Every so often Trivial Pursuits will be interviewing artists in a feature we’re calling Spotlight. In this instalment Ed Lines heads to a pub near Paddington and puts the questions to artist, Staphan Sarkissian. A portrait of Staph’s has recently been accepted for the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition.
Bio: Born in 1965 at Hillingdon hospital. My mother was the scion of a rich family from Jaffa in Palestine. My father, who was from Cyprus, was poor and uneducated. My earliest memory is of my father playing Backgammon in our Armenian Church in Kensington. Other than priests with beards and pointy hats, this is all I remember. I literally acquired a taste for art at an early age, when, during a lesson in creating blow paintings, I sucked instead. It was not a propitious start.
I first studied at Hertfordshire College of Art and Design and thereafter at St Martins. It was at St Martin’s that I had a brief taste of fame when I was selected to paint at a public exhibition in Senigalli. The event was hosted by the late Mario Giacomelli and broadcast on Italian television. I was certain that fame and great riches awaited. Unfortunately fate intervened and in my third year at St Martins my mother died and my father’s greengrocer went bankrupt. I applied for a job selling watches, which continues to keep me in food, wine, paint and canvasses.
Ed Lines: What happened immediately after you sucked the paint in your early days as an artist?
Staph Sarkissian: It was in primary school. I had to see matron I think. I can’t remember exactly what happened, but I know I wasn’t allowed to use that technique again. It probably had a lot to do with me being a gluttonous child!
EL: To what extent would you say that your upbringing is presented in your work?
SS: I’m not sure it’s necessarily an obvious link. The vivid colours you enjoy as a child, possibly?
Growing up, there was an Armenian kids’ book that I used to enjoy called Nazarette, which in English probably means Darren. He was a soldier on horseback. Much of the story showed how brave and heroic he was but he wasn’t averse to the odd childish tendency like eating ants. I remember thinking that there was nothing strange about that.
Looking back now I think that this is a kind of artistic sentiment. There are rational sorts of people and more artistic, creative sorts of people. In maths an answer is right or wrong; in the arts, this is not the case. Painting is this kind of creativity. My partner Juliawould say I do things back-to-front the whole time, but to me what I do is perfectly normal! I only realised this at art school, when I met other people like me and suddenly the things I did made sense.
When a rational person has a problem that needs explaining or some factual information, they might go to the library. If I have a problem, I go to the greats … de Kooning, Pollock, Soutine, Twombly, Bacon, Richter, Basquait … These guys normally have the solution to my problems.
EL: What was the last exhibition you went to see?
SS: Damien Hirst
EL: What did you think?
SS: He’s a guy who works with ideas and I’m not really an ideas man – conceptual art leaves me cold. You have to hand to it him though; he’s a great businessman and he’s laughing all the way to the bank, but his work just isn’t my thing.
EL: Why did you go?
SS: Well, I think it’s important to make a point of going to see artists you don’t like so you don’t make the same mistakes. But also, my friend had his two kids and thought it would be good day out because they certainly wouldn’t be bored.
EL: What did the kids think?
SS: My friend has a boy and girl, and as you’d expect, Ella loved the butterfly room and Alfie loved the cows head with the flies. They weren’t sure about the dissected formaldehyde animals though.
EL: I first got to know your work through your ‘Portraits of Rajasthan’ show at the Tabernacle in London last year. You’ve travelled around India pretty extensively, what was it about the Rajasthani people that captured your interest?
SS: They’re just so different. Perhaps because it’s close to the old spice routes, but in that area of Northern India, there’s such diversity and the make-up of the people is far more interesting than anywhere else.
It was also quite different to the Colorado landscapes I’d been painting before this series.
EL: Speaking of your landscapes, and cityscapes – they employ a similarly vivid colour palette to your portraits. Does it end there or are there more similarities to be made between the two genres?
Landscape in Snowscape in America
SS: I’m not sure there are. I’m quite traditional and you could say that painted landscapes and portraiture are traditional forms of art, but really, I just love using paint. The similarities possibly end there. With my strip series, I wanted to try and combine the abstract and the real. By using this technique, the strips help break up the canvas and emphasise the difference: real is what you see; abstract is what you feel.
EL: If you could ask an artist, living or dead, one question, who and what would it be?
SS: I don’t think it matters which artist, and I don’t think it matters what they say, but there are many that I’d just like to watch while they paint.
EL: Yes, that was quite a journalistic question rather than a question with a visual artist in mind
SS: Exactly, describing something is difficult as an artist because that’s not what we do. But I’d take any one of my favourite artists (de Kooning, Soutine, Pollock) and see how they apply paint. Watching anyone doing what they do from start to finish would be great. I can’t give you just one because it depends on my mood at the time.
As an artist though, art is at the centre of your personality; it is you. You have to be true to yourself. There are no rules. You can’t worry about what’s gone before or what people say necessarily. Gilbert and George, famously never go to any exhibitions because they’re worried about external influence. That might be a bit extreme but you have to be true to yourself.
EL: You have a full-time job as well. How does that fit in with your painting?
SS: I buy and sell watches – selling them to businesses or to individuals. It’s not easy, and you can’t just turn on a paint brush; like a lot of things you have to warm up. I’d love to paint everyday – that would be like winning the lottery. But unless you get lucky and make a lot of money, you have to be realistic.
EL: Talk us through your portrait that has been accepted by the Royal Academy for their Summer Exhibition
SS: Okay, I submitted two of the Rajasthan portraits. Now, which one [shows me images of both on his phone] do you think they accepted?
EL: I’m going to get this wrong. The right hand one?
SS: Well that’s what you’d think, but they’ve accepted the left hand one. So there you go – more proof that you just don’t know – there is no right or wrong in art.
You can see Staph’s portrait if you head to the RA Summer Exhibition, it’s in Room lll, the American Associates Gallery, painting No.387