Raffi Kalenderian celebrates life in his exuberant, colourful, painted portraits

7 June 2019

“I am a very messy artist, my studio space is a disaster,” says LA-based painter Raffi Kalenderian. “It’s like the whole studio is this extension of my brain, and my work is always at its best when the wildness of the studio informs what happens on the canvas.” Raffi’s unrestrained approach to the organisation of his studio translates into his energetic, expressive portraits. In his fourth solo show, on display until the end of June at Vielmetter Los Angeles, he presents a series of paintings all made this year, in which each individual is made to radiate at the centre of a vivid and dynamic celebration of colour and pattern.

Having taken a figure drawing class at a local arts college when he was 15, Raffi was able to build up a body of work that earned him a place on the BFA course at UCLA. He tells us: “I didn’t really know that there was a contemporary art world, I only knew about people like Van Gogh and Michelangelo, so it was an exciting time. Laura Owens was a really important teacher for me; she was very encouraging and made me feel like I could do this as a career as long as I committed myself to art. She introduced me to the work of David Hockney and Alice Neel, and I fell in love. I still consider Neel and Hockney to be my ‘art parents’.”

It was during a portrait class at UCLA held by Laura that Raffi made his first real portraits, painted in the unpretentious setting of the school’s hallway, and featuring his friends Michael and Pete. “My classmates were really excited and positive about them,” he remembers, “so I was like ‘OK cool, I guess I’m onto something!’” Portraiture has, since, remained at the heart of Raffi’s practice. However, far from traditional portrait painting techniques that situate the subject against a plain and unobtrusive background, his approach delights in the embellishment and ornamentation of every aspect of the painting, incorporating elements like huge, vibrant hothouse plants and swirling patterns. As he says: “My paintings are generally known for their texture and materiality. Variation and experimental paint handling are a huge part of the process. Often there is some form of vivacious patterning, in the form of clothes or wood grain or plants, or maybe all three.”

Raffi’s most recent show is no different. He states: “The title of the show is Memento Vivo, which is Latin for ‘Remember to Live’. I wanted to use it for this exhibition since the mood of the show is celebratory. I think of portraiture as an opportunity to show love. There are a lot of people in this show who have shown love to me over the years and this was a way to show love back.” Indeed, the ornamentation and decorative qualities that Raffi draws out of the scenery all seem like an exaltation to the person he paints – this is his way of celebrating them.


Raffi Kalenderian: Lauren

In his exterior portraits of Lauren, Robert, Bob, Seymour and Bernard, huge, bright leaves fan out across the backgrounds, surrounding the subjects in a plethora of explosive colour and pattern. “I really tried to go as crazy as I could with colour for this show,” he confirms. Even in some of the more restrained, Hockney-esque interior compositions, like those of Eric Palgon, Erika and Hormazd, Raffi pays great attention to the chromatic relations, textures and patterning of rugs, wall hangings, furniture, clothing and floor, emphasising the fantastical qualities of every object and surface.

The process of making a painting is, for Raffi, charged with the same exuberance and excitement as the portraits themselves, often shifting and fluctuating according to experimentation. Speaking of his portrait of Thed Jewel, he tells us: “I was planning on painting this more atmospheric painting, with blinding white coming onto the floor and ceiling. I started putting colours like turquoise and orange and purple onto the floor and ceiling, and when those colours dried I was going to put a light layer of white over the ceiling parts and a light layer of ochre over the floor to create more complexity. But I was looking at how cool this underpainting was, the ceiling turning into this abstract storm, and the woodgrain floor exploding with all these new colours. What was happening was even better than what I had planned, so I decided to abandon the original plan, and then I put these psychedelic plants in the windows, a motif I’d used in the other parts of the show. Also, Teddy was wearing a zebra patterned shirt and socks, and I had made a zebra painting in 2008. So the painting started to become full of this playful self-referentiality, not only to the other paintings in the show, but to earlier paintings in my art practice.” The result is a fantastic abundance of whirling shapes and colours all clamouring for the viewer’s attention, the whole room animated by Raffi’s vision.

A lot of joy goes into Raffi’s work. Between his messy studio and his experimental process, enjoyment, for him, is central to creativity. He says: “Music plays a huge role in my process. A few months ago I went to the art store to buy some brushes so I could finish the show. In the art store, they were playing this awesome song from the 90s, this house song by Black Box called Everybody Everybody. This song is so amazing: ‘Duh nuh. Duh nuh nah nah nah nah nah nah nah OW.’ Usually, they play shitty songs in the art store but this time they were totally on fire. And the vibe in the store was great! The customers and employees were all grooving together like we’d been transported into one of my fav movies of all time, Party Girl with Parker Posey. Anyway, I took this song and made a playlist of 90s house music, and I would wake up, make some coffee, listen to these songs and look at the paintings and try to figure out what I needed to do each day. The music was keeping me in this beautiful headspace that was positive and hypnotic.”

As well as music, Raffi finds that his creativity can be stimulated by “drinking wine and watching movies about painters – I’ve seen Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat and Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner like 200 times.” He is an artist who truly loves what he does. So what’s the secret? He tells us: “The way I see it, artists have two things they have to do: keep your spirits high; don’t go crazy. If you can do those two things, everything else is gravy.”


Raffi Kalenderian: Erika


Raffi Kalenderian: Hormazd in his London Studio


Raffi Kalenderian: Thomas


Raffi Kalenderian: Robert, Bob and Seymour


Raffi Kalenderian: Shanti Reading


Raffi Kalenderian: Bernard


Raffi Kalenderian: Stephanie


Raffi Kalenderian: Eric Palgon in the Studio


Raffi Kalenderian: Rochelle and Nick

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About the Author

Rebecca Irvin

Becky joined It’s Nice That in the summer of 2019 as an editorial assistant. She wrote many fantastic stories for us, mainly on hugely talented artists and photographers.

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