at LA LOUVER, Los Angeles
Reviewed by Nancy Kay Turner
Charles Garabedian and His Contemporaries brings together a veritable Who’s Who of Southern California art stars, including Ed Moses, John Altoon, William Brice, John Mc Cracken, Tony Berlant, Robert Heinecken, John Chamberlain, Robert Irwin, Richard Diebenkorn, John McLaughlin, Vija Celmins, Don Suggs, Larry Bell, Sam Francis and Tom Wudl. It’s the dizzying equivalent of an art world “Greatest Hits” album, with the “A” side all Charles Garabedian (who died in 2016). A dozen of his paintings on paper and canvas, all looking as fresh as the day they were painted, range from 1966-2012. Garabedian’s work, though often playful, is beguiling and challenging with its dense literary and mythological allusions.
After serving in World War II on a B-54 bomber, Garabedian attended UCSB on the GI bill, where he studied literature and philosophy before finally matriculating at USC with a history degree. He was 31 before he took his first drawing class, where he received much encouragement from his teachers and art pals like Ed Moses. In an unusual move, he was able to enroll as a graduate student at UCLA in 1957 as a 34 year old, without having an undergraduate art degree (try that today)!
At the time, the nascent under-the-radar art scene in Los Angeles afforded artists a great sense of freedom to experiment. While Garabedian exhibited with a group of figurative painters at the Ceejee gallery, his work has always been idiosyncratic and unique in his use of materials and themes. As he later said, “I realized the work I’d been making was completely the product of my schooling and that I had to throw out the rules I’d so dutifully learned if I wanted to get anywhere.” Although influenced by the “Cool School” use of industrial materials such as resin, he remained stubbornly original in his approach.
In the striking “Woman in the Bathroom” (1973, resin, 88.5 inches by 136 inches), Garabedian purposely subverts resin by applying it in a quirky way, reveling in the imperfections embedded in its pitted surface. The image of a nude in the bath conjures both Degas and Bonnard and their wonderful boudoir paintings. However, unlike those intimate oil paintings (with the viewer as voyeur), Garabedian’s boldly outlined Amazonian female is smack in the middle of this huge piece, hanging on the wall like a rippling plastic tapestry. This bathroom is otherwise ordinary, save that it is filled with bones. A rib cage (shades of Bacon?) sits unceremoniously on the toilet seat, while a skull (alas poor Yorick) lies on the floor amidst scattered thigh and foot skeletal parts. The abstracted background is filled with expressive squiggles of beige, hunter green and brown energetically laced with delicate Jackson Pollack lines of paint. It’s a virtual romp through art and literary history, as the skull is a staple of Dutch 16th -17th century vanitas still life paintings. These works used pointed symbols, like candles melting and skulls, to point to the transience of life and inevitability of death. The painters were tasked with moral obligation to exhort the viewer to repent before it was too late.
Garabedian loves the big themes of love, betrayal and death which he tackles in his epic “Study for the Iliad” (1991 acrylic on canvas, 84 “ x 242”). In a nutshell, Eris, The Goddess of Strife, stirs things up by throwing down a golden apple, which reads “For the Fairest,” (shades of Snow White and the evil Queen) where Hera, Athena and Aphrodite all vie to claim it. Needless to say, all kinds of death and destruction follow this, involving Paris, Helen of Troy, war and the kind of mayhem that could be ripped from our current headlines or any soap opera on television. This could be seen as Garabedian’s almost jaunty version of Picasso’s “Guernica,” filled with male and female nudes (some actually violently separated from their own heads). In light of ISIS’s practice of beheading, this becomes particularly and painfully relevant. The virtuoso paint handling is a joy to see in what should be an otherwise grim scene. But Garabedian’s pastel palette and paint application — along with his robust simplified figures — lighten an image that nevertheless remains a cautionary tale.
In 2015, Garabedian returned to Greek mythology with the powerful “Clytemnestra & Iphigenia” (acrylic on paper, (68 3/4 x 74 inches). The narrative here is derived from another Iliad subplot involving lying, treachery and magic spells. The Queen of Mycenae, Clytemnestra, is instrumental in the sacrifice and ultimate death of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia. Though almost 25 years separate this work from the previous “Study for The Iliad,” these two works share some similarities. Both images are populated by boldly painted nude females set in a dangerous landscape setting (here they are on the precipice of a cliff). Clytemnestra reaches out towards Iphigenia as if to push her towards her impending doom (a skull here confirms that) while Iphigenia has her hands if not tied then behind her back in a defensive pose. But while the fleshy, corpulent figures in the earlier painting are solidly painted, here both women are outlined and contain mysterious landscape imagery within their bodies. His images looks so contemporary that one can see his influence on many young figurative artists (I’m reminded, in particular, of Dana Schutz) who have been influenced as much by Garabedian’s literary and mythological themes as by his unique style.
Each of the other artists in this tribute show have only one or two pieces of either painting, mixed–media or sculpture. Ed Moses, the very person who encouraged Garabedian to take his first drawing class, shows a beautiful abstract painting, “Untitled” (2016 acrylic on canvas 60” x 48”). There is a creamy kind of De Kooning pastel beige swath of color that hovers over a background pattern, reminiscent of a 1950’s linoleum floor tile. On top of that, looking vaguely biological (almost like a stained slide), are chains of vertical blood red lines that crisscross similarly shaped black lines. Delicately placed splatters make this a refined and elegant work. Next to it is a disappointing Richard Diebenkorn work on paper “Untitled” (CR no. 4181), 1975, ink, acrylic and graphite, 24” x 18 ¾). Pale to the point of almost invisibility on what appears to be wrinkled newsprint, this small work from the Ocean Park series is not one of his best. Exhibiting one of his earlier iconic figurative ink drawings from his Bay Area Figurative days would have been more in keeping with the show.
There are wonderful sculptures in the show, including a small gem by John Chamberlain with one of the most amusing titles here: “Opiated Asses” (2004, painted and chromed steel 7 3/8” x 8 5/8 “ x 6”). Paradoxically tiny and seemingly monumental, it is displayed at eye level. Beautifully and dramatically lit, the shadows around and under the piece inform how it is viewed. Graceful and linear, perched on four points, this sculpture looks like the smashed bumper of a small vintage car or some alien space vehicle. Perhaps the title alludes to the possibly drugged driver of the crashed vehicle whose bent metallic remnants contribute to this piece.
There are two stunning Peter Voulkos works displayed here. The charismatic “Untitled” (plate, 2000) is a chunky, shattered slab that reminds one of the cracked surface of the landscape after an earthquake or a three-dimensional rendering of a cubistic plate in a still-life. Next, there is an almost life-size bronze sculpture, which was a posthumous cast from 2010 called “Anasazi” (Edition 4 out of 5, 75 ¼ x 36 x 38”). Situated on an all-white patio by itself, it is a spectacular structure. The Anasazi were cave dwellers, and this striking piece is very architectural, filled with holes gouged out, allowing the viewer to peer inside as they walk around it. It feels like it has been ripped from the side of a mountain.
Ken Price’s impish sculpture entitled “Snap” (2001, fired and painted clay 5 x 8 ¼ x 7inches), though tiny, is every bit as present and demanding of attention as any of the bigger pieces. His hallmark labor-intensive pointillistic surface is gorgeous. With its brightly tricolored burnished skin and its refined curvilinear shape, it is of the polar opposite of the rough-hewn dynamic Voulkos ceramics and bronzes.
One of my favorites here is an ebullient Tony Berlant work entitled “The Taxco Café (#7-1988, found metal collage on plywood w/steel brads, 110 ½ x 101 ¼ inches, three panels abutted together). Perhaps based on The Gardens of Taxco Restaurant in Hollywood, a staple of Mexican food before there was much competition, this work is amazing. Each of the myriad shapes that create this visual are cut out of steel, carefully lined up and hammered into place with brads so it has a quilt-like appearance. There are hints of Picasso and Braque’s collages of the 1920’s, with parts of instruments and bottles visible. Although many of the shapes are flat and unmodulated, the two-toned blue linoleum floor near the bottom moves back in space like a slightly awry Victor Vaseraly Op-Art painting. Vivacious and joyful, filled with exotic birds, dancing aprons, sombreros, musical instruments, this work is astonishing in its scale, craftsmanship and the variety of its sensual imagery. One can almost hear the mariachi music and taste the tamales!
Although there are too many fine pieces to mention here, I want to at least acknowledge a detailed allegorical painting by Tom Wudl, entitled “Birth of Jan Van Eyck and the Extent of His Influence on the Art of Painting, for a Period of 600 years” (the title alone gives one a hint of the scale of this ambitious painting), and the lively, goofily erotic John Altoon untitled large scale ink and watercolor drawing filled with pink festive phalluses.
As Charles Garabedian is the “alpha and omega” of this exhibit, it’s fair to further examine two works he did near the end of his life. One is the poignant and poetic painting entitled “The Wine Dark Sea “(an enigmatic oft discussed term used in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey). This uncharacteristically somber picture from 2011 is resolutely horizontal constructed with several sheets of paper affixed to make one long scroll-like image (29 ½ x 184 inches). A small, primitive sailboat (one white sail) is headed across the storm tossed sea (shades of the river Styx here?), though an obstacle in the shape of a large rock formation portends trouble. Moody and evocative, with a black scumbled turbulent sky overhead, the boat is a so very alone and vulnerable. This suggests Garabedian ruminating on Man’s and perhaps his own inexorable march towards death. The stunning “Red Sails in the Sunset” (2012, acrylic on paper, 110” x 29”) is scroll-like in its narrow vertical format. It is the title of a popular, if slightly melancholy love song written in 1935 and crooned by Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole, among others. Here is a refrain from the song, which I think informs the image:
Red sails in the sunset
Way out on the sea
O carry my loved one
Home safely to me
Indeed, the image is a frontal, youngish woman with eyes and hair the same color green (it works)! She stares at us with a frank and appraising eye. Her dress and hair seem paradoxically ancient (shades of Egyptian paintings and Gustav Klimpt) and modern (the miniskirt). Somehow, she stands solidly on a globe (not unlike those globes that you shake to create snow). Inside this sphere a whole world is hinted at—an rich interior landscape hermetically sealed. Behind her is a surfboard shape with a small figure either painted on it or small to indicate that it is further back (a nod to Egyptian notions of perspective). The billowing eponymous red sails (looking like a Frank Gehry building) float above her head. Resolutely cheerful elements like a red contour drawing of a beach ball or sunny yellow amorphous shapes hint at the beach in summer. Playful abstractions in the background suggest flora and fauna (or even a Hawaiian shirt). This compelling image feels particularly personal in the direct and unusually frank gaze of the female figure. There may be a direct autobiographical connection here as this song was written right before World War II, and the poignant refrain to come “home safely” would surely make sense in that chaotic context. Those who went away to war (as Garabedian did) wondered if their loved ones would still be there upon their return and their girlfriends wondered if their soldier lovers would come home at all. The enormous scale of this woman indicates that she loomed large in the painter’s consciousness, either as a symbol or a representation of someone real. Here is Garabedian at his best as a masterful storyteller, seamlessly weaving bits and pieces of image and abstraction, thought and memory into a mesmerizing whole cloth. This is indeed a wonderfully satisfying tribute to an American original and his contemporaries, who through their explorations and teaching put the LA art world on the national and international scene.
Nancy Kay Turner is an artist, arts writer and educator who has written for ARTWEEK, ARTSCENE and Visions Magazine. She fled NewYork for the sun and fun of California and has never looked back.