Armen Agop is best known for his sculptures in black granite whose purity of form and texture seem to belie the laborious processes that brought them into being. The current exhibition offers a glimpse into another, lesser-known aspect of Agop’s creative life — a series of paintings that invite us to view both practices in a fresh context. Careful looking reveals intriguing connections between the two disciplines, emerging as they do from an approach that has more to do with the concept of play than with conventional attitudes to physical work.
The late theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once said, “There was no importance to what I was doing. But ultimately there was.” His words could almost apply to the work of Armen Agop. This is not to suggest a parallel between deep space physics and painting, but rather to identify an underlying philosophy shared by both men in their respective pursuits. It is an approach that draws on the positive benefits of open-ended experimentation and a particular kind of play.
Agop’s recent body of work emerges from a practice grounded in a belief in the creative potential of what in contrast to orthodox forms of work might seem like time-wasting. The paintings are the outcome of a certain attitude to studio time, and more broadly to life itself — “I don’t work, I either play or pray,” says Agop, who often indulges in seemingly aimless activities, knowing they occasionally deliver unexpected rewards.
The paintings in the current exhibition appear to be products of an entirely different creative approach to that involved in the making of sculpture. After all, working an obdurate material like granite would seem to have little in common with applying paint to a flat surface, save, perhaps, for the quotient of time consumed in both processes. However, on closer inspection these apparently contrasting technical engagements share surprising formal and conceptual preoccupations. One unifying characteristic in the current body of work might be expressed as a focus on the shared aesthetics of the ‘point’.
It is a feature that appears in the sculptures as a raised pinnacle protruding from smoothly sloping contours. In the paintings it takes the form of a kind of abstract ‘pointillism’ comprising thousands of near identical dots combining to form a cloud of colour against a light-absorbing dark ground
The choice of granite for the sculptures allows for the creation of a surface texture from which evidence of the maker's hand has been almost entirely eradicated. The presence or absence of the artist in the finished work has long been an issue of abiding concern in sculpture and is vital to Agop’s approach. “People talk about them being smooth,” he says of his granite sculptures. “To me it’s important that this kind of finish cancels the traces of the human factor. I may chisel them or hammer them, but afterwards I cancel myself from them.”
Agop’s granite works are clearly made by the human hand and yet we are left to wonder about the processes that brought them into being. They are notable for their formal elegance and purity of finish, qualities that have occasionally invited comparison with everything from Zen aesthetics to Scandinavian modernist design. Such interpretations fail to recognise them as in part a response to their creator’s cultural hinterland. In many of the granite works the eye is drawn to a sharp peak rising from an asymmetric, convex surface. The contours are rendered with such acuity as to visually defy the hardness of the granite. The material seems almost to have been poured, or to have flowed into its present form rather than having been coaxed into being with hard tools over countless hours. Sand dunes naturally spring to mind. Having spent time in the deserts of North Africa in his youth, Agop is happy to acknowledge that arid landscape as a distant influence.
Agop is Egyptian. He grew up in Cairo of Armenian parentage. From an early age his natural aptitude for painting and drawing was encouraged by his mother. At age fifteen he acquired his first book on Cézanne and thereafter began familiarising himself with the major figures and movements of western art. Entering the academy at eighteen he was determined to learn every discipline in order not to be constrained by any one of them. He eventually decided to settle on sculpture and went on to win the Prix de Rome. This occasioned a move to the Eternal City where he set up a sculpture studio. Throughout this time he continued to paint and draw, albeit only occasionally and largely for his own enjoyment. However, like so many artists before him, he soon responded to the siren call of Pietrasanta, the world-renowned sculpture commune in Tuscany. He has lived and worked there for the past twenty years.
His early experience of the desert landscape has stayed with him, however. “It was in the desert that I really learned how to see. At first you don’t see anything; there’s just sand and yellow and the dazzling sun and you can’t even open your eyes at the beginning. But that’s where I really began to notice things — like the passage of time. You go back to the same place maybe two weeks later and something subtle has changed. The sands are continuously moved by the wind, sometimes over months, sometimes over weeks, sometimes days”.
The granite sculptures might be seen in part as a transposition of those early experiences into three-dimensional form. They can take months to create. Each surface pinnacle becomes the cynosure to which the eye is inexorably drawn. This may be the most interesting connection with the recent series of paintings.
The black canvases offer an oblique reminder that ninety-six percent of the universe is in darkness, a scientific fact unavailable to the eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke who nevertheless included darkness as one of the defining qualities of the philosophical Sublime. The profundity of the darkness in Agop’s paintings is accentuated by another presence, an indication of light — mists of colour hovering on the surface, yet seeming to emanate from the abyss. If these works offer intimations of astronomical deep space, of ancient stars, or distant galaxies, such outcomes were never intentional, says Agop. He is surely aware, however of the importance of stars in ancient Egyptian mythology in which the dead aspired to live on among the nocturnal constellations. The ceilings of pharaohs’ tombs were often decorated with stars to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. The recent paintings are not aiming at representation or depiction of any kind, however. This is not space art. The process is all- important, for again these works are the outcome of a form of meditative play involving the painstaking application, one by one, by hand, of tiny points of colour. Together they may combine to evoke extraterrestrial nebulae, or perhaps swarms of marine organisms viewed from the depths of the deepest oceanic trench, but this was never the goal. Rather, the veils of coloured light are the result of a repetitive action which, Agop readily suggests, could be done by anyone with the time to spare. “It’s not an accident, because if I’m standing in front of the canvas for three hours, that’s not accidental.” Confronting a black canvas, pen in hand, applying tiny points of colour, requires infinite patience and the humility to surrender oneself to an ascetic activity. Hence the title of the exhibition, which refers not merely to the repetitive process of making these paintings — a kind of gestural mantra — but also to the state of mind required to undertake the same task hour after hour, week after week, sometimes with little to show for the labour expended. There may have seemed no importance to what he was doing, but ultimately there was.
The new paintings don’t translate well to a digital medium; their luminosity tends to dissolve into a pixellated blur, even at high resolution. This is a critical aspect to consider for it emphasises the importance of direct visual engagement with the work and much can depend on how far away one stands from the surface of the painting. Contemplating the mantra-like process that went into creating these skeins of colour somehow deepens the immersive quality of the viewing experience. And the viewer’s share has always been important to Agop. An earlier sculpture series entitled Touch featured works that played with balance in such a way as to invite the viewer to touch the work, thereby making it rock from side to side. Granite will absorb such tactile interaction in ways that marble cannot.
What surprising bounties emerge from the joy of play! To quote Richard Feynman again: “Why did I enjoy physics? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing — it didn't have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with.” Like Feynman, Armen Agop invites us to share the creative consequences of his playing and praying...and what an enriching experience it is.
DR. TOM fLYNN OCtOBER 2019