Study after study warns that television warps the brain, zaps our attention spans, makes us fat and turns children into violent, brand-obsessed zombies. Peter Sarkisian notices the effects of screen time whenever his 8-year-old son returns home after watching a three-hour Nickelodeon marathon at a sleepover with his friends. "He speaks and acts differently," Sarkisian says. "It somehow affects his aptitude for everything else."
The 48-year-old artist believes that the physical nature of television (and movie theaters, computer screens and iPads, for that matter) forces passivity, numbing viewers to the real-world process that's unfolding. "Video robs us from an experience," Sarkisian says. "It gives a lot of information but there's no consequence in information. We need consequence. We need feedback. We need to know what it means to do things in the world instead of just watching them happen on the screen."
Sarkisian has spent the last two decades dismantling the confines of the standard TV frame through the use of a surprising medium -- television itself. (It's kind of like how Quentin Tarantino uses movie violence to explore the impact of movie violence, he says.) He does this by taking TV, quite literally, out of the box. Sarkisian starts with an object -- a pillow, shoe or steel pail, for instance -- and projects onto it a moving image, creating a three-dimensional perceptual trap that leaves viewers wondering, "What am I looking at here?" Without a referential frame to grasp onto, they blink in disbelief as they try to figure out where one medium ends and the other begins. The result: an experience, one of thrilling vulnerability. "I want them to claw their way out of a baffling moment," he says. "I want them to be confused."
These boundary-breaking multimedia sculptures will be on display April 13 to July 27, 2014 in "Sarkisian & Sarkisian," an exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art that ties together the work of Peter Sarkisian with that of his father, painter Paul Sarkisian. The elder Sarkisian, now 85, helped shape Los Angeles' burgeoning contemporary art scene in the 1950s. One of the first collaborative friends of the late Walter Hopps, co-founder L.A.'s Syndell Studio and the famed Ferus Gallery, and director of the Pasadena Museum of Art (now the Norton Simon museum), Paul's work was part of the most groundbreaking exhibitions of the time, including one set on the moving carousel on the Santa Monica Pier. It was the the first exhibition of west coast expressionism. Paul and his late wife, ceramic and jewelry artist Carol Sarkisian, co-founded the seminal Aura Gallery in Pasadena with pioneers Richard Pettibone and George Herms.
"Sarkisian & Sarkisian," curated by Dan Cameron, explores the legacy of the Sarkisian family, one that's rich with artistic achievement, tradition and friendship. While the two bodies of work are notably distinct -- Peter's lies at the intersection of film, video and sculpture, while Paul's ranges from abstract expressionism to large-scale, black-and-white facades painted with photographic precision -- both challenge viewers' perceptions of reality through the use of trompe l'oeil, an artistic term that means "fool the eye." "Only now am I realizing what kind of influence my parents had on me just through exposure," Peter says. "My piece Floating Pencil heralds right back to my father's paintings of newspapers floating under the surface of the canvas. It just makes a direct connection."
Paul and Carol met in art school in Boston, got married, then made their way west to Pasadena. There, they became friends with all sorts of brilliant characters, including artists Ed Kienholz, Wallace Berman, Billy Al Bengston, Phil Hefferton, Llyn Foulkes and John Altoon. Among their closest friends was Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, then a professor at CalTech. "He wanted to be an artist so my dad would take him out to the go-go bars and they would draw the girls," Peter says.
The Sarkisian family moved to Santa Barbara, Montecito and Mendicino before finally settling in Cerrillos, New Mexico, population 114. Paul and Carol purchased an old, abandoned schoolhouse, converting part the gymnasium into an art studio. That's where Paul would spend 17 hours a day, adding intricate, lifelike details to paintings that spanned entire walls. In a 14-foot-tall piece depicting a storefront in El Paso, the artist drew from both his memory and imagination when creating the tiniest intricacies such as bottle caps and matchbooks. He even gave a nod to a little bicycle that belonged to Peter, who was 8 at the time. "My dad would wake up every morning and say, 'Well, what am I going to paint today? What am I going to put up here?'" Peter recalls, adding that his father's good friend Georgia O'Keeffe chimed in with some advice for the storefront painting, though he didn't take it.
Meanwhile, the simplicity of life in small-town Mexico was quietly shaping Peter's views. "We hauled water in the back of our pickup truck twice a week," he says. "I learned to read by the light of a kerosene lantern. We had an old Zenith television that had two stations, PBS and CBS. I remember almost no TV." Yet the world of film fascinated him and he was accepted to the California Institute of the Arts film program. There, he was surrounded by budding art pioneers -- his roommate was Pixar legend Andrew Stanton. It was a time when people were beginning to use video in a different capacity, crossing over to the art world and working in the same vein as Bill Viola, Gary Hill and Nam June Paik. Peter eventually left CalArts to attend the American Film Institute in Los Angeles as a directing fellow. After a stint working for a music video production company, a job he hated, Peter moved back to New Mexico and started writing feature-length scripts to keep his skills sharp.
One day, some friends asked him if he'd like to join them in staging an art show. Peter jumped in, and started experimenting with video sculpting. The experience thrilled him. "I'd been working for so many years trying to reinvent narrative as a filmmaker, and I didn't see at the time that one of the big things holding me back was the two-dimensional frame," he says. "Once I started experimenting with objects, immediately, the frame was breached. I saw all this energy and excitement spin past the frame into the round, if you will. I thought, maybe this is what I've been missing." And it was.
Since then, Peter has been transforming the act of watching video from an "experience-killing medium" to an "experience-creating medium." He's forcing a sense of self-awareness through audio/visual illusions. The exhibition shows a thematic bridge between the work of father and son. Peter says it's also bringing new light to his father's art, which has somewhat been in the shadows for the past 20 to 30 years since he hasn't made the leap into the online world.
"He's always been the real thing," Peter says of his dad. "He comes from a different generation of artists who didn't put much energy toward self-promotion or going to parties and meeting the right people. He comes from a day when artists spent time with other artists and just created. That's who he is and it's a really refreshing, pure thing. It's also, in a way, been to his own detriment because he's sought such a degree of reclusiveness while the world has moved on. This show is about helping him cross over from his analog past to his digital future."
Sarkisian & Sarkisian is on view from April 13 to July 27 at the Orange County Museum of Art.
Peter Sarkisian Discusses His Works:
With "Book 1," Peter starts with a most familiar tome -- the dictionary. Onto the real, physical pages, he projects a video of himself. Armed with a black marker, the tiny, pre-recorded Peter scribbles out words and definitions, replacing them with his own commentaries: "Who cares!" "LOL!" "Blah, blah, blah!!" The piece is a playful prod at the texting generation. "It's an allegory for how language is becoming less sharp and less specific--and it is," Peter explains. "The 'like' thing is a big issue for me." he says. "Like-like-like-like-like -- it drives me mad."
"Cup'a Joe" transports viewers to a 1950s diner. "I wanted to explore this idea of the recurrence of Depression-era desperation," Peter says. "This was done right when the latest financial crash occurred, when people were throwing themselves out of windows. Coffee is like this comfort symbol, the national drink during wartime. It was always supposed to be the last place you could go to find comfort and here this guy can't even pay for his coffee so he kills himself."
To create "Dusted," Peter had two friends climb into a transparent, plexiglass cube covered with carbon on the inside of each surface. They begin completely nude and then move in a way so that the "dust" transfers onto their bodies. Peter projects a video of this performance onto a plain wooden cube. "It deals with the constant tug of war between these opposing forces. Expansion, retraction. Growth, decay. Light, dark. Clarity, obscurity. It's just the way we live. We grow strong but we're growing towards death. We breath in but we're taking air out of this environment."
For this piece, Peter had his friends tell him their most personal stories about the happiest, saddest and most frightening times in their lives. He turned them into ribbons of text that scroll through a circus of of pistons and gears. "It represents the real human moment, the real human memory, and so I wanted to pass that human experience through this media circus. It's much like the text scrolling across the bottom of CNN or FOX News -- you've got this action movie soundtrack in the background and you've got this good-looking talking head when all this vital information is just passing by underneath."