'SARKISIAN & SARKISIAN': Like Father, Not Like Son

Avant-garde painter Paul Sarkisian, best-known for his work at the revolutionary Ferus Gallery in 1960s Los Angeles, disliked the description of his work as photorealistic. His large-scale work wasn't him copying from photographs; many of the finer details in the work came wholly from his imagination. A painterly storyteller, the master was trapped between the “photorealistic” and abstract illusionism movements until Pop Art came along and destroyed both. Abandoning marketplace and critical limitations, he packed up his wife and young son, Peter, and moved to Santa Fe in the early '70s. Toiling in isolation for the past 40 years, Sarkisian carved out his own path, effectively disappearing from the American art scene. (Case in point: His spare Wikipedia page isn't even in English. It's in German.)

Orange County Museum of Art's “SARKISIAN & SARKISIAN” exhibition aims to rescue the artist's reputation from obscurity by exhibiting his work alongside son Peter's better-known video art. Curator Dan Cameron presents the work of the father and son as devotees of similar themes—boundary pushers in their chosen medium, fans of trompe l'oeil (fooling the eye)—but the two artists don't fit together so much as feel thrown into the same room with each other. Despite the equal pairing (24 works each) and the elder Sarkisian's work being grander in size, he's dwarfed in the end by his son's more memorable work.

The pieces from Sarkisian's “lost” years traces his work from the debated “photorealistic” period to his epoxy and polyurethane on wood of the 2000s. Standing up close to the life-sized UNTITLED (El Paso) of 1972-'74, letting it fill your vision, you're transported to a rundown storefront. Coca-Cola symbols bookend the store sign atop the canvas, with dirty, torn awnings awkwardly bundled below it and above the plate glass windows; torn corners of old fliers are still visibly trapped in tape, the fly-specked screens remedially repaired with duct tape while paint curls on the rickety wood front. At each edge are the beginnings of the building next door, extending the idea of a world outside the confines of the canvas. His fascination with trompe l'oeil continues in the less epic but still remarkable acrylics of flattened packaging—feed bags, old envelopes, the stray cigarette ad—the dull expanse of white behind them making them appear as though they've been pressed between glass. The detailed work fooled me completely—I thought they were massive photographic prints—and would never have guessed they were painted until I read the curator's notes.

Sarkisian's next focus—on artfully arranged, gaily painted squares and rectangles within glittery borders—feels more like a concession to the shallowness of the '80s. His larger, later canvases give us exploded versions of the same gift-wrap-scrap imagery, against backgrounds reminiscent of a less-depressed Pollack, but it and his later work—the black-and-white monochromatic '90s and the irregular, colorful shapes of the 2000s—while easy on the eyes, feels as though Sarkisian is shrugging off the last vestiges of commercialism, without any real drive or passion behind the decision.

Peter Sarkisian embraces his father's iconoclasm, but in a completely different medium. Video projections on solid, 3-D objects are his forte, and the results are a quirky combo of what-the-fuckery and mischievous humor. Whether he's using found objects or sintered 3-D prints, the digital sculptures (and their accompanying soundtracks) are so visually invigorating and downright fascinating you can get lost for hours in them, just trying to figure out how he did it.

Without too many spoilers, Cameron has picked amazing work: The eye is the window of the sole in the Buñuelian Morocco Is There, as a blinking blue eyeball peers out from a hole in the bottom of a worn-out shoe. A nude woman floats in a cereal bowl, her darker skin tone a rich contrast to the pale, milky liquid. Dusted, from 1998, is five projections on a six-sided cube, creating the visual of two adults trapped inside its sooty confines. As they shift and negotiate the limited space, they streak the dark walls, making their nudity more visible, but by transferring the blackness from the walls to their bodies, they contaminate the potential peep show.

The artist also insinuates himself into several pieces—pulling a Sunset Boulevard floating upside-down in a mug of diner coffee in the acerbic Cup'a Joe, for example—with the most telling a perfect metaphor for the entire exhibition: In Registered Driver Full Scale #1, projected onto the passenger side of a 14-foot fiberglass mold of a yellow Ferrari 360 Modena, Sarkisian sucks down beer as he speeds through city streets straight out of Grand Theft Auto. Smashing into police cars and other vehicles, tires screeching and glass splintering, he groggily backs up and begins speeding to his next accident, while father Paul, disappearing intermittently in the shadows of the back seat, wears a nonplussed expression on his face as he goes along for the ride.


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