Interview with Michael Mararian
Michael Mararian is a radical painter who is truly in touch with his inner-child. His work blurs the imaginative fantasy world of childhood with the real-world issues of adulthood. He makes us question, like Peter Pan, if any of us are ever truly ready or willing to be completely grown-up. Why do you choose children as subjects?
Most of my work is about lost innocence and how examining the humor within horror can often help us find direction in our society when things seem at their worst. I use children, in this respect, because I feel viewers have more of a guttural reaction than if I painted adults. At first, they are drawn in by the child's cuteness and likeability; before they realize what they are looking at. A young girl seated forlorn, with a shotgun on her lap, or a bruised boy, pointing a handgun at the viewer, sends a much different message then if a grownup were doing it.
Where do you find the imagery you reference?
Much of it is from old photos I find at flea markets - on Ebay and online. Often, I will "Frankenstein" these images together - eyes from one - mouth of another- until the desired expression or reaction is achieved. Just recently, I did a photo shoot for the first time with a friend of mine and his two twins, which was fun.
What statements do you try to convey with your work?
There are two types of children I paint in my work: That’s the empowered and the weak - the pressure and pain of modern reality. I like to make statements on how we are a consuming society. We have become a culture of “more is better” and a place where going viral is a ticket to fame and fortune – but, all this pressure to be seen and heard comes with a price. It comes with obesity and violence and school shootings, etc...By looking at my work, I want people to realize there is nothing we can do about the negative byproduct of our evolution. But, we can seek out the humor in it as a panacea. I like to look at my work like punchlines to jokes. Here's this horrible thing made funny and when you realize it's a parody - it catches you by surprise. I can only hope it's hilarious, amusing or wry - if anything, a conversation-starter. Although, some people think what I do is really awful. And, they are right.
What does your family think of your work?
Well that's an interesting question to me. The short answer is they didn't like it. They liked the fact that their son was artistic and talented but for most part, they weren't into it. "Awe Michael, why do you paint those things?" was a common reaction.
See the thing is, I am an only child and my whole life both my parents wanted grandchildren. (Cue tiny violin -- lol) but the reality is my wife and I can't have children and we never really wanted to adopt. My folks accepted it for the most part. They have since both passed away with their hopes never having come to fruition. And, that holds heavy with me. In hindsight, I think a big part of why I painted kids as my subjects was the idea of creating children the best way I could for them but, at the same time, twisting their worlds as a means of retaliation against the pressure I received from my folks,. It's probably an issue I should be laying on the couch with a shrink for – lol.
Why did you decide to make the children you paint very adult-like?
I think points are easier to make using children when you are dealing with issues like gross consumerism, gun violence, obesity or any dire aspects of the American way of life. My work is not subtle in the least – if anything, I hit my viewers over the head with the message. But, I think it all plays into the style of the work. Like a big, flashing, warning sign.
What are your favorite movies/TV shows that features children and why?
Well, two films come to mind. "Harold and Maude" is one of my favorites. Although, I know Harold is older, he always seemed like a child to me. But beyond that, the film embodies all that I try to do in my art. Relish in the "taboo" and laugh at the inappropriate. .
Another film I like is the adaptation of Thomas Tryon's "The Other". It's smart and diabolical. The scene where they are looking for the baby, near the end of the film, still sinks my stomach.
Throw in “The Exorcist” and episodes of the “Brady Bunch” and there you have a well-rounded evening of film and television for me. No joke, I love the “Brady Bunch” - I could watch episodes over and over.
What were you like as a child?
Like I said, I am an only child. I stayed in my room most of the time and drew or played with my Marx Prehistoric Dinosaur set. I was a cute, curly-haired kid that was always mistaken for a girl. When I got to be around 8 or 9, I had only one friend on my street who happened to be my age: Johnny Garabedian. He had a lot of issues at the time. He was mentally challenged and had a problematic heart (he had a few open-heart surgeries already) but he used to like me to tell him scary stories. Sometimes, I'd pretend I was being possessed right before his eyes - doing demon voices and all -- and he'd run screaming from my house all the way back home. Still, he'd come back the next day for more but, eventually my parents made me stop because of his heart condition.
We actually stayed friends right up until I went off to college years later...
What is the most rebellious thing you did as a kid?
Besides tormenting a developmentally disabled child with a heart condition? Let's see... Actually, I was a pretty average kid overall. I stole porno magazines from bookstores and swiped booze from my folks but, outgrew that phase rather quickly. I went streaking once at a track meet in junior high. I got caught and suspended for a week - which was not a big deal to me but, a huge embarrassment for my parents. They thought they'd have to move away -- but it ended up just being an fun old story we could talk about years later.
Were you exposed to a lot of art when you were younger?
As far as my folks taking me to museums and galleries- no. My parents were working-class people who really had no immediate interest in the Arts per se but, they recognized that drawing was something I liked. So, they would supply me with art supplies and step-by-step art books.
Also, Boston television used to broadcast this guy on Saturday mornings named Captain Bob Cottle. I used to paint along with him every weekend. He had a thick New England accent and I used to follow along as he painted a dolphin or something like that- Here’s a clip of him here: http://youtu.be/3WMIBg3cASU
What is your opinion of the importance of art being a part of early education?
I always feel like with children, you can't stop art. It comes naturally and most kids right-out-of-the-gate want to express themselves with paper and crayon - coloring books. To hinder that seems pointless and against the grain. I guess the question becomes, “Is it worth it for junior high and high schools to continue with art programs?” I think it is. The way sports can help tone and condition the body - I feel the arts can tone and condition one's mental health, emotions and well-being. All forms of art, not just painting, require equal amounts of passion and compassion. It's natural for humans to want to create something on their own, I believe.
What is the story behind your painting with the little girl, at LA's Union Station, being scared to death by a chimp?
Ha, Ha! Well, on the surface, it was literally part of a homage series I wanted to do of Edward Gorey's "Gashlycrumb Tinies" - so it's literally "B is for Bell Mauled by a Chimp" but, on another level it was sort of my love letter to Los Angeles. Union Station is an iconic place. I have felt, over the years, that Los Angeles has been very good to me - I have a lot of fans there and most of my work is shown out there. So, I wanted to give a nod to L.A. in the piece.
Content-wise, I think the piece shows that life is random and we all have our own personal challenges that others may not even realize we are going through. In the painting, you will notice other people seated in the station who are oblivious to what's going on. The point being: Life singles you out, at times, and character is based on how you react. Is that a stretch? I don't know - at the time I got a lot of joy out of painting that girl's priceless reaction...
Michael will be showing new work at Corey Helford Gallery and Last Rites Gallery in March. For more information on the artist and his work, go to www.michaelmararian.com