The MoCA presents
an interview with
The MoCA conducts interviews with prominent artists who have gained wide recognition, as well as emerging artists who have shown exceptional potential in their fields. The published interviews help our readers learn about some of the most promising artistic voices of our times.
The MoCA recently conducted an interview with artist Chantal Kassarjian. Weaving her diverse social background and rich cultural heritage, she explains her artistic proclivities in exquisite detail. The conversational dialog has been lightly edited for relevance and brevity.
Our shared culture is what connects us all.
The MoCA > Hello, and welcome to THE MAGAZINE OF CONTEMPORARY ART! Before starting to elaborate about your creative side we would like to invite our readers to visit your site in order to get acquainted with your body of art.
The MoCA > We’ll start from the beginning. Give us some idea about who you are and what you do.
I am a proud fourth-generation Armenian from Lebanon and the oldest of two daughters. I grew up all around, moving a lot between the Middle East and the African continent, but I am now based in Brooklyn, New York. As for what I do, I am a multi-faceted artist, who has explored both the realms of graphic design and digital animation in depth. My style is a patchwork of disciplines, techniques, and ideas. I use my skills to create compelling visual experiences and tell stories that matter. As I have become more and more invested in storytelling, my artistic practice has expanded from static visuals into visual narratives in motion.
The Last Rhino
My mind is a maze that can switch between different artistic fields and languages.
The MoCA > Now, a little bit about your background. What are some of your childhood memories that have helped you to become a more successful artist?
I come from a country where art and design are often dismissed as lesser career paths, but I was fortunate enough to have a family who – although slightly perplexed by my fascination with colors, shapes and typography – has supported me throughout my various endeavors. I remember always drawing and painting as a child. I would get lost in art for hours, illustrating members of my family or drawing fictional characters I saw on television. The only other artistic person in my family was my paternal grandmother. She used to paint, mostly nature morte, but unfortunately all her paintings got lost in the war. She only had two or three small pieces remaining, which hung in her house, but she loved talking about them and reminiscing about all the memories they conjured. I think it’s important to have at least one person in your family who shares your love of art. My sister and I were recently reflecting on our summers as children, spent running this amateur newspaper which covered local stories and updates from our neighborhood. While she marketed our product, and tailored the content to our audience, I was naturally in charge of the cover design, all the illustrations as well as the comics included. She now works in marketing as a brand manager and I have pursued a career in art and design, with quite a few real-life publications in my portfolio. It’s interesting looking back on those memories and noting how our passions were ignited from a young age.
The MoCA > Are there any experiences that have particularly influenced your evolution as an artist?
I think my upbringing as a whole has dictated my evolution as an artist. As a Middle Eastern woman from Lebanon, with an ancestral history of Armenian displacement and exile, there was a lot for me to unpack within my own identity, before I even looked for inspiration outside of myself and my family. Early on, I was concerned with the idea of otherness and belonging. My high school art exhibition was centered around various forms of anti-discrimination ranging from sexism to racism. I truly believe that we have a responsibility as artists and designers to shape worldviews, shed light on new issues and offer critical commentary. To do so, we have many tools at our disposal and the twenty first century has provided us with yet another one with the rise of technology. Being born on the cusp of the millennium, I am part of a transitional generation which not only played outside, but was also introduced to the computer from a young age. In today’s digital era, technology has infiltrated each aspect of our everyday lives. It has become the vehicle through which we communicate with one another, even more so in quarantine. While some might fight this transition into what I consider the future of the field, I fully embrace technology within my design aesthetic and process. I consider it to be another major influence in my artistic evolution, as I seek to incorporate analog practices into digital formats, while holding on to all the beautiful mishaps, textures and nuances which can only result from handmade art.
My hope is that my audience’s curiosity would lead them to explore the meaning behind the piece of work, in order to understand my commentary on what society values.
A Gemini's Autoportrait
The MoCA > We all know evolution is a constant and everchanging process. During this time, what has helped you to develop your attitude to experiment?
As an artist, I constantly reinvent myself to convey different moods and messages based on every new idea, and unique story I wish to tell. Art is an interesting field, as you can allow your imagination to run wild, even from the constraints of your room, your studio or wherever you have been stuck during the lockdown. It is escapism at its best. My mind is a maze that can switch between different artistic fields and languages. I pride myself in mastering many techniques and I take great pleasure in experimenting with them. With our field, there is always room to improvise but our current circumstances have also provided us with the added luxury of time, allowing us to investigate new avenues and to test out some theories even if they fail. These new physical limitations can open up the mind to new possibilities as we search for creative solutions to work around being stuck in one place. For example, I have seen other artists filming full stop motion short films with their cellphones from the comfort of their homes, while others have found old home-made undeveloped films and have digitized the footage to repurpose the content in other projects.
The MoCA > We find in your biography you’ve made quite a bit of a jump between countries and continents. So, how has the cultural bedrock of your heritage influence the trajectory of your current artistic research?
That is true, I have indeed lived and worked in many places. Both my personal and artistic identity have been molded by my diverse background and exposure to various cultures throughout my life. Of Armenian origin, I was born in Lebanon, schooled in both French and Arabic, graduated secondary school in Kenya and now live in the United States. My cultural heritage is intricately woven into my design aesthetic, resulting in mismatched visuals that come together to form a coherent whole. Although my artistic temperament was ignited as a child, I feel as though it has been supplemented by my diverse background, my personal experiences and my love for travel and exploration, which allowed me to see the world and its many facets. For example, “The Drowning Lady” is a personification of Venice, based on the layers of building material and historical preservation upon which the floating city was built on. I painted it during an unforgettable summer I spent in Venice and I remember having quite the challenging experience transporting it back with me to Brooklyn. As for my latest animated short film “Recipe in Exile”, it is directly linked to my Armenian heritage and the themes of immigration, tradition, displacement and adaptability.
My animated short film is living proof that art cannot be quarantined.
The MoCA > Your body of works that we’ve shown on our site is quite diverse. In particular, the dreamlike imagery, photorealism, the eerie characters, mixed with a strong societal message, gives the viewers a multilayered visual experience. To connect your audience with an overall theme that runs through your work, we’d like to ask if you have a central idea that connects all your works.
My body of work might seem quite diverse and perhaps unrelated at first glance. But there are three central themes which link all of my artworks: humanity, connection and social commentary. Artists can lead the viewers through the imaginary world of a story, help them visualize emotions, ideas and even one’s opinions about the world. The multilingual environment within which I grew up required from me at an early age to develop a uniquely adaptable thought process. Having to alternate between four different languages depending on my audience has prepared me for the need to think creatively when thinking about connecting people and ideas in a universal manner. My proficiency in illustration, typography, collage, design and motion arts, make me a well-rounded artist with a multidimensional skill palette. But if you look at the messaging, it is all about humanity and what links all of us, from a buried phone in the desert highlighting the dangers of miscommunication, all the way to an Andy Warhol themed satirical reinterpretation of the famous incident, when Paper Magazine broke the internet. It doesn’t matter that one is a photograph-based graphic design poster and the other is a silkscreen piece, as long as someone out there gets the original reference to either the movie “Paris Texas” or the famous reality TV show star who was featured on that infamous cover. Our shared culture is what connects us all. And even for those who do not get some of the allusions, my hope is that my audience’s curiosity would lead them to explore the meaning behind the piece of work, in order to understand my commentary on what society values.
The MoCA > We were also impressed with the subtle abstraction you present. Sometimes, it feels as though your art needs to be revisited a number of times to comprehend the sensitivity the works exude. Given that it’s not always easy to hold viewer attention with pure abstraction, how do you ensure that the viewers remain captivated?
There is always a story behind each one of my artworks, even if it’s not obvious at first sight. There is an intent and a purpose. While some of my work is more straightforward and reveals an obvious message, I find that in those cases people do not tend to dwell as much on the meaning of the piece in accordance with their personal lives. As for my pieces, which are more abstract and more open to interpretation, I find that those are the ones which captivate certain viewers the most. Those who remain entranced, get to approach the work with an openness and sensitivity that allows them to get lost in their own thoughts and versions of it.
The MoCA > Describe the usual process through which you guide your workflow.
I have a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design, a minor in Art History and a Master’s degree in Digital Animation and Motion Arts. All these varied interests are interlinked in my mind as they inform my decisions no matter the project I am working on. I am an animator who thinks like a designer, an illustrator who thinks about how her drawings would look in motion and an artist who acknowledges the inspiring work that came before, and where my body of work falls within history’s timeline. It all starts with an idea in my mind, usually inspired by something striking I have witnessed or read about. The idea then materializes into a sketch or a doodle before becoming a more concrete piece of art. I have a very fluid and instinctive workflow, especially when it comes to choosing the format and medium of representation. This is especially apparent in “W.C. The Waiting Club”, a short animation that offers social commentary on the types of people who are willing to wait in endless queues. I animated it using actual coffee and ink, as it seemed the most fitting approach, with coffee being at the top of the list of what people wait in lines for. Another fun example is the “Recycled Dubonnet”, which is a three-dimensional re-interpretation of the famous Cassandre poster advertising the Dubonnet wine. I recycled his idea and built my life-size version using recycled water bottles. When I presented the work, I poured actual wine colored cranberry juice into the plastic cup, and the transparency of the sculpture revealed the direct effects of alcohol consumption, as it seeps through our body.
The MoCA > This is something all artists hear multiple times, but we have to ask: What inspires you?
I think we covered quite some ground on how my familial roots have inspired me tremendously. But as I evolve as an artist, I am inspired by the world around me, the places I visit and the people I meet. I subconsciously tailor my projects and customize them to current events, making my work resonate with what is going on outside of my studio. It can be something as simple as being stuck in a long endless queue waiting for coffee, or something much more devastating and heartbreaking such as the 4th of August explosion in Beirut, Lebanon. It all comes down to the human experience and how it inspires a response from not only me but other artists as well. One such incident occurred when I stepped foot in Ai Weiwei’s "Gilded Cage." The figurative entrapment I felt while standing within this interactive sculpture was a surreal experience. Witnessing the multicultural New York City community from behind the golden bars, I remember reflecting on the global discourse surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis, which was on my mind at the time. This experience sowed the seeds for my animation ‘’Recipe in Exile’’, in which I explore the plight of Syrian-Armenian immigrants. Furthermore, during my summer abroad in Venice, Italy, I was delighted to encounter the travelling installation yet again, proving to me the universality of art as a medium to communicate larger ideas to a global audience. My animated short film is living proof of that, as it is travelling more than I am right now and reaching international audiences despite a pandemic. Art cannot be quarantined.
I created a paradoxical world to highlight the absurdity [where] one values a part of the rhinoceros so much that one is willing to sacrifice the only possible surviving male progenitor of the species to obtain it.
The Art of Manufacturing Ideas
The MoCA > Many of your artworks are marked with a rigorous sense of geometry. Others, such as “The Last Rhino,” gives the viewers a feeling of weightlessness and poetry to a subject that’s rooted in plain cruelty, even despair. How important is it for you to highlight this apparent paradox?
I have mastered multiple techniques from traditional fine arts, to graphic design and now animation. Whether I am combining detailed etchings with typographic patterns, coffee with ink or incorporating hand drawn animation in digital processes, my work embodies my playful artistic process and conveys my love for illustration, typography, photomontage and motion arts. I tailor my skillset to each project based on what better resonates with the messaging and storytelling at hand. Like I said, I have a fluid and spontaneous approach to each work, in order to realize my vision. For “The Last Rhino,” I purposefully wanted to create a paradoxical world to highlight the absurdity of our reality, in which one values a part of the rhinoceros so much, that one is willing to sacrifice the only possible surviving male progenitor of the species to obtain it. My choice of bright colors and intricate patterns add to the eeriness and dreaminess of the piece.
The MoCA > A related question: How open are you to let your artworks be interpreted from a completely contradictory viewpoint?
Art at the end of the day must be able to exist on its own two feet, as the artist is often not there to explain it. Especially in our digital world, where things are shared and retweeted without context. Artists must learn to be comfortable with the notion that their work might be interpreted in a completely different way than their original intent. I am very open and actually curious to hear the contradictory opinions surrounding my work. Those are the most challenging viewpoints and can sometimes lead to new ideas. I recently partook in an artist talk with some fellow female filmmakers and one of them said that universality can only exist in specificity. I thought that was brilliantly said. It doesn’t matter how personal the story I am telling is, art has a life beyond the original intent and that is directly affected by the stories and perceptions others project onto it.
I love to layer my work with meaning, symbolism and small nods to things that have inspired me.
The MoCA > We have really enjoyed the vibrancy of intense nuances of tones that mark your art: in particular, we like the way your artworks show that vivacious tones are not indispensable in order to create tension and dynamics. How does your own psychological make-up determine these nuances?
Sometimes the tension is inherent to my work given the subject matter at hand. I consider the nuances and details, which have to be visually unpacked, to give the work more depth. I love to layer my work with meaning, symbolism and small nods to things that have inspired me. In my “Hansel & Gretel” triptych, I chose to visually tell the story by illustrating three of the most iconic scenes. The scratchboard technique gives us beautifully nuanced and contrasting results which are quite expressive and touching. With every scratch, light penetrates the darkness of the piece and adds intensity without the need for vibrant colors.
The MoCA > We sometimes tend to ignore the fact that a work of art is a physical artefact with tactile qualities. Let’s consider your work “A Gemini’s Autoportrait,” which you’ve described as a patchwork of your many selves. In such a work, how do you consider the relation between the abstract nature of your creative process and the physical aspect of your daily practice as an artist?
Indeed, “A Gemini’s Autoportrait” is a patchwork of my many selves, accurately portraying the different moods and facets of my personality, which have been battling inside of me during this quarantine. I consider myself to be a collage of sorts. Collage, both as a technique and a concept, is a representation of self, style, subject and society. This piece started off as a life-size pencil drawing which I illustrated using a small hand held mirror. My many facets glared back at me and I materialized those reflections onto paper, before inking and digitizing the piece. In a way, I am the channel through which the physical world around me is interpreted and transformed into a more abstract representation. And I fully acknowledge and embrace the fact that I am a subjective conduit in this creative process, as my translation of the physical world will manifest differently than someone else’s.
Psychology suggests that we naturally tend to attribute human characteristics to both animals and inanimate objects.
The MoCA > Figures and animals are recurrent in your imagery, such as in “The Last Rhino” and “Saint Phoebe.” What fascinates you about these subjects?
Thank you for that observation. This choice of subject matter happened quite naturally and subconsciously in the beginning, but I have noticed that I am particularly drawn to anthropomorphism. The use of anthropomorphized characters in the worlds of illustration, comic books and animation is not a novelty. Psychology suggests that we naturally tend to attribute human characteristics to both animals and inanimate objects. This practice has its roots in pre-historic art and can be found in a range of visuals, going from hybrid mythological creatures all the way to children’s fables. Art is a great medium for these types of half human and half animal explorations. Instead of having human characters, I tend to go in a more symbolic direction for my character designs. “The Last Rhino” was born out of a need to address the devastating effects of poaching. It is dedicated to the memory of the last male northern white rhino, Sudan. He died in May of 2018 in Kenya, a rich and beautiful country which I once had the pleasure of calling my home. I think the reason why the personification of animals is such a widespread practice, is because we wish to humanize animals, as it is sometimes the only way to make the audience engage and sympathize with their story. On the other hand, “Saint Phoebe” is a more personal piece. It’s a portrait of my beloved beagle, who by no means is a saint. The painting was born out of nostalgia and longing, during my time in Venice, and is directly inspired by the winged lion that represents Saint Mark.
The MoCA > You’ve had an interesting career, not all of which has concentrated on pure artistic talents. How do you consider the relationship between your art and your career?
Over the course of the past few years, I think I have matured both as an artist and a motion designer; cultivating lifelong skills, from working in publication design to getting some valuable experience in advertising as well as in smaller graphic design agencies. I have finally found a way to make a living out of my passion for both design and animation, by working on broadcast packages for television and streaming, while still undertaking various freelance projects outside of my main career. I currently work as a motion graphics designer in the news, which I consider to be a huge privilege. I get to create content for nation-wide audiences on a daily basis, and stay up to date with all the current headlines. Of course, my individual artistic practice is different, more personal and far less objective. But I truly enjoy having that duality and I think my work benefits from the different tempos, between my fast-paced career life, and then my more reflective studio practice, where ideas and opinions have time to bloom and are explored at a gentler pace.
Andy Breaks The Internet
The most touching reaction I have witnessed is someone bursting into tears while watching my latest animated short.