Los Angeles

Paul Sarkisian

Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA)

At a time when some critics hold that figurative impulses are thoroughly exhausted, Paul Sarkisian, at the Pasadena Art Museum, is painting highly personal and ambitious works of high quality. Nor is he simply dealing with figures, but that standard studio subject, the nude; and then, nudes treated allegorically. It is a tribute to the artist that he has successfully resuscitated this totally disregarded mode. Though he readily admits to the influence of Pop art five years ago (but confirms only a few of its basic tenets), there is little that prepares one for the impact of these paintings.

Sarkisian’s style is thoroughly immaculate, more than tight or precise, but rather pristine in the control of outlines, smoothness of modeling, and sureness of composition; it is attention devoted to the justness of relationships. Nothing is extraneous because severe editing permits nothing superfluous to enter upon the surface. Built part to part, through constant readjustment, the final compositions are right and sure.

The basis of his art is reality, filtered several steps from its source. Drawn first from his imagination, this imagery passes through the camera and the halftone screen, through his compositional necessities, through a projector and a bare pencil outline, and then it is rendered in a complex system of taping and spraying. Three levels of implication are involved: the part played by each section in the composition, the illusory surface of the object represented, and the reference back to the original source material.

The clarity of shape edge is never disturbed, for he places his cut-out figures and accessories against the foil of a brilliant blue sky. The radiance of this hue’s strength aggressively holds the rear plane of space so close to the surface that it pushes the figures to the forefront. The space is only deep enough to accommodate the illusion of the volumes, for the cropping off of the objects at the bottom of the picture creates only a narrow pocket of space. Should the photo reference seem too strong, the illusionism is subverted and the paintings then squeeze out as flat as a two-dimensional reproduction.

His encounters take place at the edge of the world; a strip of terrain is provided to lift the figures upward to an extent of space. The earliest paintings of the series are equally arbitrary in floating the figures from proverbial skyhooks rationalized by Nadar’s observation balloon. Though grounded in the viewer’s space, his forms are buoyant and aerial, active and self-possessed. The separation between the nudes and the draped figures in color and value terms has been noted, but it is also of interest that the drapery is always more than a covering. It assumes the nature of a heavily molded swaddling wrapper. Hats, gloves, and viewing devices mask and protect even more of the draped figures and we come to realize these are artistic creators (Dylan, Picasso, and Hefferton) observing us or the models. The paintings become commentaries on the studio situation of the three-way relationship between the artist, the model, and the viewer. They also point up the unencumbered freedom and sensuousness of the idyllic model as opposed to the muffled and constrained point of view of the artists. In one of the most recent paintings the artist figure has been replaced by a nude male suggesting a creator now outside the work and replaced by an alter-ego.

Each composition is the occasion for the establishment of tension points, some smooth and transitional, others abrupt and heavily detailed, all providing a maximum opportunity for the painting of beautiful passages. Not paint as pigment or impasto—the tactile quality of beautifully handled brushwork—but rather emphasized is the relative anonymity of the gradated tones of the airbrush. By themselves the tones would possess esthetic potentials in a formal sense, but are always accompanied by the additional reverberations of thoughtfully controlled and thoroughly felt subject references. Sarkisian possesses an enormous gift of rightness of pacing of the parts, not only in a broader compositional sense, but also in treating the individual figures. Relatively free from complications, the surfaces of the subtly shaded nudes are given to generous areas of controlled volumetric modulations creating a palpable form of taut flesh. Shapes and areas are emphasized over articulation of surfaces and joints except in such detailed parts as hands, heads, and hair. In these places, depending on the general clarity of focus, enormous amounts of complex information are conveyed with a simplicity of means.

Fidel Danieli