Whitehot Magazine

January 2010, Aram Jibilian @ Pratt Manhattan Gallery

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Aram Jibilian with Aaron Mattocks as Arshile Gorky’s ghost
Detail, Gorky and the Glass House, 2010
22 inkjet prints , Approx. dimension of each print, 23"x16", Complete work installed, 8' x 9'

Installed in the exhibition Blind Dates: New Encounters from the Edges of a Former Empire
Pratt Manhattan Gallery, New York City
, Photograph courtesy of the artist


Interview with Aram Jibilian


Aram Jibilian with Aaron Mattocks

“Gorky and the Glass House” in the group show BLIND DATES: “New Encounters from the Edges of a Former Empire”

Pratt Manhattan Gallery
144 West 14th Street, New York City
19 November, 2010, through 12 February, 2011


New York based photographer Aram Jibilian investigates the late Arshile Gorky through the lens of the glass house, the artist’s final residence before his suicide in 1948 in his latest series of photographs “Gorky and the Glass House.” An Armenian living in America in exile, Gorky’s identity was in a constant state of flux and served as a point of inspiration for Jibilian. The photographs delicately capture the ghost of an artist tortured by his past and trying to reconcile with the present. A practicing artist for ten years, Jibilian currently works as the Director of Photography Archives at the Pace Gallery in New York City.


A. Moret: What was your relationship to Arshile Gorky before working on “Gorky and the Glass House?”


Aram Jibilian: Before I began any of my work on Gorky, my main connection with him was through is painting The Artist and his Mother, c.1926-36. It was right after I moved to New York in 1998, and I remember going to the top floor of the Whitney where they were exhibiting work from their permanent collection and seeing this painting for the first time. I had not heard of Gorky, and the caption listed him as American, but I knew that this was an Armenian mother and her son. Their gaze was so haunting; the air of death around them was so alive. Growing up, I witnessed a pervasive sadness in Armenian people, especially the older generation. There was a weight and heaviness that you could just feel sitting in their living rooms. This painting spoke to that memory. I remember looking at the name on the wall and seeing the name Arshile Gorky, American. Although the name sounded Russian, I had no doubt that this work was done by someone who shared my Armenian background.


As charged as the painting was to me, I also had a deep affection for the photo upon which it was based. Gorky as a boy standing beside his seated mother, taken in Van before the genocide of 1915. I love the point where their bodies almost touch, the way his hand grips itself in the absence of having nothing else to hold onto. I was also drawn to the fact that this photo was taken with as much intention as any photo could possess: it served as a message to an absent father from his loved ones saying, we are still here. Gorky, who is here still a boy named Vosdanig Adoyan, would soon experience the trauma of the genocide and would soon witness his mother starve to death.



Photograph from first visit to the Glass House, Sherman, CT.
September 5, 2009
Pictured from left: Aaron Mattocks, Defne Ayas, Neery Melkonian, Martha Clarke and Aram Jibilian
Photograph courtesy of the artist


Moret: While Gorky committed suicide in 1948, he has been rather present in the contemporary landscape. In 2003 The New York Times published an article on the current owner of Gorky’s glass house, Martha Clarke and her experiences with Gorky’s ghost. Additionally the MOCA in Los Angeles recently ended their retrospective on the artist. Why do you think Gorky is becoming popular again?


Jibilian: I think the main reason for Gorky’s re-emergence, aside from the incredible body of work he left behind, is our growing interest in people’s histories, and having access to those histories. The time when Gorky was working, and the time after, people didn’t talk about certain things. I am constantly amazed when I read his autobiography that he eluded so many people about his background. Even his wife, with whom he had two children, was not clear exactly where he was from. The appropriate boundaries of privacy and not wanting to pry into someone’s past were so much stricter, especially those determined by gender. America was a place where one could come and re-invent oneself, that was its great promise, and that’s what Gorky did.


Moret: In your project proposal you explain that you met the collaborator on this project, Aaron Mattocks on a blind date. Is that true? When you first met Aaron did you sense that you would collaborate in the future? Is this your first time collaborating with a dancer?


Jibilian: Yes my collaborator on this project is also my real life partner, and we met on a blind date of sorts—online. I think that might be the new blind date. That was in October of 2008. I had been interested in dance before that point, and had worked with some dancers on photo and video collaborations, which I have never shown. Aaron and I began doing some photos together exploring the nature of the mask on a more physical level. I immediately liked working with him. He is a very present person and maintains an incredibly deep focus when he is working. I feel like dancers have the benefit of being able to focus on their body in the space. I found this particular attribute of Aaron’s as pivotal in approaching Gorky’s ghost.


On one of our first few dates Aaron took me to see a dance production called “Garden of Earthly Delights.” I was very excited to see it since the work also based on a painting-- of the same name by Hieronymus Bosch. Aaron’s fascination with the choreographer Martha Clarke led him to an internet search which uncovered very interesting fact about her, that she was the current owner and resident of Arshile Gorky’s final home in Sherman, CT. It was here that Gorky spent the winter and summer before his suicide. It was steps away from here where he hanged himself, and little bit longer walk to where he is now buried. Aaron mentioned that he knew one of the dancers in the production and he would talk to her about introducing us to Martha. The first seeds of the project had now been planted.



Aram Jibilian, Study of the Glass House,Sherman, CT,  2009

graphite pencil on paper, 8-1/2” x 11”
Photograph courtesy of the artist


Moret: In your previous bodies of work, you often photograph yourself wearing Gorky’s mask. What was the experience to photograph a performance, particularly one where the subject is wearing a mask that yields little expression?


Jibilian: When I began the Gorky work, I was actually the one who was also wearing the mask. Not being behind the camera in addition to not even being able to see it was a new experience. I had little idea how the photos would turn out, and many times they didn’t. Since the mask is a two-dimensional object, its very sensitive to angles so there were a lot of takes to get one good shot. It was very liberating to finally pass on the mask to someone else, and be able to stand back and see the mask in the space, seeing how the light would catch it, having more control over how it read.


The thing I am most drawn to about this mask is how it seemingly yields little expression, as you said, but when placed in different contexts, the expression changes. We never see the actual person experiencing the ecstasy or banality, but surprisingly enough the mask seems to transform in gesture from one image to the next. The same thing happens with the Gorky mask. When placed in the context of another person, I found that the masks expression responded to the expression on the “real” face.


Moret: It seems rather serendipitous that the curators you would work with were part of BLIND DATES. What was the experience of working with curators Nerry Melkonian and Defne Ayas? How did they respond to your vision?


Jibilian: Yes, that’s true. There was something that felt oddly destined about the whole thing. I had known one of the curators, Neery Melkonian, for some time. She was actually part of the inception of the mask. I was asked to illustrate an interview in which Melkonian mentioned how Gorky masked his personal/subjective experience in exchange for being able to explore progressive aesthetic vocabularies. I found this modernist idea of it being a trade-off fascinating, that one had to be sacrificed for the other.


Moret: There is yet a third “blind” component to the process of creating “Gorky and the Glass House” and that is the meeting with Martha Clarke, the owner of the glass house. When did you meet her? Who facilitated that meeting? What were her feelings about the project?


Jibilian: The day I met one of the curators, Defne Ayas, was also the day we would end up meeting Martha Clarke and spending time inside Gorky’s Glass House. The two curators, Aaron and I took a pilgrimage of sorts to see the area where Gorky lived in Sherman, CT. We had planned to visit his gravesite and decided to also try and find the house. We magically came across Ms. Clarke as she was getting out of her car, and she graciously invited us in. She told us about the visitations of Gorky’s ghost in the home, how a few of her guests, had actually attested to seeing the ghost. There was the story of one of her friends waking up to a gelatinous figure in overalls at the foot of the bed, and another of seeing him through the windows upstairs. Chairs were pulled out from under people and lights switched on and off. It sounded like this ghost was restless. She also talked a little about the amount of work it takes to maintain the home, as it is still in the original condition from when Gorky and his family first moved there in 1947. Very little has changed, even the glass panes that make up the main wall of the house are the original glass from when Gorky lived there. I had seen the home in photos, mainly the Life magazine images from 1948, but I had never thought of the house itself as a living, changing thing with its own story to tell.


Aram Jibilian with Aaron Mattocks as Arshile Gorky’s ghost
  Detail, Gorky and the Glass House, 2010
22 inkjet prints, Approx. dimension of each print, 23"x16", Complete work installed, 8' x 9' 

Installed in the exhibition Blind Dates: New Encounters from the Edges of a Former Empire

Pratt Manhattan Gallery, New York City, Photograph courtesy of the artist

Moret: Did Ms. Clarke share any accounts about the ghost?

Jibilian: Ms Clarke says that she felt his presence often in the first few years of living in the house. Lights would go on and off inexplicably, the sounds of footsteps or something being dragged would fill the house. It seems he was often seen in the bedroom upstairs, either standing at the foot of the bed, as a sort of gelatinous figure in overalls or standing in the window. There are also stories from previous tenants of paintings being hurled off the walls, stories of a more restless ghost. It seems that his ghost is not restless anymore and that his presence is not felt as strongly as it once was. I wanted that to come out in the photos, that this was not a restless ghost, but one who was comfortably situated in this in between place of here/not here-- you might say a restful ghost.

Moret: I am aware that the photographs are not accounts of the Gorky’s ghost stories but a meditation of the “in-between” nature of his being. What dichotomies about Gorky were you particularly drawn to?

Jibilian: What fascinated me most about the ghost stories was the idea that Gorky’s place in the after life was in this in-between state, absent yet present, dead but still making himself known to the living as ghosts are known to do. This seemed to parallel the dichotomous nature of his life. Having been displaced from his first home, Van, and then coming to America, Gorky lived in an in-between state of exile, part refugee and part citizen, as many immigrants do. To further disconnect him from these places, he chose to further distance himself from his first home by not even claiming it as his own, by changing his name and taking on a false Russian ancestry.

Moret: Did you consider these accounts when composing the photographs? Or did you consider the photographs from the 1948 Life Magazine shoot and consider the notions of inside and outside, the fragility and invisibility that a glass house affords?

Jibilian: My main interest was in the Life magazine photos of him in the house. That photo shows Gorky silently, staring out through the grid of windows onto a blank sheet of snow. The image conjured up in my mind a romantic image of Gorky standing in his studio confronting a blank canvas.

I read in Hayden Herrera’s biography about how Gorky did not like living in this house. Despite its beauty, peace and solitude it offered, he found the modern structure of the wall of windows oppressive. According to Herrera he commented on how although it allowed the light in during the day, at night it allowed the darkness to enter absolutely. In trying to describe this restful ghost, I decided to only photograph him in the early and late light of the day. I didn’t want to do photos at night, as that’s what we normally expect of a ghost, and for Gorky in particular, in life it seemed he was more at peace during the day.

Moret: How did you prepare for the photo shoot?

We studied Gorky’s physical posture in archival photos taken of him. There are photos of Gorky dancing with a white handkerchief, which gets directly referenced in one of the images. It’s said that when Gorky drank too much, he would begin to dance around madly in the old Armenian style, he would let loose and reveal a part of himself in these uninhibited moments. I gave Aaron some brief lessons in Armenian solo dancing, but was more interested in seeing how Aaron would directly interpret the postures from the photos. I wanted there to be serenity in the dancing, not so much wildness that one would expect.

We also spent time just reflecting on the particular nature of Gorky’s suffering, his specific situation before he killed himself. One of the intriguing things about a Glass House is that it does not have the power to conceal. Like Gorky’s ill body, his personal life also began to show all the disease of his past. During his last year in Sherman, CT, he suffered a studio fire in which he lost a number of his paintings, he had this car accident which left his painting arm virtually paralyzed, and on top of everything it came to light that his wife was having an affair with Matta, a fellow surrealist, and one of his best friends. This would be a lot for anyone to bear and it was important to us to respect this history, not to sensationalize it. We tried to reflect on what comes after, imagining the epilogue as it were.

Aram Jibilian with Aaron Mattocks as Arshile Gorky’s ghost
Gorky and the Glass House, 2010
22 inkjet prints, Approx. dimension of each print, 23"x16", Complete work installed, 8' x 9'
Installed in the exhibition Blind Dates: New Encounters from the Edges of a Former Empire
Pratt Manhattan Gallery, New York City, Photograph courtesy of the artist


Moret: How long did you spend actually photographing at the house in Sherman, CT?

Jibilian: About 7 hours. 

Moret: Aaron Mattocks plays the role of Arshile Gorky’s ghost, wearing a mask inspired by Gorky’s “The Artist and His Mother.” Gorky himself was an outsider, oscillating between cultures and heritage. Aram, you are Armenian but Aaron is not thus a duality emerges about an artist playing the role of a man who is “in-between” and removed from a culture, when the artist is actually unfamiliar with Armenian heritage.

I like this observation. Yes, its true, Aaron is not Armenian (he does have some Hungarian ancestry, and Hungary was a part of the Ottoman Empire). I think it was important for the ghost to be performed by someone without Armenian ancestry. Gorky wrestled so much with issues of nationality and background, and he wove a complicated web for people to get lost in. By not having a strong connection to one particular background, Aaron was able to be a blank canvas on which to draw Gorky. Also, I think when we pass from this life to the next one, we shed some of the identities and labels that we carry in this life--I think our national and ethnic backgrounds might be one of those labels.

Moret: The structure of the glass house is rather deliberate and linear, very similar to the grid structure that Gorky used in creating his works. In total there are 22 inkjet prints in the show?

Jibilian: Yes, there is an inkjet print that directly correlates to each pane of glass, made to scale. The windows of the house are actually about 28” x 40”, and my prints are about 16” x 23”.

Moret: Did you construct the photographs to resemble the architecture of the house? Herein lies another great duality in re-creating the glass house in a gallery space. It is a temporary construction, as it will be taken down once the show ends. I really appreciate the ephemeral quality of your glass house and the way it creates a new experience of the site for viewers who have never visited the real place, and maybe never will.

Jibilian: I like that observation on the ephemeral nature of the piece, but indeed although the house has been there for a long time, it would be a miracle if it stayed there forever. Yes, we wanted the viewer to have the experience of standing in front of the window and taking in the view, well the particular view that we wanted to offer. Since the perspective of the photos changes, from being on the outside looking in, to being on the inside looking out, viewers can have the experience of being on both sides of the house, in and out. 

Moret: There are two types of photographs present in the show- the first were Gorky occupying the space and the second were of the panes of glass and the nature beyond the house. Why was it important to capture both? There is a wonderful sense of the past and the present are momentarily connected, as if this is the world that Gorky would see if he were still alive.

Jibilian: Yes, well put, that’s definitely part of the idea. I mentioned above about seeing the house as a living and changing thing, it tells its own story, not only Gorky’s story, but that of all the residents and guests who have come to live there. I wanted to have this close examination on something physical next to the more narrative photos of the ghost, which lie more in the realm of the spiritual.

I wanted to capture the windows in particular because I was fascinated by the fact that the glass is the original glass from when the house was built for Gorky and his family. It was through these same windows that Gorky stared. Glass has a contradictory nature...both revealing and concealing at the same time it is both fragile and can be dangerous to the touch. It reflects us back to ourselves even while we struggle to see what’s going on the other side. It’s a barrier where we can safely look out onto the outside without having to interact or relate with it. This can clearly be a metaphor for how Gorky lived his life, protected/threatened by a glass house that kept him a part of yet apart from the world around him.

Moret: Why do you feel that the notion of “home” relevant to Gorky?

Jibilian: Because of his response to trauma, which was to cover and create ambiguities, Gorky seemed to lack a real home. He stayed in a state of exile, and from there translated his memories and desired experiences of “home” onto his canvas. Through painting, Gorky was able to connect with loved ones from the past, as in the painting of his mother and paintings of his sisters. He was also able to organize and communicate his tortured history in a way that he couldn't in his relationships with others. We can see Gorky's placement of home on his canvas through the names that he chose for his paintings, "Khorkom", "Garden in Sochi", "The Plow and the Song", and one of my favorites “How my mothers apron unfolds in my life”. Working within the edges of the canvas, he was ultimately able to reconnect with his lost family and homeland.


Aram Jibilian with Aaron Mattocks as Arshile Gorky’s ghost
Gorky and the Glass House, 2010
22 inkjet prints, Approx. dimension of each print, 23"x16", Complete work installed, 8' x 9' 
Installed in the exhibition Blind Dates: New Encounters from the Edges of a Former Empire
Pratt Manhattan Gallery, New York City, Photograph courtesy of the artist

A. Moret

A native Angelino, Moret spends her days wandering art spaces and writing in Moleskine notebooks.  Her work has appeared in such publications as Art Works, ArtWeek, Art Ltd., Artillery, Art Scene, Flaunt, Flavorpill, For Your Art, THE, and The Los Angeles Times Magazine. She also created her own magazine “One Mile Radius” with photographer Garet Field Sells that explores the effects that the urban environ of Los Angeles has on artists and their work.  To learn more visit www.byamoret.com

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