In Andrew Salgado’s studio, a dozen canvases with looming deadlines hang: large, abstract portraits of melancholic faces in a cacophony of colour. Half-finished commissions fill one white wall; a nearly complete series for the international fair Art Basel covers a second, while a third is taken up with in-progress paintings for an exhibition in Copenhagen. If the past eight months is any indication, works in the latter two will sell instantly. The Regina-raised, London-based painter is riding something of an artistic hat trick: three sold-out shows in a row, including his first major independent exhibition, at London’s Beer.Lambert Contemporary last fall, a collaboration with London’s luxury department store Harvey Nichols in April, and his first Canadian solo show, which opened at Ottawa’s La Petite Mort gallery last month. The works aren’t just selling, they’re selling within days—in Ottawa’s case, to a list of international buyers before the exhibit even opened, which was enough to make gallery owner Guy Berube so giddy he “could cry.”
Salgado, 30, now has the enviable problem of trying to keep pace with demand. He has upcoming solo shows in Cape Town, South Africa, and in New York, where One Art Space gallery owner Elizabeth Villar gushes that he’s “a new Lucian Freud”—the Briton who pioneered abstract portraiture. Villar says she’s caught Salgado “at the perfect moment, at the rise of his career.” Yet he remains largely unknown in his home country, which makes one exhibition critical: his first institutional show, at the Art Gallery of Regina this fall. “It’s not important for people who don’t know where Regina is and don’t care,” he says, “but it’s important for me.”
Tall and handsome, with a quick smile, Salgado is very different from his atmospheric paintings. “An all-round nice guy,” says Cape Town gallery owner Chistopher Moller, “which is rare in this business.” Yet Salgado is driven by curiosity about the human heart’s darkest, saddest places, and his success was precipitated by a homophobic hate crime in 2008 that left his body bloodied, but his vision and voice sharpened. “For four years,” he says, “I’ve painted men, and I’ve painted quite aggressive, wounded, vulnerable-looking men.”
That style, which included what he self-deprecatingly calls his “floating heads”—distorted, tortured faces in dramatic blues, yellows and greens—has landed him in exhibitions alongside British art stars Tracey Emin and Gary Hume, as well as the Harvey Nichols commission, where his massive canvases share window space in London’s most moneyed postal code with $1,250 Christian Louboutin boots.
Berube says he’s never seen an artist who understands the business of art so well. An astute self-promoter, Salgado fills his Facebook profile with photos of in-progress work, signs his emails with resumé highlights and flies on his own dime to exhibit launches around the world to talk with anyone who bothers to show up. He has no time for “loosey-goosey, where’s the ground?” artists, he says. He spends six days a week in his studio.
He traces his “love for the figure” back to the Saskatchewan landscape paintings of his childhood. “There’s a strong Canadian tradition of painting figurative the way figurative should be painted, painting landscapes the way landscapes should be painted,” he says. Yet he’s obsessed with challenge and change. Grocery-store baron and art patron Frank Sobey once told him no one will buy a brown painting, so he made one. Because people are naturally drawn to blue, he’s avoiding it. Because people have for years praised the haunting eyes in his work, he’s shrunk them. “Every day is a kind of beautiful struggle to surprise myself,” he says. “I’ve always paid lip service to the marriage of figuration and abstraction, and my drive toward abstraction has been a bit restrained. So I’m pushing it.”
Regina will be a “whole different kind of pressure,” he says for a Canadian more inspired by Europeans like Francis Bacon. He’s ready. “I’m going to do the biggest, most frightening works I’ve ever done,” he says. “I want them to be crazy.” He’s called the homecoming show The Acquaintance.