Like Jackson Pollock, he favored the nonrepresentational over the representational. Like Georgia O’Keefe, he moved to New Mexico to paint in solitude. Yet much unlike any other American contemporary artist, Paul Sarkisian, whose various prolific styles of art making are represented at a current exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA), worked industriously for years to create dozens of paintings that take photorealism to an entirely new level of precision.
“Sarkisian and Sarkisian” is the first survey of Paul Sarkisian’s work that covers his entire 50-year career. It is also the first exhibition to pair Sarkisian’s work with that of his son and fellow artist, Peter Sarkisian and opened Sunday, along with “Time Capsule,” a selection of artworks recently collected by OCMA that each date from the 1970s or 1980s. The museum hosted a reception Saturday evening for the two exhibitions, welcoming Orange County’s most fashionable to the small museum in Newport Beach.
“When I went to Santa Fe, what I had in mind was a mid-career survey of his work,” explained OCMA Chief Curator Dan Cameron.
Cameron originally intended to create an exhibition composed of the work of Peter Sarkisian, who first achieved widespread popularity in the mid-1990s for his video sculptures and multimedia installations. During Cameron’s meeting with the younger Sarkisian in Santa Fe, where both father and son currently reside, the artist expressed that he had only recently discovered, after the passing of his mother in 2013, the many similarities between his own artwork and his father’s, and the idea for an exhibition of Paul’s photorealist paintings and Peter’s video art was born.
“I’ve started to see parallels that were never there. It’s been a wonderful and rewarding experience,” the younger Sarkisian explained to guests Saturday evening, in OCMA’s lobby, which is currently adorned with some of the older Sarkisian’s most recent artwork — large scale flowing cutout shapes in vibrant yellows and blues.
The rest of Paul Sarkisian’s works on display create disorienting yet intriguing illusions with their precise and meticulous realism and massive size.
At first glance, the enormous “Untitled (El Paso)” from 1972-1974, which occupies an entire wall, appears to be a black and white photograph of an actual shoe store in downtown El Paso, Texas. Yet it is really an actual-size acrylic representation of the store, a work that only gives its medium away when viewed close up.
“A work like this is almost impossible to explain,” said Cameron.
Paul Sarkisian’s other works on display, all acrylic paintings, create similar illusions, appearing to be collages, complete with shadows behind each representations of colored paper.
“They look like collages, but there is nothing collage-like about them,” Cameron said.
Perhaps Sarkisian owes his ability to produce such precise representations of mixed media using paint to his work ethic — he often worked 17 to 18 hours per day to create these works.
“You’d get a lot of work done if you had that much time,” Cameron joked.
Much of Peter Sarkisian’s artwork contains a similar precision, most works consisting of one familiar object — a pillow, a restaurant check, and a hot cup of coffee, to name a few — paired with high resolution video projections of fluff, a pencil, and brown liquid on these respective objects, and enhanced by appropriate sounds, bringing three-dimensional images to life in each gallery.
Sarkisian’s video sculptures are made up of video projections on large cubes in the center of two different galleries, and meld the concept of a sculpture — an object meant to be viewed from several angles — with the idea of a video as something one-dimensional, meant to be viewed from one direction.
“Hover,” from 1999, consists of four projections of a nude mother and child on each side of a metal cube at the center of a large gallery, showcasing a private event in the public sphere.
“It’s a domestic, intimate moment between mother and child but at the same time it’s not taking place where we expect it to,” Cameron said.
“Art is ubiquitous in culture. And it doesn’t matter where that culture is centered. It seeps through and covers everything we see, touch and interact with,” said Joseph S. Lewis, Dean of the UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts, who attended Saturday’s reception.
OCMA’s newest exhibition, above all, demonstrates that talent runs in the Sarkisian family and should not be missed.
Students can view both “Sarkisian and Sarkisian” and “Time Capsule” at OCMA’s upcoming student night on Thursday May 8.