Van Sarki Closes His Eyes and Sees the Future

Van Sarki is as mysterious as the photographs he takes. Besides the confidentiality agreement he requires all guests to sign upon entering his studio, there are just some things he will not discuss. Take his process, for example, at least when it comes to his latest series, “Eyes Closed and Written Upon: Shotguns of Pejorative Tecnicus.” For this ongoing series, he took five portraits of five visual artists and, as the title suggests, they were all shot with their eyes closed. On the black space that surrounds each of the artists’ heads, Van Sarki has handwritten his subjects’ fortunes, as “shotgunned” by psychics throughout the city (“shotgunning” for psychics is a method of cold reading). Each portrait comes in an edition of 10, and each of those editions is unique with its own set of text. “I get so much anxiety thinking about psychics,” Sarki muses. “So I knew there was something there.”

Sarki’s series is part of a larger group exhibition that features works by all five of his artist subjects. Called “Select Five” and curated by Amanda Brown, the exhibition will open to private viewers on October 3rd in conjunction with Ms. Brown’s new artist management company. The launch will take place at one of the artist’s studios in SoHo, and it is safe to say that Van Sarki’s portraits will dominate the exhibition. Upon entering, viewers will receive audio guides with the recorded version of the psychics’ readings, which they can listen to as they pass by each of the large tableaux.

Sarki, who describes himself as a “wanderer” (and an Interview contributor), has been writing on his photographs for as long as he can remember. “When I take a portrait I try and strip the whole thing down,” he says. “So I wanted to use words to build it back up.” He decided on artists as his subjects for three reasons: first, their futures are unpredictable—”No one knows if they will be in favor or out of favor, alive or dead, happy or sad.” The second reason is, unlike celebrities, artists do not have their photograph taken too often, and finally, as Sarki explains, “Artists are always questioning us and society, so why not turn it around on them.”

The five artists he selected range in fame, form, and medium—from Harif Guzman, the once-homeless street artist who, despite attempting to maintain a low profile, has flourished all over the contemporary art world, to artist and designer Michael Houghton, known for his pop-art inspired acrylics of iconic rock stars. Others include Ward Yoshimoto, the Los Angeles-born omnifarious painter, sculptor, filmmaker, and photographer known for his intense but quirky exploration of “iconoclasm, hypocrisy and possibility;” the contemplative Korean-born, Chicago-based abstract painter and artist Yong Jo Ji; and Alan Sonfist, pioneer of the 1960’s Earth/Land Art movement, known for his Time Landscape, a replanted, pre-colonial forest in the heart of urban Greenwich Village.

Most of the artists were uncomfortable with their portraits being taken, a contrast to Van Sarki’s last experience with burlesque performers whom he shot for his first solo exhibition that opened earlier in the month at the Three Squares Studio. As for the pose, “I feel the most vulnerable if I have my eyes closed,” Sarki tells us. “I wanted that vulnerability.”

There have been other subjects with closed eyes in the grand scheme of art history, from Michelangelo’s Dying Slave to Balthus’s painting of Thérèse Blanchard, which happens to be the poster painting for a show that opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the end of September. But perhaps the artist Van Sarki’s work most closely evokes is that of the French printmaker, draughtsman, and painter Odilon Redon. Redon, who once said he wished to “place the visible at the service of the invisible,” created charcoal and oil portraits of his subjects with closed eyes. There is a certain softness that surrounds Redon’s subjects, whose eyes are closed, but their postures alive. The result is one that translates into an energetic peacefulness, much like with Sark’s portraits.

Oddly enough, when Sarki asked his subjects to close their eyes, each one slumped to the left. Harif Guzman is seen leaning to the left, buried in his white hoodie. His face, which is topped by a black hat, hangs heavy, although relaxed. He does not look empty, but he also does not seem lost in thought. His omen is sprawled on the black space behind him.

Mr. Guzman, who has never before let another artist use him as a subject, remembers, “It was raining and I was tired and I had to go to Brooklyn. I don’t really remember much. I know I had sunglasses on to protect myself. Being a photographer,” says Guzman playfully, “the last thing I want to see is a photo of myself.”

Artist Michael Houghton thought the idea was interesting: “He knew what he wanted and he had a good eye.”

The artists have yet to know their fortunes. On October 3, they will see both their futures and their portraits for the first time. “I don’t know how it is going to come out,” confides Yong Jo Ji. “Hopefully the psychic said something positive.”

“There have been bad readings,” comments Sarki. “Morbid… Come see the show, you’ll read all about it,” he continues, refusing to go into further detail. “I hope people buy the work and write me a letter in 10 years that says, the psychic was full of it.”