Los Angeles

Charles Garabedian

California State University, Northridge, and Newspace Gallery

Social Notes from All Over: the man with the plaid shirt and one-loop earring stepped out from the gallery to the sidewalk where we were enjoying our paper cups of bourbon and bananas. He pulled a Lucky from his lips and ground it under his boots; then, alluding with a tip of his head to what was back inside, he said to no one in particular, “Toughest god-damned artist in L.A.” Trouble is, not many people knew it and these two simultaneous shows of Charles Garabedian—a mini-retrospective (1962–73) and an overdue commercial exposure—won’t convince everybody. I work at the college, and they all want to know how cum, when they must struggle just to elevate rough-hewn shit to the level of modernist formulae, this rough-hewn shit is considered so magnificent. Well, it isn’t by nine-tenths of the establishment white-wallers, but touting Garabedian’s particular brand of funk begs the real revelation: why is he so much better than Northern California faux-naïf stuff or Chicago “imagism”? Garabedian has been kicking around for 17 years after taking an initial drawing class from Howard Warshaw; in the interim he’s wreaked a quiet, insidious influence on several artists, but after an incandescent early fling as a CeeJe gallery “rear-guard” painter (with Luis Lunetta, Antonio Chavez, Ed Carrillo, and Lance Richbourg) he’s been totally ignored. A possible reason is Garabedian’s oscillating between figurative and abstract work. Another is the almost irredeemable ugliness of everything he does.

A harsh statement and true—but not because Garabedian slaves relentlessly over tortured, hyper-articulated pseudototemesque hypodermic-and-bandage design school graffiti, or because he winds barbed wire around rusted plowshares as zodiacs. Conversely, Garabedian’s technique is gentle (cartoon figures rendered in friendly crosshatches, oddball letterings of “China,” and caulking compound hanging loops on the paper paintings), and his “awful” subjects (old: “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” assassinated on the john; new: a “hit man” waiting to perpetrate the “Drumville Massacre”) are more teddy-bear than menace. What’s ugly (genuinely nonesthetic instead of merely antimainstream) is Garabedian’s lovely alienation from his materials. From early self-portraits in mock art-historical settings, to insouciant nonevents like Getting Well, to the superb China series of standing fence paintings (the best send-up of precious resin in the L.A. basin), to the two Henry Inn paper paintings (one I’d like to buy and burn in the self-interest of all “tough” abstract painters), to the cutout, lifesize resin tableaux (e.g., Too Hot to Handle), Garabedian is a bullshit-free existential painter, suffering the agony of his own freedom (“an artist is someone who can do whatever he wants”), illuminating the abyss between himself and the Other (in Garabedian’s instance, the tool at the end of his hand), and cognizant of the profound-absurd switchback of the whole business (“I don’t think my work’s funny. . . . but I think am”). Ultimately, what separates Garabedian from the rest of the anti- mainstream is not how to make a groovy painting using junior-high drawing and dreams from a rummy’s TV daze, but the beautiful impossibility of painting itself.

Peter Plagens