Peter Sarkisian’s Video Artistry: The Revolution Will Be Televised, But It Won’t Be On Television

Casey St. Charnez - May 6, 2013

" amalgam of video projection..."

Peter Sarkisian with his video sculpture "Dusted," (1998). Photo:

In the Broadway musical “The Pajama Game,” there’s this song, “Hernando’s Hideaway,” staged by choreographer Bob Fosse on a stage so dimly lit that the groping goings-on are barely visible. “I know a dark, secluded place…” they sing—

--and that’s precisely what I was thinking, while cautiously walking through the new Peter Sarkisian video art retrospective currently at the New Mexico Museum of Art.

The second-floor installation has a sign on the wall at the top of the steps: “Please take a moment to adjust your eyes to the darkness.” No kidding. This is the darkest gallery exhibit imaginable, except that—like Fosse—there are brilliant, bright moments shining in the ebon.

Those moments are Sarkisian’s amazing artworks, an amalgam of video projection, three-dimensional installation, storytelling, sculpture, performance art, digital trompe l’oeil and sheer imagination.

Sixteen pieces are spaced widely, and individualistically, around five display rooms, some silent, some noisy, all intriguing. I went first thing on the Sunday morning after his jam-packed Friday evening opening, and found the place quiet and all but empty. It was an ideal setting to wander quiescently among the pieces, taking notes in longhand under ceiling lights rheostatted down to about 10 watts.

The traveling exhibit encompasses Sarkisian’s work from 1994 through 2011. It’s a moveable feast curated by the University of Wyoming Art Museum, a show that has been a lot of places but which has finally shown up in Sarkisian’s own Santa Fe.

Peter Sarkisian is seen here installing his exhibition at the [University of Wyoming] Art Museum. Photo: University of Wyoming Art Museum

Actually, he was born in Glendale in 1965 to Paul and Carol Sarkisian, artists, gallery owners, and mentors. They moved to New Mexico in 1972 and Peter attended Santa Fe Prep in the 1980s. Later, he studied film and photography at the California Institute of the Arts (affectionately known as Disney U), followed by a Fellowship at the American Film Institute. He returned to Santa Fe some 20 years ago, and is a committed family man…who also happens to be a major name brand in video art (for more, see

Basically, what he does is produce TV programs without a TV.

Some of his works are more facile than others, but that’s not a pejorative description. “Green Puddle” (2000), for instance, gives the visual and audio illusion of liquid falling drop by drop into a puddle of neon green Nickelodeon slime. Elsewhere, “Blue Boiling in Pail” (2003), is exactly that, a metal pail on the floor, with azure fluid at full simmer just below the rim. In “Sleep Defined” (1996), a pillow shows the fabric creases of someone sleeping on it…except that no one is there and only the pillow is real. “Floating Pencil” (2010) is a small optical trick worthy of illusionist Criss Angel. But even these simple one-liners, joke though they may be, are good jokes.

There are more complex pieces, however, that can be quite thought-provoking. One of the more arresting is “Ink Blot” (2011), a piece no more than a foot square, in which a silhouette crawls out of spilled India ink and slowly crawls his way across the surface to a spiral notebook. It’s about a seven-minute journey for him, and you really want the little guy to make it, and then he does, but in a somewhat existential way. One thinks, “Poor Sisyphus.”

The eye-catching “Registered Driver, Full Scale #1” (2010) is a celebrated piece, almost life-size, with the driver of a muscle car careening around a backprojected city, while a passenger occasionally peers out of the shadows in the back seat. There’s a police chase, a car crash, broken glass—watching the full cycle is like seeing a movie, but one with an unsolved mystery: Who are these people, and where are they going, and why, and how come they’re going so fast? I happily stood through it twice, but still I have no answers, and therefore, no solution.

“Registered Driver, Full Scale #1” (2010) Molded fiberglass, steel, clear polycarbonate, vellum, video projection, audio. 47 x 169 x 8 inches.

“Book” (2001) is cool, with a miniature Sarkisian as his own model, meandering around the surface of an open book making editorial marks. Myself, I do this every day. But the artist suggests that maybe The Book, and all its attendant accoutrements, like copy editors, is already a thing of the past.

“Book” (2001) Found dictionary, powder coated steel and aluminum, video projection, audio. 26 x 16 x 13 inches.

As you might suspect, going through this show requires patience. I spent a good hour there. It’s like going to a zoo, where your fast, first impression may be that the animals are cute, and you can let it go at that. However, if you take the time to let each piece go through its full, deliberate routine, then each creature’s subtle behavior patterns emerge, resulting in a deeper appreciation of the inherent –ology, be it zo- or art-.

One wonders what Sarkisian will do next. In middle age now, his good art is behind him. His great art lies ahead. I can even foresee that someday he might direct a motion picture, in the way that painter Julian Schnabel ("Before Night Falls", "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") sidles back and forth between SoHo and Hollywood.

Like the revered photorealist paintings of his Chicago-born father Paul (who had his own career overview at Site Santa Fe in 2005) much of the son’s work inspires the wide-eyed question of utter wonderment: “How did he DO that!?!” The precision of execution is nothing short of astonishing. The acorn doesn’t fall far, etc.

The most poignant element of this hometown presentation (which runs through August 18) is the absence of the one person who will never see it: mom Carol Sarkisian died four months ago. A prominent, accomplished ceramic, textile, bronze, and jewelry artist in her own right (and a roller-skating best buddy of Georgia O’Keeffe’s), Peter’s mother was her son’s head cheerleader. She was very happy to have been made a grandmother through Peter’s, shall we say, efforts. But she would have been proud to see the adulation her boy is so deservedly receiving these days.

Really, really proud.