Artist Interviews 2022
By Johnny Otto
You were born in Beirut in the 50's, right? What was life like as a child there and how did that influence your art?
I was brought up in a household where there was an immense love of anything that was cultural. My father was a draftsman, but also an erudite and mother was a very talented painter, who never pursued painting as a career. So, they both encouraged me in anything that had to do with the arts.
Beirut in the 60’s was a fascinating place, where the East met the West. We spoke four languages, we listened to Rock and Roll in English, watched French movies, followed the news in Arabic and read novels in Armenian. There were exhibitions, theatre performances, dances and all kind of cultural events almost every day, so for us, the possibilities were endless…until the civil war broke up.
You have said that your childhood home was filled with thousands of books. How has literature been a motivating factor in your work? And what sort of books in particular have been your greatest inspiration?
Books had an immense influence on me when I was growing up. Both my parents were bibliophiles, and I caught the reading bug from them very early. I started by reading books like Robinson Crusoe, and Journey to the Center of the Earth. As I grew older, I began to read all the classics, from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, and until now, I read almost a book a week. I try to read one non-fiction for every three novels I read.
As far as influences go, I think at one point I was heavily influenced by the existentialists. But I have great admiration for authors like Milan Kundera, Umberto Eco, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, J.M. Coetzee and so on.
You studied with your mother and with renowned artist Paul Giragossian. Who was the better teacher? Kidding. But can you give us more detail about how each helped to shape your art and your identity?
As I said, my mother was not a professional painter, so her knowledge of the craft itself was limited. She loved painting and she encouraged me to paint, but mostly still lives, and the basics of drawing and sketching. Giragossian, on the other hand, was an accomplished painter who gave us all the freedom we needed in order to paint anything we wanted, any way we wanted, which was rare in those days. Also, I was lucky because he paid special attention to me and recognized the talent in me.
You're a resident of Los Angeles/ How long have you been creating art here and how has this sprawling city changed the way you create?
I have been living in Los Angeles for the past 45 years. It took me almost 20 years to be able to make a comfortable living as a painter. At first, I thought living in LA was a temporary arrangement and that I was probably going to end up in Europe, where I had lived and where I felt more at home. But LA slowly grew on me and now I think, as a city, it is underrated. There’s so much that can inspire you in LA. This city’s horizontality gives me a sense of freedom and space that I truly appreciate. Also, there is something almost tropical about the city that, combined with the pleasant weather, makes me feel less restricted and claustrophobic.
Does music shape your art in any way? If so, who do you listen to and what does it do for your art?
Music plays a very important part in my art. I think I’m a frustrated musician. In my teens I used to play the guitar and sing, but I gave up music because I thought I will end up a mediocre musician and mediocrity scares me to death. I always have to have music when I paint. It turns my painting process into a dance, and I firmly believe that you can turn any métier into an artform when you dance to it.
My taste in music is very eclectic. I have my own compilations that might include Tom Waits, Buena Vista Social Club, Rammstein, Mozart, Nick Cave, Rembetiko and Gipsy music.
Has the student become the teacher? Are you sharing your knowledge with anybody? Teaching art? What are the challenges with that?
I am very lucky to be surrounded by youth. Artists, musicians, writers, actors, they all hang out at my studio and I can work even when my studio is full of people who are drinking, discussing arts or politics or just being silly. I incorporate everything that happens around me into my work. I don’t teach, but I try to help or inspire the youth around me. I must also stress the fact that I learn just as much from them. I guess the only challenge is to constantly remind yourself that you have just as much to learn as to teach.
Are you currently showing or have any shows coming up that we should know about?
My last solo exhibition was in 2019. It was an extensive show with Tufenkian Gallery. A few months after it closed the pandemic broke up and I have been stuck at home painting and writing. I still work with the gallery, and I have a whole bunch of new pieces, but I don’t know when my next show will be.
Any living artists that you want to collaborate with? Why?
I have done some collaborative work with friends, like Serj Tankian from System of a Down, or Jason Newstead from Metalica, and I have enjoyed the process, but in general painting with another person is not easy, unless you’re very close to that person and you’re doing it only for the fun of it.