In the studio with Aris Azarmsa

Words by

Alex Leav

In the studio with Aris Azarmsa

Aris Azarmsa makes movies that don’t move. On their own, that is. The artist’s paintings, filled to the brim with microcosmic freeze-frames from various iconic American films like Scarface and Taxi Driver, demand (conscious) REM.
I spoke with Aris in his Brooklyn studio about his inspirations, his work, his thoughts on the present (i.e., Tik Tok and Twitter), and his nostalgia for the past (i.e., two-dollar cinema tickets and Tony Montana).

Aris Azarmsa, "The Last Dance," (2022). Oil on linen, 54 x 44 inches.

AL: Let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from? When did you start painting? Can you remember any early influences or a specific moment in which you realized that you wanted to create? 

AA: I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. It was really the only thing I was good at, so I felt a sense of pride in it. I first started painting in acrylics when I was in third grade - my mom got me an easel for my birthday. One of my best memories growing up was my older brother convincing my parents to take us to the SFMOMA to see the Brice Marden retrospective. Around the same time, I was given a Pollock monograph for Christmas. 

AL: It makes sense that you mention an early love for baseball and an interest in acting, as themes of sport and celebrity are prevalent in your work today. You paint part-figurative, part-abstract compositions are based on great American films - the Shining, A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, etc., along with quick and loose portraits of famous athletes - Michael Jordan, Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds.

AA: Yes, definitely. I started painting these great films because I figured they were the last “real thing.” Growing up, going to the theater and to Blockbuster was so cool. Nowadays, I feel like, even though people still have televisions, our main entertainment source is scrolling through the feed. American movies are perhaps the most American thing we have. 

I try to give these famous films their due by rendering them as well as I can while still trying to possess them with a painterly hand. Action painting = action movies, frame by frame…

As for athletes, I like painting them because of the incredible motion of a dunk, a shot, a pitch, swing, etc. Also, it seems that professional sports, along with movies, are some of the only things left in this time that only admit skill. 

Aris Azarmsa, "The Master" (2021). Oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches.

AL: What do you mean by the last “real thing”? 

AA: By the real thing, I think I mean the difference between that which is done with the truthful intent of meaningful creation and that which is mere fad. Or at least whatever strikes me as the former, and not the latter. But nowadays that line has been so blurred, as everything is seen together on Instagram. 

AL: What do you think is so “American” about the movies that you’re painting? 

AA: The movies I painted for my first show (all but one) are American in that the achievement of American cinema was to realize an immediacy, a startling realism if you will, different from the more distant European setup or approach.

Once Brando did Streetcar on stage and Pauline Kale, just beginning, had to look away from the stage because she thought the actor was having an actual breakdown, and once such a presence onscreen displayed how almost uneasily mesmerizing a movie could be, it only escalated from then on. Scorsese said Brando is the marker, there is before him and after him. Add the aspects of the 60's becoming the 70's, the expanse of this country, the obsession with violence, runaways, bank robbers, cowboys, doomed romances, the Beat materials and whatever else and a movie like There Will be Blood, based loosely on Sinclair's Oil, is perhaps a kind of culmination and perfection of one part of these narratives of Americana, and The Shining it’s inverse in that sense, if one is allowing things to be that abstract… of course I generalize, there is always another point to make, or an exception to point to.

AL: It seems like you’re nostalgic for this, perhaps simpler, time in American history, where movies reigned supreme and the “feed” didn’t exist.

AA: I am nostalgic for the time when one knew Rothko was working away each day on the Bowery, and yes also 1975, or 1985 or 1995.

AL: Your paintings feel Warholian in subject matter yet de Kooning-y in form. Do you feel any relationship to these artists; do you draw inspiration from them?

AA: The subject matter is of course indebted to Warhol. As for de Kooning, his ability to “work” paint to his advantage, against all odds, is incredible and never ceases to be inspiring in deflating moments. Talk about commitment and intent, but always elsewhere. 

I want a pure image, something that resembles the film being portrayed but is also just interesting drawing on its own… a smile and laugh in pencil that is insane but maybe not quite Jack Nicholson, maybe not at all.

Aris Azarmsa, "Le Mepris," (2021). Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches.

AL: I’m interested in your process, as the work feels detailed and meticulous yet so fast and free. How long does a painting take? Do you paint slowly and incrementally or more quickly and spontaneously? 

AA: A painting can take a week or a few months, it is random.

AL: You mentioned earlier that you hold your phone in your left hand while you paint with your right. Are you looking at your phone for reference imagery? If so, are you painting directly from a film that is playing in real-time? Or are you looking at film stills that you’ve taken in the form of screenshots?  

AA: I watch the movie on Amazon Prime or wherever I can find it, sometimes just a YouTube search. When I did the first few canvases, which were Badlands, Days of Heaven and Scarface, I had taken photos of the television screen while watching those three movies. So there were many less shots than in Taxi Driver, the first time I just painted while watching.  

AL: What role does scale play in your work?

AA: When I first started the scale was medium, and then as the work progressed, I started getting down to many tiny frames to try and render as much of the plots of the films I could… it varies.

AL: Lastly, what is it about the act of creating that you love? 

What I enjoy most is when a painting seems to pose a question to me. What this question is, I don’t know. The moments I paint for are the ones where I am a bit confused. That is why painting The Shining in black and white was so exciting. I didn’t know if I could pull it off like I truly wanted to. 

Obviously, when I get a frame right, whether it be quickly or after 10 hours, it is very pleasing… but the best feeling is doing something odd, like leaving a frame in basically only pencil, or trying to morph the figure of one of the dead girls in The Shining. Or after days of work realizing the random drips under the frames look... nice.

Aris Azarmsa, "Taxi Driver" (2021). Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches
Aris Azarmsa, "White Rabbit," Installation View at Swivel Gallery, Brooklyn, New York.
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Photos by Alex Leav