Raffi Kalenderian’s third exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, “For the Dead,” features a mix of portraits and landscapes with sensitive oil and encaustic surfaces. Searching and poetic, Kalenderian’s paintings are richly layered and tinged with melancholy.
I recently asked Kalenderian about his background, his mentors and his approach to painting.
John Seed Interviews Raffi Kalenderian
Can you tell me a bit about where you grew up and what shaped you?
I was born in LA and went to high school in Laguna Beach. I had always loved drawing, loved sculpting clay, but I didn’t paint until college. When I was 15 I took a figure drawing class at the Laguna College of Art and Design. I became enchanted with figure drawing, it was the first time I had felt like I was truly good at something.
I heard UCLA had a great art program, but my high school guidance counselor told me I had a 0% chance of getting in. I absorbed his depressing math and applied anyway. I was accepted (!!!) and ran up and down the street screaming like a maniac. Someone once told me there is a word in Russian that translates to: “this probably isn’t going to work, but I’m going to do it anyway”. I don’t know what that word is, or if it even really exists, but if I ever do find this word, I’m going to get it tattooed in huge letters across my back, as it appropriately describes my approach to both life and art.
Who have your mentors been at UCLA and elsewhere?
UCLA was so amazing. When I applied, the only two artists I knew were Van Gogh and Michelangelo. I had no idea there was a contemporary art world. In Laguna Beach, people made kitschy paintings of whales and dolphins that they sold to tourists and hotels. I was now taking classes with Yutaka Sone, Jim Welling, Julie Carson, Don Suggs, Charlie Ray, Chris Burden, Lari Pittman, Roger Herman, Laura Owens...it was so cool. Plus the other undergrads when I was there were so talented, as well as the grad students. It was a special moment in the art department, I still feel so lucky to have been a part of it.
When I decided to focus on painting and drawing, Lari Pittman, Laura Owens, and Roger Herman were the ones who encouraged me, showed me artists to look at, gave me honest and constructive criticism, and basically made me feel like there was a place for me in the world as long as I committed myself to art.
Tell me about the theme of “For the Dead” and about your interest in Adrienne Rich’s poem.
My dear friend, the Poet/Genius Dasha Nekrasova saw my paintings for this show and thought I should read Adrienne Rich’s beautiful poem. I loved it so much, it made me cry. There is a part of the poem that can be read in a literal way:
I dreamed I called you on the telephone
to say: Be kinder to yourself
but you were sick and would not answer
The waste of my love goes on this way
trying to save you from yourself
Calling your friend on the phone to try and help them, this feels universal to me. Everyone must know what its like to be the one to make that call, and also what its like to be too sick to answer. But the part that makes me read it over and over and over is when the language starts to make leaps... it becomes impossible to read literally:
I have always wondered about the left-over
energy, the way water goes rushing down a hill
long after the rains have stopped
or the fire you want to go to bed from
but cannot leave, burning-down but not burnt-down
the red coals more extreme, more curious
in their flashing and dying
than you wish they were
sitting long after midnight
The words have a seductive rhythm, the imagery is vivid, but this is no longer for literal-minded people. The reader is now invited to participate with the poem, let your mind drift as you think about the red coals that are more extreme, more curious in their flashing and dying. The emotional weight of the beginning of the poem dovetails with the inspired, creative use of language in the second part.
The poem represents everything I love about art and creativity. However, I knew that I could never make a painting as beautiful and perfect as that poem, so it didn’t seem right to use it for my show. But I kept reading it, over and over, each time feeling stronger and more certain of how to finish the exhibition. I began to think of how press releases are often so phony, and the idea that someone might read a press release with this poem in it became thrilling. It would be the best thing they read all day! At some point it just became so obvious to me that the poem had to stay, to not include it would be so much worse, and the title of the show would be “For the Dead”.
Can you tell me about one of the portraits in the show and about the sitter?
I painted my friend Darcy Bartoletti in his studio sitting in front of his beautiful flower paintings. He told me these paintings came after making work for a while that wasn’t really engaging him, so he made what was most exciting to him. You can feel it in the work. Plus, I love painting other people’s paintings, it is so interesting. I think of it like covering a song, trying to balance the spirit of the original but to also say it in my own way.
Can you say a few things about your use of media and materials?
UCLA is an amazing school, but they don’t teach you how to paint (as opposed to a school like RISD, which makes you draw tinfoil over and over before you can do what you want....well, that’s what I’ve heard anyway). If you want to paint a certain way, you pretty much have to figure it out on your own. Just like real life!
I learned how to make oil paintings by going to the art store and buying oil paint, medium, turpenoid and then just going crazy in the studio. In the beginning I would use oil paint with a drawing mindset, and eventually I figured out how to glaze and stain, add seasoning and texture. Sometimes the paintings take two years and change a million times as I search for something that works. Other times a painting will be done in a day.
I have this rule: if it looks great, stop. And if I really have to go further, make another one. I think the future of painting is going to see a lot more variation by one artist, audiences are becoming more sophisticated, more open. Nicole Eisenmann is a hero to me, and I think the world giving her props right now is proof we are heading in the right direction.
What are your interests and involvements outside of painting?
I like watching NBA basketball and talking trash to my friends.
Raffi Kalenderian, “For the Dead”
July 16 - August 27, 2016
Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects
Project Space 1
6006 Washington Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232