By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
No amount of deferential reassurance of his primacy in that arena seemed to satisfy him. And it is the case that he was surrounded by an impressive and most comely collection of adoring young models and nymphs who, dressed only in garlands of flowers, would dance for Zorbacchus at the annual Primavera celebration of his and Dabney’s birthdays. What was in it for Dabney, we wondered, other than the single concession of a cavorting Pan with pipes whose furry goat leggings left visible his satyr masculinity? It always was Jirayr’s show, with others playing supportive roles. Three nymphs, summoned by Dabney, appeared at the Huntington Memorial Hospital to try to get a response from their departing Zorbacchus.
That first day at the ranch, my introduction to what I came to think of as Zorth Land, I spent the entire afternoon, returning the next day with my wife and friends. “Do I ever have a treat for you!” I enthused. Another guest was a young woman artist of striking beauty and sensual appeal who eventually agreed to pose for him and even joined the covey of nude nymphs at one of the spring Primavera bacchanals. For each of his years after 80, another nymph was added. And almost every year, Jirayr urged me to convince my wife to agree to join his younger models (she was 50 when we first met the Zorthians, and in fact had been an artist’s model herself some years earlier). She seemed amused by the offer but, with a smile, gracefully declined. Still, Dabney and other older female friends continued to lobby for a more mature nymph at the bacchanal. Their lack of success was a revealing sign of Zorthian’s unyielding and tenacious attachment to youth. That, no doubt, was a factor in his longevity.
As it turned out, I did collect the Zorthian papers for the national research collection. And I also conducted a series of taped interviews — spirited and frequently combative, it will come as no surprise to those who knew my subject — that are available online (www.archivesofamericanart.si.edu) for those who might want to pay Jirayr a final visit. On more than one of these occasions, the basic rule of avoiding alcohol during such important professional activity was relaxed (against my better judgment, of course). “More wine, Dabney!” When in bohemia, I reasoned, do as the bohemians do.
As we drank wine and recorded for posterity, the famously competitive Jirayr Zorthian emerged, testing my ability to remain neutral as he questioned my intellectual credentials and, or so it seemed, my manhood as well. Among the many subjects we discussed and even debated was the role of nudity (especially female) in large-scale works that he asserts carry important social messages. For Zorthian, it seems, the beautiful human body was indeed, appearances notwithstanding, not merely an object but a potent means of communication for any and all ideas, as well as a source of inspiration and aesthetic delight. In a very real sense, his nudes are autobiographical, telling more about him than his subjects. But he is not alone in that regard.
First, visitors to his crowded studio, cluttered with large canvases and framed drawings, were often nonplussed if not actually offended by his ubiquitous and clinical depictions of the female body. His focus on female genitalia seemed obsessive, and, unfortunately for many viewers, that tended to undercut any loftier aesthetic or intellectual goals. Jirayr dismissed such critics as puritans, comparing American prudery to liberated European views on the subject. He gleefully offered to share his Zorthian erotica with those who were interested, and some of the more surreal examples are quite successful as works of art. The recent nudes (from the ’90s) are more problematic, characterized by a crisp, controlled linear style that bespeaks illustration. The many narrative works for which Jirayr’s final muse, model Jennifer Fabos, posed tend to be obsessively focused. Each painting tells a story expressing issues of concern to the artist or illustrating events from his childhood. One noteworthy example, Memory of Youth: French Teacher, depicts a young red-haired boy outside a room looking longingly through a window at two remarkably sexy nude female figures. According to the artist, the women — both drawn from Jennifer — are intended to represent his teacher viewed from front and rear simultaneously. The boy is, of course, Jirayr. And the teacher, about whom he apparently had sexual fantasies, is the symbol of his awakening. For many viewers, however, the autobiographical content of the scene is really lost in the fetishistic focus on the lovingly observed details of female anatomy. Whatever their other qualities, these paintings constitute an aspect of Zorthian’s oeuvre that provides a textbook example of the male gaze at work.
I came to believe that Zorthian and his world are all but unique in this day and age. Certainly I’ve never seen anyone, or anything, else quite compare. (And it has been my good fortune to be paid to get to know artists and investigate the art life.) The exception, I suppose, might have been Jean Varda — another pagan endowed with the life force — who held court in a houseboat moored at Sausalito. Both artists, and especially Zorthian, extended the tradition of Norman Lindsay, the “heretical” Australian artist who celebrated pagan sensuality and the liberating power of sex in his controversial paintings.