It’s a simple, unfair insult that has echoed across the oceans for centuries that America is shallow. While an unwarranted criticism, this perceived lack of depth could be taken as some visual truth – at least as of the shallow, self-taught portraiture of the colonial era. In recent decades, the leveling of visual fields in figurative art has coalesced into a distinctive Los Angeles style, from David Hockney’s iconic poolside compositions of the 1960s to a group of loosely related contemporary painters working against foreshortening today . The city Rise as a recognized cultural center made stars of homeland heroes like Henry Taylor, Hilary Pecis, Jonas Wood and Raffi Kalenderian whose jewel-toned portrayals of friends and fellow artists certainly fit into this school.
In his current exhibition at Peter Kilchmann in Zurich, Kalenderian’s figures are subsumed by their chosen surroundings, belongings and workspaces. The neon red highlights against the somber background in Diana (2021), for example, draw more attention to the figure’s furnishings and spotted dress than to the protagonist herself. It’s a device that has been used throughout art history: the depiction of rich fabrics and fancy dogs to convey greatness and wealth in To symbolize codes that should be readable by the class of the sitter. The boho and bobo figures that populate Kalenderian’s paintings are very similar, with their presumably designer lamps and patterned upholstered furniture, suggesting an exclusive, semi-homogeneous culture of place, livelihood, and time.
It would be a mistake, however, to pigeonhole Calenderian’s work as a mere documentation of creative class. His paintings use a provocative tension between figuration and abstraction that elevates them above content. The largest work on display The Visit (to Valloton) (2021-22), is bathed in a spectrum of red light that transforms the interior into a zebra-patterned Bagnio. The dancing figures become discoveries that the eye clings to and then rediscovers. This effect is repeated throughout the show, as in alyssa (2021–22), whose central form – a dead ringer for disgraced art dealer Mary Boone when she was younger – ebbs and flows around a flat green couch and wild floral curtains. In comparison, Thomas McDonell in his Los Angeles studio (2022) appears more staid, but the depicted back wall transforms into a trippy, tubular tidal wave of foaming blues, greens, and creams in which both subject and viewer can lose themselves. In other works, like Jess and Alondra (both 2022) light becomes a flowing and colorful structure that dissolves the separation between form, figure and ground. Almost washed away in soft layers of fluorescent pinks and blues, these intimate bedroom scenes capture ghosts of moments in paintings that transcend simple graphic deconstructions.
All the paintings on display imply situations of creative life and work, integrating the figures into the decor, landscape and architecture in a gentle and absolute way. Whether as individuals or as societies, everything we create has the power to overpower or outlast us. We’re not as central as we’d like to imagine for any particular scene – even one of our own creations – and yet we leave a mark. Continuing the US impulse to reject perspectives – from Grandma Moses to Andy Warhol – Kalenderian’s social and professional circles provide him with the excuse to paint both the physical and the emotional. These kaleidoscopic compositions manage to document and dream at the same time.
The exhibition by Raffi Kalenderian at Galerie Peter Kilchmann can be seen until July 29, 2022.
Main picture: Raffi Kalenderian, Diana (detail), 2021, oil on canvas, 1.5 × 2.1 cm. Courtesy: the artist and gallery Peter Kilchmann, Zurich; Photo: Fredrik Nilsen Studio, Los Angeles