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Charles Garabedian Retrospective: Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Charles Garabedian, The Spring for Which I Longed, 2001-03
Acrylic on canvas
Collection of the Artist, Courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA


Charles Garabedian Retrospective
Santa Barbara Museum of Art
1130 State Street
Santa Barbara CA 93101-2746
January 22 to May 1, 2011

A non-conformist who has worked in relative obscurity for much of his nearly 50-year career, California artist Charles Garabedian may only now be getting the recognition his visionary work deserves. Garabedian’s imaginative approach to the figure, and singular form of narrative expression, belies his somewhat low profile on the art scene. A recent retrospective at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art offered an insightful survey of the vast scope of his unique and fascinating oeuvre. Compiled by SBMA Curator of Contemporary Art Julie Joyce, this was the first major museum exhibit of Garabedian’s work in 28 years. The riveting and sumptuously presented retrospective included some 60 pieces from institutional and private collections across the US, with an emphasis on paintings and drawings produced since his last major exhibitions at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art in 1981 and Rose Art Museum in 1983. Born in 1923, Garabedian began his career at age 32, studying drawing with Howard Warshaw. He went on to earn his MA at UCLA in 1961, and joined LA’s legendary Ceeje Gallery in the 60s. His early paintings might have been derivative of surrealism and expressionism, but Garabedian was also influenced by Renaissance masters like Piero della Francesca, Giotto and Andre Mategna.

The 1964 painting, Family Portrait, set the context for the retrospective. Powerful and intimate, this large canvas features a self-portrait of Garabedian building a house, along side his wife, Gwen and daughter, Claire. Infused with symbolism, the house is said to recall a pavilion in Piero della Francesca’s 1470 painting, Flagellation. Garabedian’s bold style is flavored with a vibrant palette. He incorporates elements of abstract expressionism with figurative subjects, sometimes blurring the border between the two. The landscape in Ruin II (1978) is deconstructed into simple blocks of color. In Calendar, (1995) figurative elements appear to have been juxtaposed on an otherwise abstract plane. In the course of his career, the artist has experimented with different genres of painting, as well as a variety of media. During the 70s, Garabedian devoted a phase to paper sculptures.

Over the years, he has repeatedly revisited favorite biblical, mythological and archaeological themes. An early Adam and Eve (1974) depicts the couple from the waist down. In this unexpected and curious interpretation, Eve appears coy, while Adam seems to be striding toward her. Garabedian is also playful and witty, as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1970) -- two side-by-side identical self-portraits -- neither of which reveals a clue of either good or evil. The Prehistoric Figure Series (1978-1980), which debuted at Garabedian’s 1981 solo exhibit at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, and as part of the 1984 Venice Biennale, was remounted here with enormous impact. The series was a breakthrough in which the artist returned to focus on painting the figure and landscape after years of exploring different media. In a departure from his formal training, here he has reconceived and reconfigured the human form, borrowing an element of abstraction while infusing a psychological component. The figures are solid, occupying space in a way that seems to defy the confines of the canvas. Garabedian refers to them as, “precognitive figures.” Viewed in sequence along the wall of one large gallery, they portray humankind learning to navigate the world. Pink figures emerge from a background of bright thalo blue skies, their forms captured in various twisting poses, pivoting as if exploring their surroundings. They seem to convey a childlike naiveté, appearing innocent, unaware of the menace foreshadowed by the scattered bones in the foreground.

Charles Garabedian, The Ceramicist, 2006
Acrylic on canvas
Collection of the Artist, Courtesy of Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York, NY

Island No. 1 (1982) is one of two immense-scale paintings reflecting Garabedian’s fascination with the Mediterranean region, history and culture. The dimensions -- roughly 12 by 24 feet -- offer a much wider view of the figure in landscape than in his previous works. Here, vivid broad expanses of color are defined in raw strokes, and Garabedian’s customary bold style. The artist often reveals his lighthearted side, as in The Ceramicist, (2006) in which a female nude seems startled to discover she has apparently given birth to a collection of pots. In Ulysses, (1984) Garabedian brings the mythological character down to earth, an ordinary common man. He said, “the figure is a very vulnerable element… it’s timeless.” This sense of timelessness pervades the artist’s work, irrespective of historical or allegorical reference. A recent painting of two soldiers in camouflage, Starry Night, (2009) is one of the few works shown here in which the figures are clothed. Most are nude – in a deliberate effort to remove context -- giving them an archetypal timelessness.

The climax of the retrospective, and perhaps the artist’s lifetime body of work, The Spring for Which I Longed (2001-2003, acrylic on canvas), is the other of the two monumental paintings considered to be Garabedian’s magnum opus. It portrays two female figures, more delicately articulated than those in some of his previous work, that appear dazzled by a majestic seascape in the background. In this breathtaking piece, figure seems to merge into landscape. As with much of Garabedian’s work, the borders are blurred – the definition between figure and landscape becomes almost arbitrary, as does the boundary between abstract and representational in some of his work.
Some 40 years after Family Portrait, Garabedian appears to be applying the paint with a more meticulous hand. The time frame of this retrospective gives us an insight into more than his style, subject matter and frame of reference, it also gives us a glimpse into his process and the evolution of his technique. By continually cultivating and refining his own point of view, Garabedian has maintained a singular integrity in his work. His apparent choice to ignore the boundaries, or invent his own, may be the reason the artist has been deemed elusive. This retrospective may not pin him down, but it succeeds in demonstrating Garabedian’s important contribution to the canon of contemporary American art – however difficult it may be to put him in a box.

Charles Garabedian, Family Portrait, 1964
Oil on canvas
Collection of the Garabedian Family Trust

Charles Garabedian, Adam and Eve, 1974
Acrylic collage
Private Collection, Courtesy of L.A. Louver Gallery

Charles Garabedian, Prehistoric Figure, 1978-80
Acrylic on panel
The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica

Megan Abrahams

Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings. 

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