Mark Keshishian has opened his first gallery in London
Not every 20-year-old can demonstrate such an intense passion and knowledge for art. Even fewer can say they are soon to be opening their own gallery. But then Mark Keshishian had a different start in life to most. With origins dating back to 1921, the family business is Keshishian Carpets, which specialises in antique, hand-woven silk carpets and tapestries from the Middle East. Boasting outposts in both London and New York, Mark has been surrounded by art and other curiosities his entire life, with his family’s entrepreneurial side inspiring him to become an art dealer and curator.
Of Armenian-Lebanese heritage, when visiting the Middle East, Mark spends much of his time in Beirut. London will keep him occupied this autumn, however, with the launch of his own venue, Karnik Gallery in Mason’s Yard, and its inaugural exhibition, Resonance X Relevance, which runs from September 25-October 20. While the gallery will focus on contemporary art, Mark also wants to respect the styles, techniques and traditions of the old masters, and has chosen artists for his first exhibition that share these ideals – French-Lebanese painter Mouna Rebeiz, Japanese pop artist Hiro Ando, Italian sculptor Guido de Pascale and Spanish painter Lino Lago among them.
Talking exclusively to MOJEH Men, Mark reveals where his interests in art began, what he hopes to achieve with his first exhibition, and how other aspiring young art dealers could follow in his footsteps…
What are your earliest art memories?
Growing up, I would spend time with my father and uncle at antiques fairs. I was born and raised in London, but I also spent time in New York, helping the family business when it was time to exhibit at trade shows. All of these events would bring together the world’s best art and design. It was inevitable that I would become infatuated.
The family business sounds interesting – carpets and tapestries must be very specialised.
It was my grandfather, Karnik Keshishian – who I have named the gallery after – who started it all. He came to the UK in the 1930s, importing fine hand-woven silk carpets from Turkey. When my father and uncle became involved in the 1970s, they opened a gallery of carpets as a side venture, and then another in New York in the 1990s. It raised the standards of prestige to a level comparable to the established painting and sculpture galleries of the time.
You mentioned your grandfather. What was he like?
Unfortunately, I never met him, as he passed away before I was born. But I look up to him in so many ways. He established a successful and stable future for his family in London. I really wanted to dedicate my art dealership to him.
Do you collect art yourself?
I do. Rose Corcoran is an artist I admire, and I love the horse sculptures of Nic Fiddian-Green. Lately, I’ve been drawn to Lebanese painter Marc Guiragossian – himself the grandson of Paul Guiragossian, another legend. His works are so powerful, and really stand out in the contemporary art world.
Tell us about your background in selling art.
I’ve been working part-time in a number of different galleries in London for the past three years. Selling art is something I really enjoy. It’s about earning the trust of the collector, and if you can share and appreciate their fascination it really helps. Building those relationships, that’s what I love about it.
So what is happening with your first exhibition?
Resonance X Relevance is the first of a planned series of exhibitions. My idea is to demystify the old masters, bridging the gap between a reverence for the past and an appetite for the contemporary. I hope to surprise collectors, audiences and artists alike by challenging the associations they might have with the old masters, showing that they have a tremendous role to play in contemporary art. It’s an honour to be handling and representing the artists who are featured.
How do the contemporary artists you are featuring honour the old masters?
I’ve always been drawn to artists who can look to the past, absorbing techniques and then applying them to a work that is thematically and symbolically relevant to our times. It’s incredibly powerful when an artist of today can draw a stylistic exchange with a Renaissance painter, and then somehow install contemporary elements that enhance the story behind the work. For me, artists like Mouna Rebeiz, Lino Lago, Guido de Pascale and Hiro Ando are among those who do this in their own distinct way. On first glance, their works are different in style, but there is a clear thread that holds them together.
Is this something that collectors are looking for at the moment?
I think it’s something felt by many interior decorators, gallery directors, curators and collectors. All are looking back to period art and design, and using it to inform their contemporary projects. One of the highlights of this year’s Venice Biennale was the Colnaghi gallery’s beautiful collaboration with Chahan Minassian, the famed interior designer. The fusion between subdued contemporary furniture and vivid works of Renaissance art made for an incredible exhibition.
What is your own interest and experience of the old masters like? Who are your favourites?
It’s tough to pick out just a few. During my internship at Colnaghi, we had a phenomenal painting by a slightly lesser known Neapolitan Baroque painter, Filippo Vitale. That is something that stayed with me. But overall, I enjoy paintings and sculptures from the Renaissance period the most. They were ahead of their time.
How will Karnik Gallery change the art scene? What will it add?
At this moment, my goal as a dealer is to promote artists who draw inspiration from the past and make their creations into something relevant and exciting. I’m also bringing the old masters into the picture to re-contextualise a genre of art that might seem outdated to the general audience. However, this does not mean I only want to specialise solely in figurative forms of art – I’m intrigued by more abstract works also, and definitely want to explore such avenues in the future. I’m also keen to reach a younger, emerging audience of buyers and collectors.
You spend a lot of time in Beirut – what is your take on contemporary Middle Eastern art?
I love spending time in Beirut. Middle Eastern art is definitely on the rise, with great potential on the global market. The region is charged with complex socio-political intricacies, which in turn inspire artists to make very profound pieces that confront their own realities. For example, in my upcoming show, I have two artists with Middle Eastern backgrounds – Mouna Rebeiz, who is French-Lebanese, and Raffi Tokatlian, who is Armenian-Lebanese.
What would your advice be to any other young entrepreneurs looking to break into the art world?
Develop your understanding of art history and work for either an auction house or a gallery. First-hand practical experience is always best when trying to become a dealer. I worked at several galleries, and it helped my understanding of so many different styles and time periods of art.