Yerevan’s New Visual Poet: A Conversation with Arshak Sarkissian
BY SONA HAMALIAN
Oozing audacity and wit, Arshak Sarkissian’s genre-twisting, dazzlingly imaginative paintings and sculptures leave the spectator with an exhilarating sense of liberation. With a flair for juxtaposing the animal, human, and plant worlds in dramatic yet tongue-in-cheek compositions, Sarkissian is a master of telling grown-up tales while also ruffling some serious feathers. No wonder he is celebrated as the visual poet of Yerevan’s youth culture, an innovator whose works have found resonance with the city’s dynamic spirit.
Born in Gyumri in 1981 and educated in Yerevan and Cyprus, Sarkissian has garnered international recognition. His canvases and sculptures have been exhibited across the globe, and many are now part of significant private and public collections. Named an Honorary Artist of the Republic of Armenia, he was commissioned to redesign the passenger terminals of Yerevan’s Zvartnots International Airport, and entrusted with the design of a joint Armenian-Bulgarian stamp.
Sarkissian’s work will be exhibited at the Tufenkian Fine Arts Gallery in Glendale (216 S. Louise Street), with an opening reception scheduled from 6 to 9 p.m. on May 18. The exhibit will run through June 22.
Our interview took place in Yerevan.
SONA HAMALIAN: Your paintings are marked by a certain pluralism in terms of subject matter. You seem to suggest that in order to be true to itself, a work of art must first and foremost be open to any and all instincts. Is this a fair assumption?
ARSHAK SARKISSIAN: The heroes of my canvases are manifestations of biological and anatomical transformation, and are open to all instincts, including animal ones. My characters — or, rather, personalities, as I like to call them — merge within them entire spectrums of emotion and identity, ultimately presenting the archaic as a possible utopia.
Also, all objects that appear in my paintings — whether they be animals, plants, or various objects, such as shoes — have equal status, and are treated as animate beings endowed with intellect. In this sense, my works hearken to the Middle Ages, when people believed in the existence of monsters, hybrids of human and animal, which intimated a real connection between man and nature. I think it’s precisely this connection, the melding of man and nature, of consciousness and instincts, which is lacking in modern life. You can see this connection in the works of Hieronymus Bosch, for instance. It’s about a “transgression” that might lead to the development of a genuinely free society. In short, I try to depict certain human aptitudes, possibilities, and functions that have yet to be revealed in earnest or have been lost in the tide of history.
S.H.: The human casts of your paintings are often juxtaposed with animals — and not always domesticated ones. What are some of the meanings of the relationship between humans and animals in your compositions?
A.S.: I try to show the fundamental interrelationship between man and animal, between the human and the animalistic. In man, the animalistic and the beastly have evolved alongside the strictly human. Whatever is animalistic in us is not confined to our prehistoric past. Note, for instance, that the Armenian language is rich with symbolism about the convergence point of human and animal — examples include the expressions “a girl as beautiful as a doe,” “an aquiline nose,” or “a tongue as poisonous as a snake’s.”
To me, of particular importance are concepts pertaining to birds and flying, because they can symbolize human liberation, whether physical or spiritual. I think the will to fly is an-ever present human instinct. This is why you see an array of bird-like characters throughout my works.
I also adhere to Renaissance painter Guiseppe Arcimboldo’s view of the intimate affinity between man, flowers, and fruits. In my own paintings, fruits and flowers are symbols of humanity’s future renaissance, because I believe that one day technology will burn itself out, paving the way for man, as nature’s most mutable species, to bring about a rebirth unlike any.
S.H.: Glamour, flamboyance, and the gritty realism of the jungle, its fundamental cruelty, make strange yet convincing bedfellows in many of your paintings. Is there a social critique tucked inside such works?
A.S.: Yes. I think, in our society today, narcissism and self-satisfaction are what drive the worshippers and personifications of glamour. I call these individuals “horrible beauties,” since their unmitigated obsession with fashion actually turns them into ugly beasts. Slavery to glamour has been a constant in human history. As the maxim goes, “beauty requires its victims.” In my paintings, the worshippers of glamour very much belong to the here and now. Their purpose, their very raison d’etre, lies in their process of shaping their individual inimitability, their personas, which in fact have no objective other than asserting their personification as vessels of glamour.
S.H.: Also with regard to the melding of disparate elements in your paintings, one is tempted to read all sorts of social or political critiques into these compositions. If, in fact, there are such critiques in your paintings, is there a strand, a central point of view, that runs through them all?
A.S.: My paintings are fundamentally figurative — often multifigurative. You see people engaged in strange, seemingly chaotic interrelationships. If there are standards of behavior in my works, then they’re certainly unconventional and go against the grain of social orthodoxy. Yet there’s no politics in my paintings. My characters are apolitical. Rather, they’re dreamers and romantics. They reject convention, and are audacious in their self-affirmation.
S.H.: You seem to have enormous fun depicting the phantasmagorical and the outlandish. How do you see the role of humor in your works?
A.S.: To me, what we call phantasmagorical and outlandish are, first and foremost, unusual, unique, and terribly beautiful in their wildness. The meaning of the Armenian word for “outlandish,” “chnaskharhik,” encompasses the terribly beautiful, the strange, and the wild.
Of course there’s humor in my paintings, but there’s no mockery, no ridicule or jeering of the type that seems to be oozing from television screens, that seems to have utterly surrounded us today. My characters might seem silly. But they’re not stupid. They just think differently. Even the accessories worn by them are symbolic of their unconventional take on things. For instance, when you see medals worn by one of my characters, you should interpret them not as decorations per se, but rather clothing accessories.
S.H.: Your paintings are known for their free-flowing stylings. You seem to have no allegiance to any particular school or genre, instead gleefully and energetically tapping into all manner of art-historical references. Is this important in terms of having compositional freedom?
A.S.: I think my works are replete with elements reminiscent of the Renaissance. Ever since childhood, I have studied the early-Renaissance masters, and my technique is based on classical values. But in terms of artistic approach, I consider myself a modernist — perhaps a postmodernist.
I have never thought of or tried to establish a personal style. Rather, my painting process is guided by internal factors. I try to stay true to myself and paint in a manner that I’m comfortable with. And although I give myself stylistic and compositional freedom alike, I have very exacting and specific conceptions with regard to technique, subject matter, and the story I’m telling through a painting.
S.H.: You came of age in Armenia, a country that had only recently become independent. You have also been acclaimed as the visual poet of Yerevan’s youth culture. What has it meant for you to be working as an artist in a nascent republic?
A.S.: Yes, Armenia is a young republic, and one that promises a great future. But it’s also mired in a multitude of problems.
My daily work is where I find inspiration. There’s a lot I want to do, irrespective of where I live. Yet, without a doubt, the fact that I have the privilege of working in my own country is extremely important to me. You know, when we talk about recognition, it must be said that not everything depends on the quality of one’s art. Equally important are all the things — the personal attributes — that make an artist who he or she is. You must be open and sensitive to the milieu in which you live. And if you can have a positive impact on that milieu, your work becomes all the more rewarding. Let me also say that luck plays a big role in whether or not you garner recognition, and that time is the ultimate judge when it comes to the value of one’s artistic output. I am proud to be and Armenian and working in Armenia. It’s the least I can do for my country.
Link: Yerevan’s New Visual Poet: A Conversation with Arshak Sarkissian