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Friday, August 24, 2018

Remembering the photographer Arthur Tcholakian

When I came back to Boston from Paris in the late 70’s I rented a studio space in East Watertown. I found myself surrounded by an Armenian community not far from where I grew up. It had been rejuvenated by an influx of Armenians escaping the political turmoil of Iran and Lebanon. One of my neighbors was Richard Tashjian, the founder of the Armenian Artists Association of America a group of mostly New England artists of Armenian extraction that banded together to bring their work to the attention of the larger Boston community. With my Armenian heritage I qualified as a member and joined the group.
review in the NYTimes  

Richard had developed connections with Soviet Armenian artists. Over the next few years I was selected twice to exhibit there and eventually had work included in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Yerevan.  For the most part I participated in local shows in Armenian Church basements. It was at one of these shows I met Arthur ”Harout” Tcholakian. A photographer born into a family of photographers in Jerusalem, he had immigrated to New York where he became a highly successful fashion photographer. He was at that time trying to leverage that success and I assume the money he made in the world of high end fashion to do photographic essays on topics that had more social import. “The Majesty of the Black Woman” was very successful. His book on Soviet Armenia was paid for out of his own pocket and I don’t think found much of a market. However, I am unaware of any other books that dealt with the life of that strange mixture of Armenia and Communism that was the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia.
William Saroyan by Tcholakian

I recall expressing some embarrassment to Arthur at showing with the AAAA in that church basement. Only a handful of the artists could be considered professional and many indulged in an Armenian predilection for Picassoesque cubistic language in. He seemed disturbed by the distinction I was making between professional and amateur which was reminiscent of the attitude of my late friend Addison Parks, who often cringed at such distinctions.  Arthur said we would go through the show painting by painting and try to figure out how each one worked. It was a lesson in humility and acceptance of the variety of human artistic expression. Moreover, it voiced a visceral reaction on his part on how preconceptions can limit our understanding of what is really in front of us. It was an acceptance of the moment without the boundaries of labels like professional and amateur.
Selection of photos taken from his son Ara's FB page

We became friends. I often visited him where he lived in the Queens NY. The apartment was illuminated with high wattage bulbs that eliminated all shadows. It was like Arthur, a man of high wattage intensity. On the wall was a world map that made one think we were in some military HQ. He stayed up all night as most of his communications by telephone were with countries, which were awake while we slept.  He was a globalist before the word was invented. We discussed so many issues related in particular to the survival of the Armenians. We would talk for hours on end. Once for 24 hours straight. Arthur never seemed to need sleep.

His notion of the “moment” is intriguing to me. The moment is where you can change the course of events. It was strangely expressed in one incident involving a plumber who came to do a repair on a drain in his Queens‘ apartment. It was routine of course but for Arthur nothing was routine. He asked the plumber who was Hispanic if he knew the traditional Puerto Rican song about the chicken. He hadn’t. Are you sure? replied Arthur. He gave him a few words of the song and started to hum a tune. He kept pestering the plumber to recall the song. Before long the fellow started singing a song that he now seemed to recall and we joined in. It turns out the song does not exist. Was he mocking in a mean spirited way the susceptibility of the plumber to be coerced into pretending to know the song? Or was it again the unwillingness to accept anything routine.

I remained with Richard Tashjian’s group into the 80’s missing out on one trip to   Armenia he organized with the Soviet Republic, because of its coincidence with a new teaching job. Apparently those visits were phenomenal, full of arak fueled discussions despite the omnipresence of spies. The ministry of culture had money for the American Armenian artists visit and even paid for the trip abroad.

When I moved to North Carolina, Arthur had already moved to DC into a spacious contemporary house in Wolf Trap. He was remarried and was working on some major projects, all related to getting into the international scene to which he felt he had better access via Washington. How he paid for his lifestyle was always a mystery? I vaguely recall his referencing of a Middle Eastern financier.
Arthur Tcholakian

On what was to be our last visit he invited friends over for a large feast. It became clear at one point in the middle of the meal that most everyone at the dinner table came from a different part of the Mediterranean: Arthur from Jerusalem, another from Alexandria, a third from Lebanon and my wife Alix from Morocco.

He was only in his 50’s when he passed away. He often repeated a saying that for me summed up his view of life: as artists we have to purge ourselves of the shopkeeper. We must maintain constant vigilance against the mentality of the accountant where all has to tally. He was a risk taker and a believer in the twinkle of the eye where you transcend your past to turn that instant toward the future. While people around him were trying to add things up or to add him up he was dancing a pirouette leaving us behind as he leapt into the unknown.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Fuddy-Duddy art and Zombie Formalism

It has become current to demonize the power structure of the art scene that attracts large sums of money for Zombie formalist painting. The latest assault by Chris Wiley on “artnet” made a connection between ZF and the debt-ridden economy we live in. I have discussed this aspect of it with artists Mark Stone and Dennis Hollingsworth for some time now so that take is not new. Not bad. Five years running since I first coined the moniker that was popularized by Walter Robinson and people are still appalled. It all seems to reek of a modern flattening out of any dimensionality to the human species to end in a rank self-applied will to power that erases any complexity from the human species. From the multidimensional world of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment" via the Freudian dimensions of eros/id/superego to a one-dimensional presence devoid of even the erotic. No tensions ,no conflict, no struggle just corporate cogs, parts that accede to playing a role in the global economy. I recall Sergeant Joe Friday’s deadpan interrogations on Dragnet that start with “Just the facts Ma’am, nothing but the facts.”  Wow! There’s a succinct summation of Greenbergian Modernism. I wonder what the post-modern version of his interrogation would be…

So where does one turn. Where are the good guys. I always appreciated Jed Perl’s take on the art world especially his persistence in the face of the intransigence of the status quo. Now matter how many incisive assaults he could make on the likes of Cindy Sherman the power structure of the art world has so few doubts about her importance like a Whac-A-Mole she just keeps popping up. Perl has his good guys, typically members of the figurative movement of the 70’s, who still show in coop galleries and artists such as Leland Bell who along with William Bailey was a follower of the French artist Jean Helion. John Updike who reviewed Perl’s “New Art City” in the New York Times in 2005 scratched his head about these choices, as do I. It could be that in the context of the harsh nihilism of Rauschenberg and Duchamp or the ID driven marks of de Kooning what he sees in them is a touch of sweetness “a quieter kind of yearning” that Perl does not want to turn his back on.

But I find that sweetness often verges on the fuddy-duddy.  It crosses a subtle line where the work becomes cloying or even less than that: inert.  It is as though the artists were unaware of the nefarious forces out there trying to undermine their precious order. There is no pushing back. No struggle. Maybe in the end it is as bland as Zombie Formalism, although the human subject matter keeps it in the realm of the social. And of course ZF is self-consciously and intentionally bland.

I have already given sympathetic treatment to Helion and the Leland Bell's world of art and its followers on my blog. I saw them as conserving and deepening certain notions of visuality in painting discovered by the Fauves and late Derain that from an academic point of view are very teachable. The late Addison Parks studied with Bell at RISD and spoke highly of his teaching. Like Bailey I suspect he had a touch of the proselytizer, of the good V.S. evil to which I was susceptible as a student.

Recently, I had an encounter with the members of one New York coop gallery in particular when I got into one of their curated shows. The encounter reinforced my notion of their fuddy-duddy nature but also a realization that their conservatism verged on mean-spiritedness. It disabused me of any notion there was a place where values mattered. Just because you have the right beliefs does not make you ipso facto a good person.

I often submit work to juried shows at these coops. They are cheap to enter although probably a money-maker for the Coops which otherwise depend solely on member's dues to survive. I got into one several years ago, which provided a good excuse to go to an opening in the City but the quality of the work was so-so and the number of acceptances overwhelmed the shoe-box space of the gallery. A good friend had her work in one of these shows and was discovered by billionaire collector William Louis-Dreyfus, who not only bought the work in the show, but purchased enough of her work for her to quit her house-cleaning jobs she does to make ends meet.

This show looked a bit more promising in that the maximum size allowed was large enough for me to favorably showcase my work beyond the small size limit usually demanded for these shows. I did the requisite social media promo and heard from several blog followers whom I had never met personally that they were interested in going to my show.

I sensed a touch of apprehension when I left the work off in the gallery. The work already submitted leaning up against the walls seemed anodyne. The gallery director who looked at my work askance, mumbled something about the D-Hooks, which I had wired according to their specs, but I said if they preferred to hang it on two wall hooks the D-Hooks were in the right spot to be adapted. She seemed to understand.

Happy not to be ticketed, I started my return to New Hampshire.

The following morning I saw a call from the gallery on my phone and assumed they were calling about how to hang the painting. I was flabbergasted to learn that they were not going to even attempt to hang it. Something about it being beyond the weight specs in the application form. No problem! I will bring down tomorrow another smaller painting in the same style. No! Everyone wants the show hung by the end of the day and that was that. I protested about having reserved a hotel room and family and friends were going to show up etc. But to no avail. I was just one of more than forty exhibitors and that one name on the list absent from the show was not a big deal for them. I came to the realization that the work with its texture stood out like a sore thumb. Someone did not want it in the show. Out of common courtesy they should have let me bring a new work down. It were as though my reality as an individual artist with a history, aspirations and plans, in short, a life had no reality for them. I was upsetting their conceptual applecart. For a moment I got inside their collective head to realize my painting would have not had one work to interact with to give it context in the show. I would have crushed the exhibit and their sense of "self" as well. I was to be sacrificed to maintain the status quo.

Wittgenstein, who had fought in WW1, said you didn’t have to go to war to see Evil. It is all around us in day-to-day life.

Here is an essay about misunderstanding and finally understanding: 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

My recollection of Addison Parks will appear in "Provincetown Arts" at the end of this month

Addison Parks


WHEN JOYCE CREIGER paired Addison and me
for our inaugural show in 1998 at the Creiger-
Dane Gallery on Newbury Street, little did we
know that she had initiated our twenty-year-long
friendship. Little did I know that my exhibition
partner had already achieved renown in the ’80s
in New York, not long after graduating from the
Rhode Island School of Design as part of the
neo-Expressionists with shows at the Joan Washburn
and Andrew Crispo galleries. He achieved
parallel success as an art critic at ARTS Magazine
and, when he moved to Boston, at the Christian
Science Monitor.
In 1998, Addison drew on his New York and
Boston connections to mount a show of hybrid
abstraction at Creiger-Dane entitled Severed Ear,
which, in retrospect, could only be considered
postmodern anticipating the Provisionalist
painting that Raphael Rubinstein labeled as
such in 2007. It bespoke his ability to befriend
a diverse group of artists and also a highly intuitive
mind that could sense connections unseen
to most people.
For more than a decade, Addison and his
wife, Stacey Parks, ran the Bow Street Gallery
in Cambridge. On occasion, he would host
luncheons with gallery members and other gallerists
where there were vibrant discussions on
art that one gallery member described as Pinteresque.
These are memories of Addison at his
best, a brilliant conversationalist bringing people
together to discuss the topics of art and life that
defined his existence.
People remember him. One evening, I was
conversing with someone at the Milton Resnick
and Pat Pasloff Foundation, telling him about
the death of Larry Deyab, who had been Resnick’s
studio assistant. Somehow the conversation
turned to Addison’s death, and he said
Addison had reviewed his first show in NYC.
Recently, a Boston artist contacted me out of
the blue to tell me what an impact Severed Ear
had on his life and art. Addison was not a happy
camper in Boston, and justifiably so, since a
certain fussbudget mentality reigns in this town
that was not sympathetic to charismatic types
like him. He was an enthusiast in an art scene
defined by doctors and lawyers.
What is most memorable about Addison is
his unbending resistance to those experts who
wished to define him, whether it was the doctors
who set timelines on his illness, or a stockbroker
who thought he should go all tech stock in 2000.
Sometimes I almost wondered if he possessed
the wisdom of a shaman in the way his insights
seemed to transcend the boundaries of practical
knowledge. For all of these things and more, he
will be greatly missed.
— Martin Mugar