Many University of North Carolina Greensboro students on campus are aware of UNCG’s art program but aren’t really aware of the work actually generated by the professors that call the program home. Starting this week we’ll begin a series of spotlights on particular art professors and their work. This writer sat down to speak with Michael Ananian, Associate Professor of Painting and Drawing at UNCG since 1994, regarding art and his life as an artist.
Q: What is your primary medium?
Ananian: “Oil paint and casein too, but I haven’t worked in casein for a number of years now. I do off and on. My last body of work that I worked in casein I completed in 2011, it was like a 3 or 4 year project of 17 paintings but oil is my principle medium and casein is a significant secondary. I also draw in charcoal.”
Q: How long have you been an artist?
Ananian: “Pretty much my entire life. As a kid I messed with oil paints and acrylics but not in a sort of studied, concerted way until I entered art school in 1983, fall of 1983. So usually I tell people that I began my career as an artist in 1983 but I’ve been drawing my entire life though.”
Q: What subject matter have you dealt with in your art? What do you primarily like to depict?
Ananian: “My principal themes are the human body, human beings, people; forget the human body thing, that is too abstract for me. People. People and portraits and stories. Kind of in that order. Those are what you could call the light motifs, they’re in all of my work, they always have them.”
Q: How has your work changed over time?
Ananian: “That’s a good question…well I think the best answer would be for me to sort of think about what my work looked like 20 years ago and what it looks like now. Quite frankly, there isn’t a ton of difference. I’ve always had the same interests and that really hasn’t changed over time. I’d say there’s been a deepening of these things. I understand better and better all the time structure. Structure of formal things, including the structure of stories and storytelling. I’ve sort of straightened out and clarified things over time. I think that reflects in the work. That’s probably the best answer I can give you. I’m less apologetic about and feel less guilty about what I want to do.”
Q: So you’re more focused on what you’ve always been interested in?
Ananian: “That’s the short answer, and yes, I would call it a deepening, a ripening of my primary interests, people and stories, which have been with me my entire life.”
Q: What role do you think the artist has in society?
Ananian: *takes a long pause to consider*”…I pause because I’m really kind of uncertain of that. I think whether I realize it or not, and I don’t fixate on it, I’m probably a chronicler of my own time in some way. I sort of see myself as a preservationist as well, a conservator of this time period in some way, I don’t know how else to put it. Now you can extrapolate from there the benefits of that and why one would want to do that. There are other more ontological reasons to of course. I’ll touch on them. First we’re trying to make something that we see special and somehow tangible. I’ve chosen rectangles, flat surfaces to do that on. There is a sort of an existential reason for doing that. I’m not a religious person so you know it’s a way of having some immortality. It’s kind of a funerary rite in that sense. I don’t mean to sound macabre or anything, but I think that art is wrapped up in life and death, the struggles in life.”
Q: What’s the most memorable reaction you’ve had to your work?
Ananian: [laughing] “Jeez, oh yeah, actually I love this one; it was when I first got here, I was in a group show at SECCA, they did biennials back then of regional artists and it was really pretty nice because it was a pretty inclusive show, these were great fun and I’d go to the openings of course. I went to my first one, not long after I got here. I was exhibiting some small self-portraits, full body, had it all hanging out, and some fellow said: ‘you know your paintings really stink!’ So I said, ‘what?’ and he said, ‘no, no, no, don’t hit me, I mean this in a good way, they smell, I can smell the sweat,’ he told me he could smell the sort of human congress of movement and community and all these things that are part of being a human being in the physical sense. The carnival of human existence. That comment I thought was the most memorable and probably the highest praise I can think of because that’s exactly what I want out of the work.”
If you would like to see examples of Ananian’s work in person, he is currently exhibiting at the Weatherspoon Art Museum in the 2017 UNCG Faculty Biennial until Dec 3.