text by Varduhi Kirakosian
edited by Anna K. Gargarian
Busy rooms fill a long corridor leading to the IN SITU project space in Yerevan’s Malatia district. It’s the Gold’s Market building, serving as studio space for many artists, artisans, and entrepreneurs. Behind the doors of closely lined workrooms hide all kinds of arts and craftspeople deeply immersed into work that ranges from carpentry, wool spinning, metalwork to gold and silversmithing. One can also find storage units and even the odd food-producer on the fourth floor of this buzzing beehive.
Narek greets me warmly, walking me through the small but well-equipped room he’s called his studio for the past three months. Brushes line the tables, and paint splatters coat the floor. Lining one wall are shelves messily stocked with sketchbooks, masks, and other artworks. To one side, tools hang on the wall above his desk – wrenches, pliers, a hammer, more brushes. An oversized sofa sits across from the shelving unit.
“I tidy up the room quite often. Things are in their place,” Narek notes. He tells me about one of his favorite artists, Francis Bacon, who saw studio clutter as a kind of metaphor for the creative act. Behind the chaos of an artist studio, order is hidden; a bit of clutter doesn’t bother Narek.
Narek Barseghyan graduated from Armenia’s Academy of Fine Arts in 2015. Classically trained in the department of painting, Narek’s works are figural, though he has seen a movement away from realistic representation. Narek became a part of HAYP/ IN SITU’s artist community in April 2017, when he participated in the pop up exhibit, “DOWN_shift” with two artworks.
Since then, he’s participated in several HAYP exhibits including a solo show in the framework of the 2018 Armenia Art Fair called “The Leather Show”, HAYP’s 2018 retrospective “12,12,12”, and a residency program earlier this year entitled “Almost Human”. He has now taken over our Project Space at IN SITU art agency which offers various opportunities for artists to facilitate research, production, exhibition, and exchange around critical artworks. The studio is available on an application basis for a determined time frame dedicated to a particular project.
For Narek, the studio is a convenient walk from home and offers him large wall space for his oversized canvases, which can range from 3 to 4 meters in width. I ask Narek for his thoughts on artist residencies and their benefits. He explains that an artist residency grants new opportunities for exploring new settings, contexts, formats, and mediums that can be supported by new environments. This is Narek’s third residency, and second private studio residency. In 2016 Narek spent two weeks at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine (USA), thanks to the support of the former Luys Education Foundation. One of the highlights of that experience was his discovery of a deep interest in watercolor, a medium he used to hate. Narek believes that artist residencies widen the scope of an artist’s interests and expand their chances to explore and try new methods and techniques. Regardless, he can spend hours working on his own and without distractions, for him, it’s not a question of concentration. His style keeps evolving and he never stops learning. His inspiration comes from texts or lectures that he listens to while painting. For Narek, the process of painting is a good moment for him to digest the food for thought from philosophical, historical, and spiritual programs he follows on the radio. The only challenge to artist residencies, he tells me, is getting over his experience of attachment to a particular place.
“The studio is not just a room for artists to make stuff, it’s a very intimate place where you live with your heart and mind,” Narek explains. “And once you finally integrate into a space and make it yours, you become attached to it, and leaving becomes challenging.”
No matter what Narek does – he does it obsessively. His direction may not be clear in the very first canvas of each series, but he trusts the process. For Narek, capturing ideal details in painting used to be at the core of his early work. But in his third year at the Academy of Fine Arts, Narek started exploring new themes and forms that lead to a drastic shift in style away from realistic representation. He turned away from the classics and his original heroes, Rembrandt and Caravaggio, and towards American Pop Art and Neo-expressionist movements from the 60s, 70s and 80s.
From 2016 onwards, Narek began abstracting space and perspective to create collage-like compositions that incorporate elements of popular culture. Most of his recent work incorporates multilingual stream-of-consciousness text, vivid colors, and always a figural component (however distorted).
Narek tells me that his figures are conceptual, characters inspired by Heidegger, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Nietzsche, and other German philosophers. His latest series are contemplations of fantasy inspired by his dreams and spiritual folk tales, that invite us to explore an alien world dominated by an ultramarine color palette. His “monsters”, distorted characters that are usually bodiless, are inspired by Kali, the Hindu goddess of death associated with sexuality and violence. In art, she is often represented as a fearful fighting figure with a necklace of heads, a skirt of arms, and a lolling tongue. A mask of Kali hangs on the wall of Narek’s studio.
Narek’s Monster obsession has spanned the past two years, and he’s explored them in different media. Always fascinated by fashion, for a period Narek created masks inspired by Gucci and their performative runway shows.
His interest in fashion grew further when he visited New York – its museums, and even more so its design stores with their extravagantly designed shop windows.
“Zara shop had more art in it than most of the museums,” Narek explains. “Clothes there weren’t just placed for sale, everything in these shops was well thought out for visual impact.”
His interest in fashion led to a series of artworks and a fashion partnership with local designers called “Leather Show” an exhibit and fashion performance curated by HAYP Pop Up gallery in 2018. The Leather Show fashion collection was later featured at Armenia’s MADE boutique, and Narek went on to collaborate with other designers including the “Dare to Wear” brand where he was featured as a designer-painter. For now, Narek has taken a break from the fashion world, but he’s open to coming back to it in the future.
Having difficulty finding a studio space for the past year, Narek had been working mostly in digital art up until his IN SITU Project Space residency.
He tells me that he had to confess to himself how much he missed the real process of working with the sense of touch; colors and paints. He’s made some sculptural work in studio, but points out that mastering a new medium takes years. He hopes to explore new materials, and looks forward to the chance to work with other building residents, which he hasn’t gotten around to yet.
Narek shows me some of his recently completed canvases, which he keeps rolled up, either leaning against the wall or atop a large storage unit. One by one, he unrolls the works, taking care to remove the dust and check the paint surface. As he does so, he talks about different topics in art from theater to performance, fashion, and writing. He tells me that he’s recently been doing a lot of writing, and in particular, in recording his dreams. He is as enthusiastic telling me about this as I imagine him when waking up in the middle of the night to document his nightmares. He stresses that he’s a vivid dreamer, and that his writings are so detailed that upon rereading them he sometimes wonders how much of it is recollection and how much is speculation or interpretation.
Narek tells me he doesn’t consider himself a writer. He explains that writing his dreams occurs at a subconscious level; it’s the outcome of his immediate imagination and an exercise for better knowing himself. He’s fascinated by dreaming, and thinks of the struggles one passes through during nightmares as symbolic. Narek plans on turning his dream “adventure stories” into an artist book that would combine his writings with symbolic visuals that you can find across all of his canvases. Whether a “pause” sign, a projected tongue, or a combination of the two, Narek signs his works in his own hieroglyphics, a visual language he believes also stems from his subconscious mind and dream world.
IN SITU is currently working with Narek to produce his artist book as part of the IN PRINT program. While at Project Space, Narek will be developing his book concept in parallel to his Kali-inspired canvas series. Post-residency, Narek hopes to share this body of work through a solo exhibit.
“I just love watching people enjoy what I’ve created in the right environment, with live music, and among interesting visitors. It feels awesome. Even if they don’t know I am the author, I am just glad to share the positive vibes, and it fills me with a renewed power to create.”
The application for IN SITU Project Space residency is open on a rolling basis. To learn more about the Project Space and how to apply, visit our website here.