Jack Avetisyan: Mid-Century Neo Modern

It is quite a world Jack Avetisyan conjures. On the one hand, Avetisyan the bemused observer of human foible satirizes the ambition and vanity of our species with the deft, animated line of a social satirist, mocking our self-deluding attitudes with a caricaturist’s flair. On the other hand, Avetisyan the diehard modernist sets his stylized figures, and the welter of lines that describes them, within roiling fields of abstraction, turning his wit into wild displays of formal virtuosity. An Avetisyan painting or drawing is two things at once, an arch cartoon and a vigorous abstract composition; we close one eye to see one thing, the other eye to see the other, but we can’t really pull the two supposedly disparate pictorial languages, much less pictorial messages, apart. Both languages, and messages, are integral to Avetisyan’s vision: he’s the one who closes one eye and then the other.

Although too young to remember it, Avetisyan evokes a specific social and cultural era in recent history, specifically but not exclusively American. The mid-century moment, with its sleekly self-conscious modernist lines and colors and its focus on a world view at once sophisticated, even world-weary, and naïve, inspires Avetisyan both stylistically and spiritually. Clearly, he is aware of how the decades after World War II — the Cold War epoch – are now so retro-hip. But he is not just stepping in line with his own time’s revivalist Zeitgeist. These painterly apparitions are not merely backdrops to episodes of Mad Men but a thoroughgoing reconsideration of visual mannerisms and social gestures now a half-century old. Avetisyan has revived for himself the abstract expressionist brushstroke, the Danish-modern curve, and the wit of the postwar social satirist, out of a genuine preference for and curiosity about these once-prevalent earmarks rather than from any superficial desire to exploit the free-floating nostalgia of the present day. Avetisyan appreciates the implications of the inherited style he cultivates, but does not cultivate that style in order to take advantage of those implications. These are not neo-‘50s paintings. Indeed, most of them couldn’t have existed back then.

By combining the figurative with the non-objective – furthermore, the figural caricature with the vigorous gesturality of abstract expressionism and l’art informel – Avetisyan commits what would have been considered heresy in the artistic discourse of his grandparents’ day. According to the modernist (especially late-modernist) ethos, painting is a High Art, cartooning a Low Art. And further, the painterly gesture is its own raison d’être, establishing and occupying a profoundly serious realm of expression elevated above the mundane. Any number of “action painters” on both sides of the Atlantic (and Pacific) were also capable of quick, stylized figural rendition; but they were discouraged from dropping their images into their actions, lest the quotidian simplicity and lightheartedness of their representations cheapen the transcendent substance of their non-objective compositions. Of course, such mandated purity was impossible to police effectively, and the hold it maintained on the mainstream discourse of mid-century art led to inevitable reaction: Pop Art. But Avetisyan is no Pop artist.

Indeed, Pop Art is only an incidental presence in Avetisyan’s work, giving a painting the merest inflection of advertising slick or Cool School graphic design. Rather, Avetisyan marries two disparate genres, combining (but not quite fusing) the “nobility” of non-representational abstraction with the “common” art of cartooning, caricature, and the decorative simplification of the human form. The two entirely unrelated modalities are superimposed and to an extent blended so that neither one loses either its visual impact or its signified meaning. The people and objects with which Avetisyan populates his paintings display very clear, distinctive identities: businesspeople, worldly young adults, old-school sophisticates for the most part, self-satisfied and reeking of financial and social success. Sometimes Avetisyan reduces their presence to the level of comic strips or cereal-box design, while other times he renders them in great and flattering, or revealing, detail. Invariably, though, they occupy a world of drips, darting lines, swaths of paint, and other unruly (if in their own way elegant), peculiarly passionate marks.

What do we make of these marks, and of the oblivious people they all but engulf? We determine, in the end, that the anachronism of their style(s) is at once less important than their pictorial coherence – and is central to that coherence. Avetisyan has married two subjectively dissimilar modes that yet maintain mutual balance because they share a common stylistic past. Furthermore, they speak to us, each and together, as a result of the painter’s command of this revived formal language. Avetisyan finds the factors his figural and his abstract elements share, allowing him to realize paintings that make visual sense. He is interested not in post-modernist pastiche, but in neo-modernist revival and resolution.

For Avetisyan, the whole and the sum of parts are the same thing. And in his hands the visual language of 60 years ago maintains its graphic power, its lines supple yet volatile, its colors lurid yet balanced, its overall vision one of comedy in the midst of turmoil. This dynamic well served artists two generations earlier, but they did not have the luxury of stepping outside the form-world they inhabited. Taking advantage of history and hindsight, Jack Avetisyan embraces that form-world, seeing from outside how to get inside, and what to do once there.

Los Angeles, November 2018

peter frank

Peter Frank is art critic for the Huffington Post and Associate Editor for Fabrik magazine. He is former critic for Angeleno magazine and the L.A. Weekly, served as Editor for THE magazine Los Angeles and Visions Art Quarterly, and contributes articles to publications around the world.