nauseous and wonder “what just happened?”. His work makes you reconsider everything.