Charles Garabedian re:GENERATION / Venice, California, L.A. Louver Gallery / I attended the opening on April 11, 2013
For most of his long art career Charles Garabedian (born in 1923) has worked with contemporary scenes that call up vaguely mythological subjects, and that is certainly apparent in his most recent show, “re:GENERATION” at L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice. Even the show’s title suggests the “regeneration” of beings through mythic forces, but as he reveals in the works themselves, the artist parses that word, taking it apart to instead focus on all things regarding a particular “generation” instead of the more abstract concept of being renewed or reformed. Instead of a spiritual rebirth, Garabedian’s works seem to point more to the idea of “generation” as represented by sex and death.
His 2013 painting, “Giotto’s Tree,” for instance, hints at Giotto de Bondone’s great fresco “The Lamentation,” which in the original depicts Christ’s removal from the cross and the lamenting of his death by his mother Mary, the beautiful red-haired Mary Magdalene, and others, as well as a whole chorus of angelic putti. The tree of the painting, representing the tree of knowledge, is a large fallen log-like mass from which sprouts a new vertical sprig, suggesting perhaps “regeneration” itself. In Garabedian’s version, only the vertical sprig is presented, within which, as if it were a thorny bush, is caught a brownish red-haired woman, dressed in hip-hugging pedal-pushers and a short cut sweater, her large belly ballooning out between. Her entire aspect calls to mind a scene in which she seems to have trapped in the tree itself after having sought out a sexual fulfillment. Her “lamentation” is surely radically different from the kind of lamentation Giotto was depicting.
Indeed, nearly all of this artist’s women seem awkward, graceless and out-of-place, their actions and facial expressions strongly at odds with their dress and bodily positions. If the shy girl of Garabedian’s painting of that name seems, with head cocked slightly to the right, somewhat abashed, her clothing, an atrociously patterned mini-dress and a purple blouse made of a material that helps to expose her breasts, contradicts any apparent shyness she may manifest. This is a woman, poised against an urban brick wall of decay and graffiti, that reminds one more of a prostitute rather than an innocent.
While the gallery press release asserts these unglamorous women are still confident creatures, they are also, given their contorted positions and outrageous costumes, comic figures, a bit like clowns set out against the urban landscape they inhabit.
In “Mind Escape,” (2012) a young blonde sets out in a blue-stripped dress and matching azure heels, head held high (or is she simply “high,” foolishly dreaming away her life) with easel in tow, obviously off to paint some dreamed-up fantasy. The figure in “Geometry Moon” is also slightly loony in her abstracted look and absurdly patterned dress with several small moon-like shapes scattered throughout the other geometrical forms which make her costume look like a quilt. If the lanky pink nude of “Beauty” is quite clearly posing to represent her beauteous shapes, her uncomfortable posturing seems nearly as incredible as Botticelli’s Venus floating up from his clamshell, although if the one is all vertical, Garabedian’s “Beauty” is horizontally at one with the earth.
The most powerful work of show, “Family Affair” is an almost painful contemporary interpretation of Salomé that reads vertically, beginning with Herod, dressed like a red-neck henchman except for his skin-tight sweat-pants festooned with decorative patterns (clearly hinting at his self-flattering buffoonery), blood dripping from his axe. Below stands the naked Salomé, hands by her side, as if a bit shocked by her actions, while in front of her stands Herodias, crown upon her head, presenting her daughter with the platter on which sits John the Baptist’s head. Below, to the right, is a musician, playing apparently for what had been Salomé’s dance. Below a ladder leads of what had been Jokanaan’s cell. The whole affair, which we know will end with Salomé’s death as well, begins at top with what almost looks like a circus wagon, the space beneath which the artist has filled with frilly doodles and curlicues, almost overwhelming the painting with its decorative meaninglessness. Clearly, in this playing out of a generational cast of characters—the manipulative daughter of Herodias’ first marriage, the jealous and vindictive queen, and the brutal and sexually leering king—there will be no possibility of “regeneration,” but merely a reiteration of their generational sins.
Garabedian’s narrative images, accordingly, tell us much more than they seem to upon first look, revealing, upon careful observation, dark hints of the cruelty and selfishness of the contemporary world around us. If these women and men all carry with them a sense of determined well-being, they are all also capable, we perceive, of lust, pride, envy, sloth, and murderous wrath. Garabedian teaches us, without didacticism, to look more carefully upon the world around us, to be alert for the “angels” who might be murderers in our lives.
Los Angeles, April 15, 2013
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (April 2013).