360 West Magazine - June 2009
Sevan Melikyan — at once a family man and a multitalented hipster — boasts an equally diverse biography.
He was born in Istanbul to Armenian parents, grew up mostly in Paris, then headed to New York City as a young adult before settling in Fort Worth about 12 years ago. lie's a self-taught drummer in a rock-reggae band called The Usual Suspects but is perhaps best known around town as the longtime marketing director for the Van Cliburn Foundation, where he's helped move the 50-year-old organization into the Internet age with such Web features as a YouTube piano contest, streaming video and blogs.
That technological savvy played a part, too, in Sevan's self-reinvention as a visual artist, one that drew the attention of Fort Worth's top gallery, William Campbell Contemporary Art, where he'll be part of a group show that opens this month.
Sevan (pronounced seh-VAHN) creates graphic, deceptively minimalist canvases based on famous paintings. They're accessible and engaging on their own, but deepen in meaning and fascination as you learn about what inspires him and the process (he calls it a "language") he used to create them.
While at first too much in awe of the great artists he saw in Paris to even think of becoming a painter, he gave it a try as a way to create some cheap art. He and his wife bought a vintage bungalow in Fort Worth's near South Side in 2000, and "we had a lot of empty spaces, and we couldn't afford the stuff that we liked," he says.
With no formal training, he taught himself color-wheel principles and stumbled almost unconsciously on what would become his signature style. "It was a total fluke that I ran into this process just out of manipulating one of Fernand Léger's paintings." He had downloaded an image of Three Musicians, a painting he had always loved, and began digitally manipulating the image. "I cannot understand what led me to mess with it, to put it in Photoshop and try to get something else out of it," says Sevan. "It makes no sense: Why would I do that?"
But he instantly liked the result. His distortion of the image "started to become pleasant enough to the eye that 1 wanted to paint it." I le had found a way to possess a beloved work of art, in a way, and make it his own.
His transformation of the Leger painting became a grid of uniformly sized squares whose color pattern loosely follows the original, although the composition is radically simplified and altered. This work, the beginning of it all, now has a place of pride in Sevan's living room, but his art evolved rapidly from there. A mutual friend told Fort Worth art dealer Bill Campbell about Sevan, who had completed only six paintings. Campbell went to see these first works and immediately accepted several of them for exhibit at William Campbell Contemporary Art in 2001.
Most of Sevan's paintings have titles like After Monet's Poppy field or After Van Gogh's Starry Night. That first uniform grid has given way to a more varied language of lines, rectangles and squares (his canvases have no diagonals) that originally begins on the computer screen. After a careful analysis, he makes a series of choices about what to eliminate from the original: A nightmarish Francis Bacon self-portrait is transformed into concentric rectangles that somehow convey much of the same intensity. Andrea del Sarto's The Last Supper morphs into chunky vertical lines that call to mind a Sean Scully painting — until you see it side-by-side with its inspiration.
Although his work may invite comparisons to Scully or Ellsworth Kelly, Sevan points out he's up to something very different.
"[My art] involves pop art, because 1 am referring to iconic masterpieces, and minimalism, because there's a whole reductive process that comes into play. But it's also expressionist, because there is emotion involved and there is a relation to a recognizable subject-It is not disassociated with the subject."
He's still charmingly reverent about the artists he's inspired by, and is modest about his own achievement.
"I'm still 9 years old as a painter. I'm still insecure. I would feel almost naked and very self-conscious if I were just put out there onstage without the support of these great painters who I've based these pieces on. I need their support. I need their presence." He likes to see his works exhibited alongside a small photo of the original, and sees himself as a kind of decent, a guide to a different way of seeing the masters' works.
But his works stand on their own as minimalist, graphic statements with balanced compositions — "pleasing to the eye," as he might say. He knows of one couple who purchased one of his paintings and accidentally hung it upside down until he explained its origin.
Sevan is an astoundingly quick study —he never picked up a drumstick until 2003 and has been playing in The Usual Suspects since 2004 — and has had a lot of good things happen to him by accident. He studied marketing in college and always wanted to work in the nonprofit world, he says. He met his wife, Maria Guralnik, who manages the Cliburn medal winners, when as a marketing professional working on an Armenian arts program in New York, he contacted her about a Cliburn finalist who happened to be Armenian. He followed Guralnik to Fort Worth and landed a job at the Van Cliburn Foundation not long after, in 1997. They now have a young son, and both are busy with the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which ends June 7. Sevan has been racing to finish his latest batch of paintings for his exhibit this month (all were inspired by last year's impressionist show at the Kimbell Art Museum). He paints at home, in a front room that also houses his drum set and his computer desk and shows you at a glance how busy his life is.
"My dream is to completely devote myself to making art. Whether I do it earlier than 60-something or whenever I'm supposed to retire, I don't know."
And he doesn't foresee changing his painting method, although he says he's willing to follow it wherever it leads him. "This is something I really want to pursue until I have nothing left to say."