Betty Cuningham Gallery
October 19–November 25, 2006
The most arresting image in Charles Garabedian’s exhibition of recent works on paper is a large acrylic called “Channel Swimmer” (2006). The painting’s original title was “Drowning Channel Swimmer” because, as the artist confides in an interview published in the show’s catalogue, “the fact that she’s possibly drowning makes it a more interesting story.”
The role of narrative in visual art has mutated like a virus throughout the history of modernism. Whenever it seemed eradicated by a heavy dose of formalism, an elusive strain would emerge under a new guise: Futurism, Expressionism, Metaphysical Painting, Neo-Classicism, and so forth. Narrative, within the context of these movements, does not denote storytelling, which will probably never recover from the tawdriness of the French Academy, but rather the non-formal and often extra-visual motivations that engendered the artwork.
For Garabedian, who is 83, this narrative, at least from the evidence of his recent work, is sex. In the same interview, he divulges that “As we age, our physical need for sex decreases, but the role it plays in our imagination and in our emotional lives remains the same, and may even increase.” The strongest works in the show are the ones in which sexuality is at its ripest—lush, brightly keyed paintings of full-bodied nude women in creamy pinks and hot crimsons. Conversely, the weakest pictures, such as the symbol-laden “Africa” or the cluttered “Air Raid” (both from 2006), are all but devoid of sexual content; with nothing of similar psychological urgency to take its place, the artist seems to be wandering aimlessly in search of a theme.
But when he tackles sex, he takes it head on. In the watercolor, “Adam and Eve” (2005), a blond, pre-fig leaf Adam, his eyes riveted on Eve’s naked body, covers—or clutches—his genitals as Eve plunges her fingers into her dark, flame-like pubic hair. The work is comprised of six sheets of paper, so that each figure stands three sheets high. In case we needed any further convincing of Garabedian’s take on Genesis, he has sited the groins of the first man and woman in the dead center of the middle sheets. By underscoring the sexual metaphor of Adam and Eve, he situates their story within the tradition of fertility myths, and by extension, asserts the essential humanness at the core of mythic structures.
Two paintings from 2005 depicting fleshy, nude women, each titled “Mythological Figure,” take for granted the carnal impulses hallowed by our ancestors in the form of nymphs and goddesses. While there is an otherworldly aspect to both of the nudes—one appears to float above a slate-blue river—what is most striking is their engorged desire: not their own, but the projected desire of the viewer and, presumably, the painter as well.
The idea of desire as catalyst in Garabedian’s practice is borne out by the execution of the pictures themselves. The most sensuously engaging images are also the most highly developed; otherwise, he seems to lose interest in ancillary elements, relegating them to perfunctory schematics. What sets “Channel Swimmer” apart is the degree of solidity with which he has painted not only the topless female swimmer on the far right, but also the prow of a wooden boat entering from the left and the expansive backdrop of the sea, deepening from dark green to pitch black.
The twin engines of myth—sex and death—animate the scene. The body of the bare-breasted swimmer seems to jackknife in a crippling cramp. Her hair, feet and hand are sucked downward into the murk as bubbles escape from her nostrils. If Garabedian had included the word “drowning” in the title, the appearance of the boat would relegate the image to a thin, and phony, moment of suspense: will she be rescued or not? But formally and existentially, the boat and the swimmer are locked in perpetual balance—neither one is going anywhere. She is caught, just like the artist, in the unbearable embrace of longing and mortality. She could be Eurydice, slipping back into the Underworld just beyond Orpheus’ grasp, or a siren luring a shipload of sailors to their doom. Or she could be a channel swimmer with her escort boat, and she could be drowning.