In the year 867, a new portrait mosaic of the Virgin Mary & Son was unveiled in the apse of the Hagia Sophia — the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church in Istanbul (then Constantinople) — homilized by the Armenian-born soon-to-be–Patriarch Photios as a victory over Iconoclasm: the almost-century-long proscription on depiction that had rocked the ages-old Byzantine art world to its foundations. This forbearance of graven images was (and remains) one of the most profound differences between Islam and its Great Satanic neighbors. At least until the advent of modernism, and the eruption of abstract painting — just about a century ago.
The craving for persuasive facsimiles of human bodies has reached a recent epitome with James Cameron's Avatar, a realization that makes one yearn for the rigorous formalism of the Taliban — or at least Clement Greenberg. Mid-20th-century critic Greenberg's successful championing of the abstract expressionists and insistence on the transcendental flatness of the painterly medium have just reached an epitome of their own in the most awesome sheet of U.S. postage in recent memory, including dollhouse-ready reproductions of Jackson Pollock's Convergence (1952), Willem de Kooning's Asheville (1948) and eight other iconic images of the New York School.
"These bold artists used art to express complicated ideas and primitive emotions in simplified, abstract form," Linda Kingsley, USPS senior vice president of strategy and transition, says. "Although these stamps can't compare in size to their real-life canvases, they bring the passion and spirit of abstract expressionism to an envelope near you. The Postal Service is proud to pay tribute to the legacy and unique perspectives of these revolutionary artists." Well, yes ... to the general public and the philatelic community, the AbEx painters may still seem revolutionary. But to any artist who came of age in the wake of their conquest, nothing could be more Establishment: By the end of the 1950s, the commercial galleries, public museums and burgeoning academies were presenting a more or less unified front in support of the new, mandatory sublime.
The current slate of exhibitions at L.A. Louver pairs two artists whose work gained prominence through their association with highly conspicuous movements — '60s pop and '80s neo-Expressionism — that were essentially iconophile reactions against AbEx's monopoly. But neither David Hockney (pop) nor Charles Garabedian (neo-Ex) has ever sworn allegiance to his respective pigeonholes, and their separate engagements with the human body, illusionistic space and art history are as individualistic in their particulars as they are similar in their transcendence of late-20th-century-art critical contextualization.
Chas Garabedian — who celebrated his 85th birthday a couple of years back — has been forging ambiguous and enigmatic figurative pictures since stumbling into the art world in the late '50s. But it wasn't until the mid-'70s that his singular interpretations of collective mythologies caught the eye of curator Marcia Tucker, who included them in the 1975 Whitney Biennial and the legendary 1978 "Bad Paintings" exhibit at the New Museum — arguably the ground zero of the '80s neo-ex explosion.
The link isn't entirely spurious — Garabedian's work contains the same proportions of humor and ambiguity as many of the artifacts of that allegedly postmodern era, as well as a pronounced interest in classical subject matter and non-Western art-historical references. But his connection to late-period Picasso and Guston — two major touchstones for the neo-ex paradigm — smacks more of a shared lineage than of an Oedipal appropriationist strategy. Garabedian's painting is simply too good to be mistaken for a didactic piss-take or clever marketing strategy.
Image-wise, he treads a fine line between familiarity and mystery, often littering his shattered landscapes with unrecognizable relics or reconfiguring familiar mythological narratives to conform to some enigmatic personal iconography — as in his current show, which includes such revisionist archetypes as Amazon Queen Hippolyta as a girdle-free weight lifter, Daphne gloatingly merging bodies with the arrow-pierced Apollo while both of them turn into shrubbery (and Ol' Man River snuggles against their unibutt), and Salome caressing the severed head of Vincent van Gogh.
Most of Garabedian's paintings are scroll-like acrylics on paper whose narrative connotations are reinforced by the layers of images, signs and painterly passages that are covered over or left showing through, comprising an archaeological cross-section of their own extended improvisational creation. The most complex and scroll-like of his recent body of work — the fabulous oversized Homage to Busby Berkeley — was left out of the show (it's viewable online at lalouver.com), but two large urban landscapes on canvas, Die Tote Stadt and Huis Clos (both 2009 and named for a German romantic opera and French existentialist play respectively), make up the difference, collapsing the history of architecture and Western perspectival space into a premodern cubist cascade of painterly geometric jewels.
In spite of his pictorial and structural storytelling skills, Garabedian is first and foremost a formalist painter, and his finely honed array of formal chops — his mastery of line, shape, composition and color — operates in another, nonverbal narrative realm. They tell an ongoing story of the artist's curiosity about and sensual engagement with the world — and his need to continually surprise himself. The same can be said of David Hockney, though his emphasis on working from the direct physical observation of his subject and his intense engagement with the opticality of realism sometimes subordinate his formal inventiveness in the service of his passion for illusionism.
But it works both ways — Hockney's confidence in his skills makes him completely comfortable importing them into new technological realms, as he has amply demonstrated using the Polaroid SX70, photocopy and fax machines, and — most recently — the iPhone Brushes app. "More Drawing in a Printing Machine" — his upstairs show at Louver — consists of his recent spate of portraiture, created with Photoshop and Graphics Tablet. The subjects are the usual Hockney suspects — relatives, friends, acquaintances, studio assistants — but the new medium has brought the artist's observational acumen and formidable visual facility into sharp focus.
Composed entirely on the computer, then output as large-scale ink-jet prints, the portraits resemble a combination of airbrush and felt-tip marker. Some objects or body parts are rendered in large, blurry clouds of color, while other areas — the faces, always — have been obviously enlarged and worked over with a fine tooth stylus. The results are among the most convincing digital art I've seen, unencumbered by Special Effects fetishism or ham-fisted academic structuralism (aka art by people who can afford an MFA and state-of-the-art imaging technology, but can't draw for shit).
The challenge of finding his feet — or rather his eye and hand — in yet another virtual reality has quickened Hockney's creativity, and his delight is palpable. Like Garabedian, Hockney's luckiest trick is finding a way to keep his objectives just slightly ahead of his imaginative grasp, transforming the illustrational impulse into an ever-evolving experiment in mapping the intricacies of the human nervous system and psyche on both a personal and an objective level. It's the kind of enthusiasm that one finds in the work of young artists, but that often dissipates as their careers progress and they mummify in their comfort zones. By all reasonable expectation, Garabedian and Hockney (the latter turns 73 in July) should be resting on their laurels or pushing up artistic daisies, but curiosity keeps these cats alive.
CHARLES GARABEDIAN: RECENT PAINTINGS | DAVID HOCKNEY: MORE DRAWING IN A PRINTING MACHINE | Through May 8 | L.A. Louver, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice | lalouver.com