It is questionable whether painting is possible in the modern world. Every day thousands of fine art works appear in the market, but only a small fraction belongs to contemporary art. The mission of portraying a figure seems to have been completely transferred to video and photo media. It appears that traditional figurative painting cannot be surprising anymore and it is no longer the place where a radical and bold gesture might be accomplished. But Arshak manages to surprise, and his paintings are just like that – radical and bold.
A contemporary painter first and foremost introduces the facts of dealing with painting and of his mastery, rather than what he actually paints. There are no substantial contents anymore; the substantial is the artist himself.
Today, painting is possible as contemporary art only because it offers certain possibilities that other media do not offer at all or do offer in lesser quantities. In the first place, painting has a strong tradition that exceeds all other visual genres. Painters will always try to resignify that tradition by expanding and transforming it. Painting is not only possible, but also necessary, because it allows to create great semantic and image condensations. The greater that condensation is, the stronger the influence of art work becomes. The main complication remains the revision of the traditional ways of viewing the image in order to achieve that condensation and the creation of a new own system to depict the world.
Painting, unlike multimedia, conceptual object and video art, carries the feeling of human sensuality, human gesture, hand movement, and finger efforts that transmits the paint to the canvas. Paintbrush strokes and painting texture attest human presence: anthropology is the philosophy of painting. The glorious moments of painting were those that also became revolutionary for anthropology. Baroque or expressionism became possible thanks to the change in anthropological understanding. Today anthropology is in crisis, because the relationships between life and death, shape and transgression are being questioned. Painting is in demand, because digital technologies have become prevalent in human life and, to search for the human element, it is necessary once again to take recourse to figurative art.
The courage of Arshak the painter is featured in a renovated conection of the real and the fantastic, the human and the inhuman, the cultural and the savage. His drawings exhibit a complexity and subtlety that exceed imagination; he is one of the few artists capable of creating vast
canvasses with multiple figures and complex structure. As a painter he is, at the same time, an anthropologist of states of mind. The artist often depicts animals along with his characters, a fact that also leaves room to physiognomic confusing interpretations.
The characters are diverse and condense the enormous heritage of Western Europe. Arshak is able to create a new harmony between reality and irreality. According to his own testimony, he takes the prototypes of his characters from the subcultures of large cities, recording their anthropological mutations.
There is a vital area where the human and the animal become indistinguishable. The inhabitants of this zone are characterized as monsters, a mixture of human and animal. The monstrous is the deviation from the human norm, and the sense of monstrous is change, a testimony of the need to widen the zone of life, remove old criteria and establish new ones which contribute to modernization and social progress. Contemporary philosopher Slavoj Žižek writes: “What does monster mean? It can mean the monstrosity of social revolution: the children who have rebelled against the fathers, modern industrial production, asexual reproduction and scientific knowledge”. You may find all of them in Arshak’s canvases. That is the reason his everyday scenes seem to be full with social and political context.
When we say politics today we mean biopolitics, namely, political control over the manifestations of human life, which implies exclusion of the monstrous. The heroes of Arshak perhaps are those who have fled that biopolitical control. One of the reasons that figurative plastic art is not possible anymore is that modern life has stopped being plastic. Arshak seeks and finds that plastic life in subcultures that avoidcontrol, but mostly in his imagination.
If painting becomes modern again, the secret has to be sought in anthropological culture. It becomes modern, because it represents a new type of human being. Non-plastic anthropological culture meets medial and technological human being, whose character is connected to the screen. A painting tries to be more attractive, more vivid and alive than advertisement. In this sense, the main message of Arshak’s art to society is the following: a new human type has emerged, as well as new forms of consciousness, which are displayed through the new culture of gestures, mimics, and clothing, different from the culture introduced in advertising.
Arshak has several graphic works and paintings with the title “Orchestra Rehearsal.” The orchestra, certainly, is the model of society, but of what kind of society? Orchestra musicians have a particular social character, admirably introduced in Theodor Adorno’s article “Conductor and Orchestra”. Adorno writes that orchestra musicians are prone to sadistic humor and continuous jokes; they like obscene practical jokes. One may recall Federico Fellini’s film, Orchestra Rehearsal. This feature is probably related to the fact that many ways of sublimation are closed to man in musical space. It is particularly reflected in the famous stubbornness of musicians. They are constantly disappointed with their position in the orchestra and constantly disillusioned with their chosen profession. Orchestra is a mini model of modern society, where freedom of self-expression entails disappointments.
One may assume that, with their social character, all of Arshak’s heroes are “orchestra musicians” and can express themselves by means of instruments. For example, a woman has a fan in one hand and a piece of watermelon in the other. They are free and vibrant, often look negligent, are probably stubborn like Fellini’s heroes, but in that noise a hubbub is continuous and always present, and nothing significant will happen.
Costumes have a primary significance in Arshak’s paintings and sculptures. His vivid visual stories are told not only through gestures, mimics and poses, but especially through costumes. The clothes of the characters are often hanged like a sack; they look casual, sometimes even miserable. Clothes symbolize social exploitation and sometimes escape from the social, since a person lives and acts inside of clothes.
Besides paintings and graphic works, sculpture has also an important place in Arshak’s art. In the 1950s, Barnett Newman said: “The sculpture is what you trip over when you step back to look at a painting.” This casual opinion reminds us that the difference between sculpture and painting is in the way of viewing it: people look at the painting and go around the sculpture. Arshak’s sculptures have “come out” from his paintings and graphic works, and they also need to be looked in a different way. For example, a unique character emerging from a graphic work may be transferred afterwards to painting and finally may become a sculpture. During these transformations, those characters become more vivid, more alive, because the subject is the secret of life, that life coming out of its own boundaries.
Both paintings and sculptures of Arshak have dramatic contents; there, life stages itself and shows its whole power. I would like to call his sculptures “dimensional painting,” but we know that this term has been used by great goldsmith and sculptor Julio Gonzalez for completely different sculptures. In his sculptures, Arshak remains a painter, which brings to mind Degas’ “Dancers”: Degas’ wonderful sculptures were the outcome of his desire to see his painted images in tangible form.
Modern society is trying to find and define what is allowed, while science and bio-technologies are questioning boundaries between humane and inhumane, life and lifeless. More and more frequently we are changing our behavior, as if something inhuman had invaded our life. If we agree with Slavoj Žižek’s characterization, then, indeed, revolutionism is typical of Arshak’s paintings, yet it is not a social, but an anthropological revolution.
 Slavoj Žižek, “Family, libido and history,” Iskusstvo kino, nr. 6, 2007, p. 131 (in Russian).
 Theodor Adorno, “Conductor and Orchestra: Aspects of Social Psychology,” in Theodor Adorno, Selected Works: The Sociology of Music, Moscow-Saint Petersburg, 1999, pp. 95-107 (in Russian).
September 2008, Omi International Artists’ Residency
Arshak Sarkissian’s oil paintings resonated with an allegorical and historical strength which could only come from plumbing the depths of his Armenian heritage and world culture. He drew and painted during his residency. His colorful, though not brightly colored paintings, often showed a range of characters with various wide-eyed expressions. Birds sometimes crowd the canvas and through the visible brushstrokes take on an almost preternatural life.
A Virtuoso of the Unconscious
Arshak was a little boy sitting in a classroom in Gyumri, Armenia when he suddenly heard the crash of windows, desks hurled across the room, roofs collapsing, children screaming. He dashed out into shuddering streets. As he entered his the first ting he saw was honey. Honey poured onto the floors from cracked jars.
The colossal earthquake also a rupture of normal life – he would never return to his home again – is always present in his work. The whole nation pitched high onto the Richter scale of emotion, struggled with catastrophe, hunger and war. The family moved to Yerevan. His father, Ararat Sarkissian, one of the most revered artists in Yerevan, was a devoted taskmaster teaching the boy to draw, etch and print like an old master. He sent Arshak out with his sketchbook at dawn when there was scarcely any light in the city. He was told to draw what he could see: the old wooden houses now mostly gone, the characters surfacing after a long night whose inner lives seemed as fantastic as a winged bird or a man with two faces.
Arshak can make the unreal seem ordinary and the ordinary seem unreal. He watches with a keen cool, eye dipping in and out of the material world. He is a virtuoso of the unconscious. He draws his protagonists, who may glare at us with a baleful eye, groups them as if on stage, in lines or cavorting around each other fully conscious. Their world is set up to be gazed at. They know they are being watched. But can we be sure? Perhaps we the viewers are on stage in their theatre. His characters, such as the ageing ballerina have become so familiar to him that he must sculpt her, cast her in bronze, and bring her into another tier of reality.
The world is topsy turvy, a woman lies under a birdcage filled of chickens, an adult is wheeled feet first in a baby carriage, a suited man prances with a rooster’s head over his face.
The Boschlike chaos of intertwining figures, animals, fruit, paper scrolls, fans, benches, trees, resolved, or hybridized, reminds me of the apocalyptic visions of heaven and hell. I have seen the spirit of Arshak Sarkissian in the Renaissance Armenian churches of Isfahan, Damascus and Jerusalem, in the tortures of Christ and the saints by fresco masters. His forms and patterns pulsate with the positive-negative energy of Armenian miniatures and carpets. His richly earthy colour palette could only be organic, never synthetic. The deep purples and apricots of Armenian mountain ranges and gorges, their inside-out, upside-down volcanic rock contortions rumble through Arshak’s visions. Humans cling together, each sealed in his bubble, yet they need one another with a desperation that is conveyed by an artist barely thirty years old. With just a few flicks of his hand a penetrating portrait is captured and tossed into a composition. Arshak’s brush is robust and his tonality and register discriminating.
I have watched Arshak Sarkissian paint for hours without interruption, just as he dances, talking, laughing and whirling, without stopping for a breath or a drink, feeding off the well-springs of his own energy. This same exhilarating talent launches him into a free-fall from where he delineates the visible and invisible worlds, with the defiance of his people close to catastrophe, who dance and shout their love of life on his titanic canvases.
Nouritza Matossian, biographer of ‘Xenakis’ and ‘Black Angel, The Life of Arshile Gorky’.
Nicollette Ramirez is a Trinidadian-American writer, performer and arts advocate. Nicollette is the creative director of New York’s Chelsea Art Museum
COSTUMES OF OUR IMAGINATION
I have always maintained that my characters live and exist in reality. They are personages whom I have taken from life, with their typical characters and appearances. They are people with great imagination who are able to recreate themselves, as well as their appearance and costumes. They are raw material for my paintings and sculptures, who acquire multiple and unforeseen shapes and forms through my own imagination.
At some point, the medias of sculpture and painting began to not satisfy me. They seemed to be just an image. They were figurative; they did not convey my desire for a feeling of reality and presence. That was the reason I made recourse to textile media, whose plastic qualities give me new possibilities.
My spectator has noticed that my characters are always dressed. A naked body seems less expressive to me. A costume looks more communicative to me; it is a more powerful mean of expression for moods and states of mind. When dressed people form occasional groups, their costumes are especially suited to bring unexpected compositions to life. Thus, my aim is to discover such unexpected things. My characters have captured me just because they are unexpected figures.
People live their everyday life and wear, accordingly, everyday costumes. But there are people who try to cross the limits of everyday living and wear different costumes. Thanks to their imagination, they identify themselves with unreal costumes (perhaps also with unreal creatures) and obtain another body, an identity that overcomes human identity.
My prototypes often share their fantasies with me, they tell me about those fantastic creatures with whom they identify in their imagination. They tell me about the costumes, which they will probably wear only in their fantasies or in their privacy. Those stories were also part of my work and it is a pity I have not recorded them.
Now I decided to be more consecutive and to run interviews with people who are interesting for me. This will be the first phase of my work. I have prepared a questionnaire in advance, but I am also ready to act according to situation, just only to learn more about their imagination and fantasies connected to the costumes.
In the second phase the interviews, the answers to the questions will serve me as stuff for creating the costumes; they will help me to sculpt the costumes we wear in our fantasies. By means of their appearance and voluminosity some fantastic creature will be formed.
I have presented the unexpected one from outside, as personages. I would like to dispose the unexpected one from inside. Every such interview, which will provide the unexpected and the unforeseen, will provide an important detail for my creating costume, certainly reshaped due to my own imagination. Thus my costume will become an unexpected communication.