the moment before they became history
by Douglas Messerli
Charles Garabedian Sacrifice for the Fleet / Los Angeles, LA Louver Galley, October 8-November 7, 2015 / I attended the show with Howard N. Fox on opening night, Thursday, October 8, 2015
A bit like the films of Armenian genius Sergei Parajanov, the paintings of Armenian-born, Los Angeles artist Charles Garabedian often seem to present arcane religious and literary information that, at first sight, requires deep knowledge—in Garabedian’s case—of early Greek literature and Biblical texts.
There appears to be something intensely ritualistic in both the filmmakers’ and the artists’ works which the theatricalization of images reifies. Visiting a Garabedian show always makes me feel like I need to rush home and—as Cole Porter singers suggested for Shakespeare—“brush up” on Greek mythology. Garabedian’s art is filled with images and events from the lives of Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Electra, Antigone, Polynices, and Agamemnon in the way that Parajanov’s films represent tableaus of the cultural and religious history of Armenia and the Armenian church.
Fortunately, like Parajanov’s semi-narrative tableaux, Garbedian’s art is filled with contemporary “takes” on these epic-works in a way that does not truly demand a full knowledge of all Classical literature or, in the case of his The Good Thief (2015), does not require that one has recently read the literature of Christ’s death upon the cross. Indeed, Garebedian’s often sexually amorphously fleshy figures seem almost to be “accidentally” acting out their epic deeds against the background of a slightly kitsch, California landscape set in the late 1960s or early 1970s, when certain figures dressed in wildly colored, geometrically patterned wraps and outfits that seem more an home in a Malibu exercise class than upon the blue islands of the Aegean Sea. In his introduction to the show’s accompanying catalogue, Ed Shad describes the phenomenon: “[Garbedian’s characters] not only arrive as recurring motifs of literature, as many writers have observed, but they also arrive in a different way, as a part of a Mediterranean legacy of art. However Garabedian transfigures this legacy through the bizarre mirror that Los Angeles holds up to the ancient world.”
The characters, moreover, themselves seem to be of another world, their tragic literary enactments hardly registering upon their faces. There, in the show’s title piece, Sacrifice for the Fleet (2014), is King Agamemnon, knife in hand, having just cut off his daughter Iphigenia’s head as a sacrifice to the gods before his Trojan War adventures; his wife Clytemnestra averts her eyes (and face) behind a long hairdo, obviously shocked by her husband’s brutal actions; and there upon what appears to me to be a small cart lays the body of the girl, arms and legs akimbo. Yet this Agamemnon, nude, looks a bit more like a grizzled guru than a devastated father. The wallpaper of the room humorously makes reference to the ships of the fleet in its repeating pattern of ships. How to read this painting that, although referring to a tragic event, appears to mock it at the very same moment of representing the act?
As Schad notes of Antigone sitting before the body of Polynices, decreed by the gods to be left unburied:
Polynices could easily be a sleeping Buddha, such is
his present contentment in death. And Antigone? It is
not exactly resolve or determination on her face in this
painting. Instead of asserting a universal imperative that
the dead must be buried and the body must be honored
even after death, she might as well be tending a garden.
Or, I might add, she may be simply contemplating the Buddha before her.
The goddesses of Atop Olympus (2015) seem playfully showing off their body parts to one another, with only the thrift-shop dressed figure imploring the skies. If anything these mythical figures seem more bored than royally ensconced.
The chained Prometheus of Prometheus Chained (2015) seems so sexually amorphous that he has grown long fingernails upon one of his/her chained hands.
The Good Thief (2015) of Bible lore is tied, not nailed to the cross, while below him the onlooking Marys appear dressed for the beach rather than the Crucifixion. Instead a insanely dancing herself into death, Garabedian’s Electra in The Sorrows of Electra (2015), once again, seems to have less sorrows than sunstroke as she kneels upon the beach.
I do not mean to suggest that Garabedian’s figures are simply “jokes,” hokey simulacrums to the tragic figures of literature; they are simply human, people like us who have not quite taken in the consequences of their actions. As Schad suggests, given the way that the artist begins with a drawing or series of drawings that he later transforms into the painted images, these figures might well have become someone else, other beings that lay outside of consequential history. It is only at the moment of enactment that they become the larger-than-life figures of which we have read. In Garbedian’s art, the heroes are still everyday beings upon which history is suddenly about to thrust, and, as such, they all seem in a constant condition of startlement, caught in a kind of uncomfortable situation as if they have suddenly been discovered outside of their own points in time and space.
One of the most beautiful paintings of this show is a depiction of Iphigenia, obviously before her dismemberment. Here she lies upon the beach, almost dreaming, certainly unaware that anyone might be watching her, beside the deeply blue-green colors of the Aegean set against a cobalt blue sky, awkwardly at rest, one leg in air. Knowing what we know of her soon-to-be fate we feel almost that should whisper to each other: “Let her sleep. She will join the horrible world of history soon enough.”
Los Angeles, October 10, 2015