Onik Agaronyan is a born hustler. Growing up under communism in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, the Los Angeles based artist was reprimanded by his grade school teachers for hawking hand-drawn comics to his classmates for ten cents apiece. ‘They called me the Salesman,’ says Agaronyan with a laugh, sipping some wine from a silver chalice at the dining table of his art-filled home in North Hollywood.
By the time he was 11, Agaronyan and his family had moved to LA, where he took his first job at the Koot Soos Collectibles antique store on Hollywood Boulevard. ‘When I first asked the owner for a job, he said, “No, get out of here”,’ recalls Agaronyan. ‘So I rang my parents, got their authorisation to work, and the first week I made somewhere around $200.’ Rather than take the money, though, Agaronyan asked for an old black typewriter: the first treasured object in a collection that now includes some 600 pieces. ‘I was never given money – we grew up modestly. But I always made my own money and bought what I wanted. From a very young age, I wanted really great, beautiful things: art, objects, books.’
When Agaronyan was 14, the owner of the shop succumbed to complications from AIDS and left the business to his young protégé. ‘I didn’t know how to run a shop,’ says Agaronyan. ‘I was literally on my skateboard with candlesticks in my backpack, skating to an antique store to sell them for $30.’ Two years later, though, Agaronyan had saved enough money to buy his first car – in cash.
On the side, Agaronyan privately sold art and worked as an adviser for young Angeleno artists, including his brother George, who now owns Provenance Lighting. And for the past 15 years, Downtown, the stalwart LA vintage decorative arts boutique, has purchased all his finds (from the Rose Bowl Flea Market, the Long Beach Antique Market and beyond). ‘Everything I buy on Sunday, I sell on Monday. It’s better than stocks or any investment,’ says Agaronyan. ‘I don’t buy furniture, as I don’t like to carry it, but I go for lamps, lighting, objects, chandeliers….’
Confident in his aesthetic sensibilities, Downtown also tapped Agaronyan to create pieces for the store as its design and production consultant. However, it took another decade for him to dream up his first serious artworks under his own name. The 2012 series, dubbed 'Inside the Beast', was comprised of copper animal sculptures featuring special hidden compartments. ‘It all started from the rhinoceros,’ he says, fetching a small jointed sculpture of the squatty ungulate from his jam-packed shelf of designer and celebrity biographies (‘I like to learn from the best,’ he says), as his nine-month-old beagle, Pablo, nips at his heels, bites at 1940s French club chairs and jumps onto his cocktail table in an attempt to steal one of three sawfish rostrums from a basket containing corals and a lion’s skull.
After banishing Pablo to the yard, Agaronyan lifts up a flank on the rhino to demonstrate how it doubles as a box. ‘There’s a saying: “If you collect boxes you have a lot of secrets; if you collect lights, you’re afraid of the dark”.’ He collects both, and went on to make several more metal animals and insects, including a camel, beetle, crow and an owl, spending roughly one month on each piece, depending on the complexity.
By 2013, Agaronyan had moved on to the 'Kings and Queens' collection, a series of hand-tooled copper crowns that are plated in silver and gold then festooned with agate, amethyst, rock crystal, natural white and black pearls, antique red corals and yellow citrine. For this series, he masks his boxes inside black chromed copper skulls. ‘Only you need to know that it’s a box – it’s just an added notch of mystery for the whole collection.’
‘This one came out of Albrecht Dürer,’ he says, gesturing to a six-pointed crown with serpent-like vines birthing leafy pods flowering crags of amethyst. He then pulls a book on Dürer from the shelf, opening to a detail shot of the Renaissance master’s Knight, Death and the Devil etching, identifying the figure of death’s head as his source of inspiration. Beside this piece sits a turban-like crown fitted with a large yellow citrine that is backed by a Swarovski crystal. ‘If light hits this, it reflects like a mirror,’ says Agaronyan, pulling over another crown that resembles the Pope’s mitre, only here the head gear is adorned with ‘really rare red corals, which you can’t even get anymore’.
Though the entire collection is about the impossibility of owning anything (‘We are guardians of beautiful things, but we can never own them,’ Agaronyan explains in a two-minute film), plenty of collectors are taking notice of his exquisite handcraft. Elton John, Martyn Lawrence Bullard and Antonia Hutt all bought early works, which debuted at Downtown last year. Agaronyan plans to keep a few pieces for himself, but will sell the rest after exhibiting them at LA’s Maxfield and New York’s Maison Gerard next year. ‘I don’t want to paint a flower painting, I want to achieve madness, I want to achieve shocking,’ Agaronyan concludes in his film.
The next objects he would like to live with include the 'Warriors' collection of skull boxes, topped by intricately ornamented helmets with jewelled motifs based on 17th-century suits of armour, plus a series of animal and plant-inspired jewellery. But even these efforts are just a stepping stone to his legacy endeavour, a home/salon in Studio City, designed to foster discussions and events that showcase the work of upcoming artists and match them with sponsors. ‘It wouldn’t function to sell necessarily,’ he says. ‘It could, but that would not be the goal, because once I get to that position, I won’t need to sell anything.'
As originally featured in the November 2015 edition of Wallpaper* (W*200)