Masha Keryan’s works are concentrated punches of colour that hit you with a real force. Keryan’s understanding of colour is second-to-none, each hue having its own, distinct emotional character which the artist has become acquainted with over years of training and experimentation. In the Skittles series, the artist toys with our concept of ‘monochrome’. While each piece has its own dedicated colour, this colour is then refracted into multiple tones, each one impactfully different from the other. Yes, these works are “in red’ or “in orange” but their power is in no way constricted – there’s no sense of limitation in Keryan’s limited colour palette.
The figures in Keryan’s works lean intimately into each other, grabbed at by bodiless hands. There are multiple forces at play and it’s not clear whether these hands are pulling or pushing: a hinderance or champion of intimacy. The tight cropping of these square panels (which means most faces are slightly cut off) emphasises the intensity of the figures’ emotions and the sensuality of their closeness. By cropping out their full anatomy, these heads become fantastical, floating emotional symbols. Her previous series’ full-bodied figures share the charm of Keryan’s skilled colour work, but the visual/emotional impact of her portraits are unrivalled. After a while, these “punches of colour” turn into caresses.
One of the most appealing characteristics of Keryan’s pieces are the textures she as carved out and built up with oils. The paint has been applied thickly (looking like a thick cream icing) and then manipulated into ridges and recesses. The raised areas are hit by the light and cast shadows onto the rest of the piece in an ever-changing dance with daylight. The complex textures of these pieces are easily communicated even through photographs; but to see them in person I’m sure that the temptation to run your hands over their surface is irresistible. Learning of Keryan’s experience with sculpture (in wood, glass, and ceramics) during her time as Massachusetts’ College of Art and Design comes as no surprise, given the three-dimensional nature of these paintings.
I spoke to Masha about her compositions, influences, and career path.
How would you describe what it is that you create?
I’ve always felt somewhat detached from the visual reality, because it always appeared extremely perfect and beautiful, but artificial to me. There are inner layers to everything and my reality lays within those layers. Color and texture are the two things that make the visual world exciting for me. I think of every single glimpse on this earth as a painting on its own, with harmony, composition, an exquisite color palette and hidden wisdom. Whether it’s a seascape, a flower, a fresh wound or a pile of trash, the colors and textures make all the scenes absolutely perfect. I am a visual collector, who also adds to the visual realm of life.
My styles and points of focus may change as I get older and learn more about life, but the above statement will probably always remain the core of my existence as a visual artist.
What is your artistic background/training?
I was born and raised in Yerevan, Armenia. When I was growing up there, the country was still heavily influenced by the Soviet regime in terms of mentality and education, meaning it was strict and heavy on discipline. I always had artistic inclinations, so when I turned 6, my parents signed me up to Igityan Art center, a prominent art education curriculum school in Yerevan, which was focusing on Armenian miniature and later classical training. I remember as a 6-7 year olds, we were making large scale miniature pieces with the scenes from the Armenian epic “Sasunci Davit”. The teacher would read the epic for us, have us choose a scene that we liked and create pieces about them. The main task was to fill the entire page with pencils, pens, paints and any other materials we’d like. We had to imagine the scene, make a plan, sketches and begin the large pieces only after the sketches were approved. I specifically remember this one scene that included a horse and vultures. I had to find those animals in books, and practice drawing them until I’d get them right. It was frustrating as an impatient child, as my teacher wouldn’t allow me to start the final piece until I got it right, but now I am grateful for that early lesson in perseverance.
At the age of 12 I began my academic training in art, first with graphite for comprehension of line, shapes, shadows and facial structures, then watercolor for understanding colors. I did not touch oil paints until after immigrating to America. At the age of 14 my family moved to Belmont, MA a little suburb near Boston, which happened to have a very strong AP art program taught by Mark Milowsky. He was also very strict on originality, technique, deadlines and discipline. He had an enormous impact on my choice of attending an art school, which was an unusual decision for a child of a new immigrant family. I attended Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where I got to experiment with many materials including wood, glass, ceramics, sculpture and printmaking, and although I enjoy each genre, painting was my main form of expression. Thus I graduated with a BFA in Painting.
Has colour always played a key role in your work? How about texture?
Colour has always been important and intuitive for me. Before arriving at my current style, I painted realism in an impressionistic manner for a couple of years. When painting from life I’d get overwhelmed with the amount of colour I’d notice, and like a greedy baby, I’d try to capture every single bit of colour. It was in 2019 when I decided to do the opposite as an experiment, and it became my current style. I got obsessed with a simple idea of capturing the same emotion and idea, that I would with 100 colors, with just one color; straight to the point. This way, I was paying each color my respect and allowing it to speak for itself, rather than simply using it as a means for self expression. Soon I noticed that colors have certain moods and emotions but those change, depending on what other colors they are interacting with. Joseph Albers dedicated his entire life to studying these relationships. So I decided to follow in his footsteps and began experimenting with two, three, four and towards the end of the series, just one color. A lot of times I’d choose a color, apply it to the panel, to realise that it wouldn’t work at all, so I’d scrape it off and mix a new one. Mixing is a whole art craft on it’s own. Sometimes I spend hours on just mixing and searching for the exact hue to work with the other colors and to express a specific emotion that I am after.
Same with texture. When I still painted with brushes and full color spectrum, I’d always build up textures on the canvas. Textures create shadows and shadows add another layer to the paintings. With textures they are never the same. They move around depending on the time of the day, similar to shadow clocks. There is something special about that.
What significance does each individual colour have?
At this point colours are like my friends and acquaintances.
Red is my closest friend, we talk every day. I love it in all its hues and shades from Cadmium red light to Alizarin. There is so much passion and dominance to it that I truly admire. Blues are like childhood friends. I love them deeply even if we may have grown into separate paths and don’t talk much. We are always loyal and there for each other. I enjoy my company with Greens but in moderation. We are very different and I have to compromise a lot.
Yellows and Oranges are almost as passionate as reds, but they are immature and have a lot to learn and grow. They are my younger energetic friends who I love dearly. Violets can be beautiful, but I am frustrated by their two faced nature. They are blue and red at the same time, somewhat hypocritical in my opinion. Violets are like relatives that I don’t like, but simply have to accept. Black is the most mysterious and alluring one in the pack. I don’t think I’ll ever comprehend it fully because of its depth and reflective nature. Black is the friend that I like to go to for gaining clarity, knowing that I can open up and it will never judge. And it never comes to me for advice. Whites I have not explored yet individually, but they always make everything lighter. Like those vibrant friends who are always in a great mood and you secretly suspect that deep inside there must be something twisted about them.
Greys I don’t understand yet. I think you must acquire a certain level of wisdom to understand grays, and I am not there yet.
Where do you draw your figures from?
I have a few figurative art books at my studio, to which I often refer to. When in search of a specific facial expression, I’ll often pick my Renaissance and Baroque books and go through the pages until I find the right expression. If i don’t I’ll just pose for myself in the mirror.
A lot of the times I improvise on figures, mainly because when I’m hit with the burst of inspiration I don’t like to waste time on planning. I just dive in.
At MassArt I took all available anatomy drawing, painting and sculpting classes with this incredible professor Gerry Hoag. I was always fascinated by the human body and when Mr. Hoag told me once how he had dissected and sketched a human corpse (back in the day when such activities were allowed at morgues for artists), I knew that this was the professor for me. He not only taught the anatomy bone by bone, joint by joint, but he helped me understand how the body works. I think once you truly get the proportions and how bones and muscles grow and move, it’s easy to freestyle or begin exaggerating or distorting. Improvisations don’t always work. It’s a risk each time, which may lead to a failed painting and a reminder that I have a lot more learning to do.
What would you say the fundamental message in your work is? Or does it change?
I paint for me. It’s my coping and problem solving technique. But if I had a message, it would be to follow one’s intuition. None of my paintings would exist without it. I would not be an artist without it.
Your works are very heavily textured, do you find that social media is quite a hard platform to use to get across their full visual power?
Probably every visual artist has this issue. When I used to work at a large scale, I could not figure out how to photograph the works. They truly would not translate to the social media or even website “language”. It is much easier with the smaller pieces, because it’s easier to find the right lighting.
Painting the edges of your canvases seems very important to you?
Years ago, when I still wasn’t sure if “this art thing would work out” I was a junior interior designer working with contemporary Italian manufacturers. I loved how slick and glossy the minimal contemporary design was. I almost wanted to lick it! I find that when I paint the sides, I get a similar desire to lick it.
What is your favourite piece you’ve created?
I have created two pieces so far that I truly love. One of them is the first one in the 2020 portrait series titled “I get it twisted”. It is important to me because I went through a lot of breakthroughs during the process of creation and learnt a lot. It’s rare when an experimental piece turns out to be successful, this one did. I don’t think I will ever sell it.
A second favourite piece is titled “Will you be my mirror?”. It was inspired by very bright and strong emotions, which I somehow captured precisely. That doesn’t happen often either. I always leave a painting thinking that next time I’ll do better, but not with this piece. It was perfect, full of so much harmony and balance. I made many paintings inspired by it but was never able to get close to it. When I looked at it, it felt like a visual vocation. Unfortunately, that piece was stolen from my studio. It was a very shocking experience which I am still trying to get over. Luckily I always document my pieces right after finishing. A couple of months after that happened, I made a limited edition of prints which sold out quickly. The profits were donated. Recently I began exploring NFTs and what the concept has to offer for “traditional” artists. As a first NFT project, I digitally altered the colours of the mentioned painting and created 8 different NFT files. I might eventually turn the original one into NFT as well since blockchain seems to be a mummification method for art. One day I will get over the theft.
What’s next for you?
I have a very exciting new idea brewing for a series of 60 paintings. They will be slightly different from the 2020 series. 2020 paintings were all reactions to the ever changing events and emotions caused by them. In 2021 I want to be more intentional with my energy, time and my reactions, and that’s what the series will be about. I also have a few curatorial and collaborative projects coming up in Boston, which I am very much looking forward to.