Saturday, August 16, 2008

Art Space Talk: Fawad Khan

Fawad Khan's art deals with personal narrative and his present reality. Fawad challenges himself with cultural and visual registers: Large paintings layered with shellac and oil glaze as well as intimate ink drawings rendered with rough yet delicate representational linework resonate with childhood memories, travel observations, and media imagery, culminating with his present experience of hybridity. Khan works and resides in New York City.

Karakoram Express (Collision Zone), 2007, ink and gouache on paper, 22 in x 30 in

Brian Sherwin: Fawad, I understand that you were born in Libya and raised in Karachi, Pakistan. I understand that you now live and work in New York. Can you describe how those cultures-- or the clash thereof-- have influenced you as an artist?

Fawad Khan: Funny story--- when I was eight in 1986, at the end of a school-day the principal asked me where I was born. I lied and said Pakistan. My brother, four years older, corrected me in front of the principal and said it was Libya. I fought my brother on it as we walked out to the bus. I still remember why I lied—I had heard my parents talk about Qadafi, and was afraid of what the principal would think of me being born there. Irony is--- look at Pakistan now…

Speaking now, I think to have had such an origin makes me that much better and rich an artist. And in a way as an adult, I am fascinated with my childhood background that I then tried to escape. Those memories of being around eastern, muslim-based cultures, being born on a military base in Tripoli, eating different foods, studying at Montessori one day and PAF (Pakistan Air Force Academy---for officer’s kids) the next, my parents speaking anything from urdu, punjabi to arabic and farsi: it all impacts my pieces now. You know when artists say they lose themselves in their work? --- I think I’m always self-aware when in the studio.

BS: I’ve interviewed dozens of artists born outside of the United States. The majority of them have mentioned that they felt a sense of isolation upon moving to the US and that said isolation is reflected within the context of their art. Have you experienced that sense of isolation? If so, is it an influence?

FK: After my family migrated to the US, I was constantly trying to fit in throughout my young life. It was not until art school and eventually the move to New York that I really fell into my true self. Of course moving to the city in 2001 definitely triggered in terms of isolation. I think most artists seek isolation when we retreat into the studio, so to speak… so I suppose it was good for me to go through all that—(?)
Adversary, 2008, Acrylic wall painting, 72 in x 72 in

BS: Fawad, you studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the School of Visual Arts. Can you discuss your academic background? For example, did you have any influential instructors? Also, do you have any advice for students interested in those two specific programs?

FK: I did my BFA at MICA and have to say their foundation program is really strong. And despite their location, they are pretty tapped into the contemporary art world. One of my favorite instructors, Ken Tisa, kept his artistic practice in NY and commuted down to teach us. Others really kicked my ass when it came to work-ethic, great painters like Cliff Wun, Karl Connelly, John Ferry and Barry Nemett (painting chair). Even at this point, the school keeps close communication with many young alums and tracks their careers. You really see MICA’s worth when you realize how many young artists (who studied around same time as I did there) went on to tremendous graduate programs--- and eventually into the art market--- artists like Kamrooz Aram, Rashawn Griffin, Ted Mineo, Matt Johnson, Amir Fallah (of Beautiful Decay)…the list goes on.

Right after undergrad, I wanted to get to NY as fast as possible. SVA was my entry ticket and proved to be a great experience. At this time, I met amazing instructors like Marshall Arisman and Carl Titolo who taught me more about ‘NY life as an artist’ than anyone else. They mentored me during 911, which occurred my first week in grad school, in my second month in NY. In my second year, I was allowed to work with an external thesis advisor and I sought out Shahzia Sikander. At the time, she was taking part in Drawing Now, a great show at MOMA QNS and it just fit well with where I was taking my work. Every crit with her was like going through couple rounds in the ring with Ali and well worth it. While at SVA, I also met Jeanette Ingberman and Papo Colo of Exit Art who put me in my first NY show: Terrorvision (2004).

Citroenasia Grand (with chillipeppers), 2007, Acrylic wall painting and fluorescent light, 21 ft x 18 ft

BS: In the past you utilized paper and canvas as your main surface. However, you now utilize entire rooms or cover exterior surfaces. Can you discuss this transition? Was it a sudden change in artistic direction, so to speak?

FK: I continue to work on paper and canvas—but I always had a fascination with wall drawings, street art and transforming spaces. Luckily enough, this year presented a couple shows that dared me to think about finally doing it.

Working directly onto a gallery wall demands a slight change in process and expectation. For example, I did a 21 ft x 18 ft wall painting earlier this year at Exit Art’s Love/War/Sex show, fully knowing that after two months the piece would be gone. It wrapped up the wall onto the ceiling and around corners. That piece forced me not to be precious but rather improvise. If I made a mistake, I had to keep painting and make it work for the piece.

Time is also a factor with wall painting; you’re doing it in the environment where it will be exhibited, and that solitude artists get in their studios is lost completely because the end-goal is to execute by a set deadline. You have to adapt your process and I like that challenge.

For my solo at 33 Bond, I painted directly onto a crown vic that I gutted up, restored and installed in the gallery. Painting on this auto, unlike the wall painting, wasn’t a formal decision based on ideas of impermanence, but rather part of the concept…the car sculpture shows the application of Pakistan's traditional truck-painting technique onto a New York City taxi, a hybrid depicting two cultures assimilating. It considers the question: if one begins new life in the west, how important is holding onto eastern tradition, art or culture? By imposing a definite identity onto a vehicle otherwise always uniformed in yellow?

BS: What about the symbolism behind your art? Do you utilize any personal symbols in order to express yourself within the context of your art?

FK: Almost always. Although the main subjects are extravagant explosions, vintage autos and renderings of fragmented camouflaged forms–I’ve recently introduced more personal elements like chili peppers and pomegranates into the compositions (symbols from my childhood). They serve as formal design elements depicting motion, and in some cases, hinting at calligraphic writing. Sometimes I drop in cryptic dates or initials in the pieces referencing a particularly important time or person to me. I really believe in exhausting the symbols when making a body of work, they give the pieces a personal touch yet also start to form mystery for the viewer. There are so many people that ask where the chilis come from…others right away assume they are bullet shells. I like that ambiguity.

BS: Tell us more about the motivation behind your art-- the themes that you deal with. For example, is there a degree of psychology or philosophy that you adhere to as far as your art is concerned?

FK: The paintings are all somewhat hinting at car bombings, media-hype of this war and my overall obsession with violence. During my solo this year, one collector wrote on his blog that I connect current politics with childhood fantasies of cars and toys. I loved his comment because it’s so true, I grew up on GI Joe, Transformers and Matchbox cars.
When you put it in terms of psychology, I don’t know—maybe its frustration on the page or my dissatisfaction with our current political climate. Having my background while being an artist in the western world, I think it’s fair to have a voice in the matter... and also, I just want to make really strong works to represent myself well.

BS: So is there a specific message that you hope to convey to viewers? Or do you strive to keep the dialogue open to interpretation, so to speak?

FK: My goal is to ensure that the political content is not too overt. Again, the ambiguity is an important part of my pieces. I like a bit of personal-narrative in there BUT if a piece answers all of a viewer’s questions, what kind of continued relationship can remain between that person and the artwork? I prefer to hear what the viewer's background or experience brings to the picture (as well as mine) in order to complete the conversation.

Go Postal (We Deliver For You), 2007, ink and gouache on paper, 22 in x 30 in

BS: I understand that your art was represented by 33 Bond Gallery at Scope. Can you tell us about that experience? Also, what is your opinion of art fairs in general? Do you enjoy exhibiting at art fairs or do you prefer a more traditional form of exhibiting?

FK: 33 Bond Gallery has been exceptionally supportive. They not only gave me a March/April solo but a concurrent solo project at their Scope NY booth. I was in the midst of wrapping up work for the solo in late December, when Mitchell Minskoff (Director, 33 Bond) called me and asked if I could pull off another car-sculpture for Scope. The next day I was touring five junkyards in southern PA and northern MD for something. I eventually found a ’72 AM General Dispatch Jeep that I began on immediately. This piece lent to a real-life manifestation (in a quiet yet lethal way) of my ‘Go Postal’ painting.

You asked about by opinion of the fairs…it’s funny, but I get kind of an odd feeling when I’m just visiting them let alone taking part in them. Mitch and Alix Frey (33 Bond) totally understood why I resisted the fairs and opening-preview parties this year; they really get me as a young artist and know that a loud splash is not my way of entering into the market. When I did attend the fairs, I felt like I arrived at a closed party where the only people invited were the collectors, dealers and secondary-market-whores, aka art fair denizens. I guess that’s just how I feel now but I think if I continue to exhibit, there will be a time where I may just become numb to it all…and like any emerging artist, you have to learn how to play the game, right?
AM General DJ-5, 2008, Installation view, steel, enamel, rustoleum, plastic, tires, jeep seat 60 x 72 x 132 in

BS: You have been involved with exhibits at Deitch Projects, 33 Bond Gallery, Exit Art, and several other galleries throughout the United States. Where can our readers observe your art in person at this time? Will you be involved with any upcoming exhibits?

FK: I will be taking part in BRIC Rotunda’s September show, entitled ‘A Wrinkle in Time’. I became fascinated with the concept as soon as the curators approached me. It looks like a strong show with strong artists.

I’m also working with the Lower East Side Printshop as a Special Editions Resident. When finished, the suite will include a limited edition of four unique prints that both the Printshop and I are excited to unveil. I am still finalizing the works with their master printer, hoping to exhibit at least two by November.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the goals that you have?

FK: Well, when I got out of grad school, I was hungry but not desperate to show too early, especially when my work had not fully matured (many have a full body of work when completing thesis year, I on the other hand experimented until I arrived at a start--at the end). What I’m trying to say is in a market with saturated talent, any chance for visibility at the moment is good –but it’s costly. I think one can easily disappear, you go into that Chelsea world and you can blend in if not careful. The one thing I am trying to attain, which I consider a strong point in making a career out of art, is longevity. So I’m taking my time. For the last few years I’ve been editing which shows I’m going to take part in because I’m in no rush, I’m here to stay.

Artistically speaking, I can’t wait to start my next set of paintings. I have a studio visit in two weeks and nothing powerful enough to show—so time to work.
You can learn more about Fawad Khan by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor

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