Ever since David Yaghjian in 2005 painted a scantily clad middle-aged man with girth who resembled himself, that man has gone places, not just physically. He has stood in a pool, amid fish or just still, somewhat absent but concentrating. He’s been in a ring, performing with dogs, hoisting a bull, holding two armadillos by their tails, hanging from a trapeze facing his doppelganger or holding a baby, earnestly, with a bull parked behind him. He has been up in the air, floating, and in biblical scenes. He’s been sitting on chairs, beds and benches, eating, singing, yawning, accompanying a woman, being called on by a woman while engaging a snake or just sitting quietly but contently – or depressed. At the perimeter of his property, he’s been waving a leaf blower, mouth wide open. He’s been between trees, both outdoors and indoors – the latter on a theater stage, a lawn chair often nearby.
What he’s doing or has in mind is not always clear. Think armadillos by the tails, for one. The leaf blowing could be joyful gardening or a menace to his neighbors. The man is singing in solitude or, perhaps, to that bull in the background. When he seems to sing full-blast, it could be a primal scream. His back flip into a pool resembles an awkward fall, and he dances like he’s stepping on a hot plate. He holds up prop trees on a stage or is held up by them. He’s on a tightrope, also on stage, pulling or being pulled, ready to open the curtain. And what exactly is he doing in those biblical scenes – or in that pool, for that matter? When he dropped his underwear, was he simply more exposed or exposing himself?
If 63-year-old Yaghjian is having a mid-life crisis, he isn’t sweating it. He’s having fun, running with it, belly and all, engaging the circus of life, especially mental life. That Yaghjian’s paintings of the past six years show a man styled after himself suggests they are self-portraits, but they reflect Yaghjian’s inner life more than his daily activities. No one ever has, for instance, caught Yaghjian holding armadillos or raising a bull over his head, and he doesn’t own a leaf blower. That the man’s eyes, hair and mouth are at times absent or undefined indicates Yaghjian is not just talking about himself. “I prefer a non-specific ‘everyman,’” he says. “One that can be identified with. Rather than straight self-portraits, I want to comment on middle-aged men, using myself rather than pointing at others. I am saying that these are my foibles, and others might recognize themselves in that.”
Going with the flow of his imagination, emotions, free associations and hand and brush, Yaghjian has created a figure whose trials and tribulations he catches in symbolic and metaphorical, psychologically pregnant scenes that excel in ambiguity. Some of the paintings express joy, humor and elation, others are contemplative, angst-ridden, dark and disturbing, and many combine opposite emotions. That life seems to be a stage for Everyman hasn’t stopped Yaghjian from putting him on an actual stage, staging the stage. Many scenes are technically as possible as they are practically improbable, throwing the notion of reality for a loop. Others are so mundane that the mundane becomes unsettling or at least suggests an existential twist. Even exuberant and exuberantly painted scenes can have a sense of foreboding.
That Yaghjian paints Everyman in many ways – from precise and worked with strong delineation to somewhat exact but loose to quick and fast through a minimum of marks – adds to the mix of moods. “I am not looking for a particular style,” he says. “I just show up and paint. A style is almost inevitable, but it’s not what I want to focus on. My style is to follow the paint, let the paint lead. I have some intent when I start, but I don’t know where it will end up. It’s always a form of meditation. I might start in a certain mood but get transformed by the process. I want to produce a painting that talks to me, that is fun to do and gives me that energy when I look at it again. I just put a line on the canvas, often vertical, often not even putting it on there but pulling back with the brush, jumping back. It comes through the floor.”
Yaghjian likes to think of the work as semi-narratives. “They are scenes of a midpoint in a situation,” he says, “a point of indeterminate distance from beginning to end. The images are a way of acknowledging the below-the-surface currents. Stating in a full frontal position the obvious and not so obvious. A man is a man angry, sad, fat, dying, elated, lecherous, leprous, deflated, pompous, hilarious – on his head with a dog, with a monkey. Sometimes a woman accompanies him. His hands are important as indicators of direction, of degrees of animation, suggesting blessings or not. The hands are antennae testing the surrounding air, landscape, creatures seen and not seen, resting or agitated.”
“These paintings are personal but not necessarily from personal experiences. Sometimes it’s just a sense of something. Sometimes they don’t have the lifespan of an experience. It’s more like a tangent or a premonition or afterthought without knowing where it came from. A lot of it is standing on the earth and feeling there is something huge underneath it that shoots up through you.”
He has never painted with as much fun and ease, Yaghjian says, which is evident. The loosely rendered paintings also show Yaghjian trusting his talent and experience, often creating a sparse tableau with quick, energetic, sure marks. For an artist long known as a meticulous, more-or-less realistic painter of people, objects, places and buildings, accepting that he can do more with less, and is allowed to, is a big step. So is accepting the notion that exuberance and even humor, dark or not, are nothing to shy away from.
Rather than a mid-life crisis, the Everyman paintings, for all their quirks, might indicate Yaghjian’s arrival as a mature artist, producing the most inspired, sophisticated, distinctive and unique work of his 40-year career. The artist has found his groove. The work also has taken him beyond the canvas, creating sculptures from cutout cardboard or wood. Everyman gives Yaghjian both conceptually and artistically the most productive vehicle to date to engage himself and the world. For an artist who essentially has been a loner, caught up in and tripping over his thoughts and emotions, the current work has dramatically raised the degree to which he plays and communicates with others.
“I always assumed…”
Yaghjian took a long road to Everyman, full of fits and starts. Born in 1948 in Columbia, S.C., he was somewhat of a golden boy. His family was one of artists led by his Armenian-born father, Edmund, an up-and-coming painter in 1930s New York who after World War II became the first chairman of the University of South Carolina art department and one of the state’s most prominent artists. Natural talent ran deep in the Yaghjian family, so much so that no one, not in the least Yaghjian-the-Younger himself, gave David’s abilities a second thought. “I always assumed I could draw and paint,” Yaghjian says.
Despite Yaghjian’s lifelong drawing habits and early evidence of his talent, his parents took a casual approach to his – and his sisters’ – artistic exploits, harboring at best ill-defined expectations. It came as a surprise to Yaghjian’s mother and father when he stated during a 1966 admission interview at Massachusetts’ Amherst College that “of course, he wanted to be a painter – what else?” Still, his dad took pride in Yaghjian pursuing painting as a career. “We rather suspect that one day our claim to fame will be as parents of David Yaghjian,” his mother, Dorothy, wrote in 1972. “He was never going to do anything else,” his sister Candy said in 2000.
The designated crown prince would be the only sibling majoring in art in college, where the stars lined up some more, even though Yaghjian felt ill-prepared to hang with Amherst’s football- and lacrosse-playing kids from fancy prep schools. “I came from a public school,” he says, “and didn’t even know how to write a paper. I was scared to death. I just thought I’d become a painter because I had some ability in that.”
Still, at Amherst as well as several neighboring colleges and New York’s Arts Student League and the School of Visual Arts, Yaghjian studied with prominent painters and printmakers such as Will Barnett, Chaim Koppelman, Leonard Baskin and Fairfield Porter and with sculptor Leonard DeLonga. He kind of expected he would set the world on fire, although, he says, “I didn’t have a plan, which is the story of my life. I just thought it would happen. I had no sense that it actually requires diligence and discipline.” At Amherst, he says now with considerable regret, he did not even make much use of the presence of Porter, who was in residence at the school during Yaghjian’s senior year and very much available to students.
After graduating from Amherst in 1970, Yaghjian began to exhibit, at first mostly in family exhibitions with his parents and sisters Candy and Susy. His paintings in a 1972 exhibition in his hometown, Columbia, showed “enormous promise of even greater things in the future,” a local reviewer wrote. Yaghjian’s portraits revealed a surprising understanding of his subject for a painter so young, the reviewer thought; he displayed the promise of becoming an artist of genuine importance.
Samuel L. Rosenfeld agreed. The director of what was to become New York’s Artists Unlimited Gallery became enamored of Yaghjian’s work at a 1980 family exhibition in Vermont, the state where the Yaghjians spent their summers. After buying two paintings there, Rosenfeld bought another three directly from Yaghjian. In the next few years, he commissioned eight portraits, including one of his son, Michael, now a prominent New York gallery owner. Yaghjian and Rosenfeld for years kept up an infrequent but warm correspondence, both professing a desire to mount an exhibition of Yaghjian’s work at Rosenfeld’s gallery.
The exhibition never happened, not unlike a lot of things since college. Life without running water, or too much of it, had gotten in Yaghjian’s way. While Yaghjian always painted, and painted well, his early promise did not translate into fame and fortune or even a quickly developing reputation and steady income. During his last year in college, Yaghjian went flower power – or, rather, flour power. In 1969 he moved with friends to a farm in Wendell, Mass. He grew veggies, tended livestock, made hay, played music, painted and was known as “Iago.” He was the Wendell farm’s “corn manager,” and his conviction that chickens needed stern discipline made it into a 1973 book about a New England communal farm.
In 1974, Yaghjian moved with his then-girlfriend to West Woodstock, Vt., where his affair with no running water began. He painted, cut firewood, hauled water, milked goats, grew vegetables and did odd jobs. When that property was sold in 1975, he moved to a family member’s unused inn in Saluda, in the North Carolina mountains, where water ran freely, especially during the winter when the pipes would burst. At the inn, Yaghjian painted, kept goats in the basement and added construction work, especially carpentry, to his resume. He also taught art classes briefly and waited tables in Saluda, which, he wrote to Rosenfeld in 1981, gave him “enough money to live on and plenty of time to paint.”
In 1978, Yaghjian moved to another house, without running water, and helped a friend restore a home in exchange for a free studio, where he threw large parties but got a lot of painting done. By the early 1980s, he was no longer with his New England girlfriend. A relationship or two later, Yaghjian wrote to Rosenfeld in 1982 that the winter had been “psychologically and physically rough. Gave my body and heart away and got them both back in various states of disarray and disintegration. And I drank too much.”
Yaghjian’s life of hand to mouth, hammer, serving tray, goat, bottle and brush produced a steady stream of paintings. He had some fleeting gallery representation, first through a small Vermont gallery, then through several others in the North Carolina mountains. He showed with his parents and sisters in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., both in 1975, as well as in Vermont in 1980. Yaghjian’s subject matter included self-portraits, landscapes and other outdoor scenes, buildings, objects and still lifes. There were Part Of My Room, Some Peppers And A Tomato and Lady With Rose in a 1973 exhibition; Grazing Goat, Portrait Of Judy and 54 Chevy in 1975; Oranges, Cabbage and Still Life With Rose Quartz in 1980; and Teapot, Dog On Ottoman, House’s Shed, Saluda Gulf and Eggs, also in a 1980 exhibition.
Subject matter was secondary, Yaghjian suggested to the reception crowd at his first solo exhibition, in 1980 at the Tryon Fine Arts Center in Tryon, N.C. He simply painted things he liked to paint and that were around him, he said. It was a standard response to a question that he would repeat often, but nevertheless true. The act of painting was what was important to Yaghjian. Different subjects allowed for different ways of dealing with light, color, the effect of time, surface, mood, sentiment, emotion. The subject matter, he would write later, is “the basis, the fact of the painting, the impetus for the lyric.”
At his Tryon exhibition, Yaghjian showed 28 paintings and drawings, mostly recent ones but some older, selling one. One reviewer, who was taken by Yaghjian’s looks and single status, saw great progress in his work, writing that the recent work had more character than the older paintings and showed personality. A second reviewer couldn’t disagree more. He detected little growth and suggested Yaghjian’s frequent work as a carpenter might have stunted his growth. The reviewer detected disjointed clouds, trouble with light, a slightly curved vehicle and soft canvases in general that did not hold up to close scrutiny. Yaghjian’s contention at the reception that style isn’t that important greatly distressed him. Yet this most critical of Yaghjian reviewers to date concluded he liked the show. He liked the understated, casual drawings. He saw promise and hoped maturity would follow.
Through it all, Yaghjian paid little attention to prevailing art trends. “I never was a fan of art magazines,” he says. “They always annoyed me. I could never understand what they were talking about and thought they tended to talk among themselves and stroke each other’s egos and try to be exclusive. That’s one way I looked at it. The other is that I am just too impatient to slog through this stuff.”
But in a sense, the art world had caught up with Yaghjian, as it had with, say, Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, South Carolina’s New Yorker Sigmund Abeles and others who for decades had been outside of the prevailing trends. The emergence in the 1970s of the post-modern era had stopped the reign of Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptual Art and of non-objective art in general. There were no truly dominant trends or movements anymore. “Anything goes” became the new norm, which facilitated a new appreciation of representational and figurative art. That new appreciation did not mean that Yaghjian or others like him were post-modernists. Their relatively traditional approach and use of a single medium did not match the varied, often experimental media, the hybrid application of those media and subsequent dissolution of art categories, the tendency toward appropriation and the identity politics that characterized post-modern art.
“I guess my work was in a way traditional,” Yaghjian says. “But at the same time, the conversation about that is akin to the one about style. It’s not where I put my attention, with this trend or that. If I do, I get distracted. I don’t want to think about it because then I realize that I don’t fit in and I get angry or anxious and terrified. It’s more important to me to show up and do the work. And then there may be recognition or not. But that’s not why I paint.”
Yaghjian in the early 1980s did move his subject matter beyond what he saw around him to what he could imagine. In a 1981 letter to Rosenfeld he referred to these new paintings as “imaginations,” some of which were based on memories. He was working toward an exhibition of these paintings, he wrote, which “will take a minimum of 2 years. The work is slow and exhausting. Therefore, I intersperse the work on these with brief looks at the more immediate surroundings – both for relief and refreshment. I feel, at this point anyway, that these paintings are mine.”
Among the new paintings was The Escort, a closely cropped scene with two ladies and a man, all elderly, at a restaurant table, a waitress standing next to them, and a portrait of Yaghjian as a waiter on the wall. The Conversation showed a young man and woman at a round table, light falling through the window, the man reaching out, the woman not, a dog at their feet. Evening was an indoor night scene of a man spread out in a big chair, sleeping in the glow of a television that is reflected in a window. The precise but stilted way in which Yaghjian rendered the scenes froze them in time more than a painting by definition does anyway, the resulting tension – don’t move! – filling the everyday scenes with square-inch drama.
Yaghjian’s “imaginations” were semi-narratives, like the Everyman paintings, providing a glimpse of a situation without knowing how it developed or where it will go. The suggested time span of the situation was longer than with most of the Everyman paintings, depicting a wider range but more subdued level of emotions – a slow simmer rather than a burst. “It’s also the vocabulary of George Tooker and of Giotto and those old frescos that are very stiff but so very lyrical,” Yaghjian says. “I love those frescos, love them. You see the humanity in the painters. They seem stilted, but you feel the energy and emotion of the painter in the color and drawing. Even just from illustrations in an art book, they are so powerful. Looking at them for years and years is one of the main influences on my work. And Hopper, of course. His imagined scenes are very awkwardly drawn, obviously not from life, but they are powerful.”
Yaghjian wasn’t just imagining paintings around this time; increasingly, he seemed to be imagining a career as an artist, too. He was thinking bigger, beyond Columbia, the North Carolina mountains, New England farms and family shows. In 1982 he responded to Rosenfeld’s earlier overtures, telling him he’d love to do a show with the New York dealer. He wanted to do another one in Los Angeles, where one of his collectors thought he could arrange something. Yaghjian even planned to hold on to certain paintings for these exhibitions.
Back in the mountains, Yaghjian had found gallery representation. In 1984, The Escort won “Best in Show” at a regional exhibition in Tryon. A year later, the painting gained him another award at a juried exhibition in Spartanburg, S.C. Also in 1985, Yaghjian organized a solo show for himself at the Columbia Museum of Art’s Weekend Gallery, selling nine of 23 paintings.
By then, in 1984, Yaghjian had moved back to Columbia, where he had met his future wife, Ellen Emerson, during a trip to complete a portrait commission. After leading life by default for a long time, Yaghjian had made some deliberate decisions – to move to Columbia, to rent a studio space, to organize an exhibition and, for the first time, to paint a body of work specifically for an exhibition. It was something of a break-through. “I sort of flipped a switch and that generated excitement and energy,” Yaghjian says. “I decided what I was going to do, and it began to be my work. I went around with a Polaroid camera photographing everyday scenes and painted a bunch of them. People and garbage truck. People standing in a yard. A carport. I did things I wanted to do, not what I thought people would like. That’s perhaps when I stopped being a student and became an artist.”
In September 1985, Yaghjian moved to Atlanta, where Ellen had found a job. He painted in their apartment, worked part-time in a frame shop and continued to imagine that career. His was in Atlanta group shows in 1986 and 1988. Also in 1988, Yaghjian received a commission for a large public mural, followed in the next three years by three smaller murals for businesses and a private home. He actively pursued galleries, burning through three of them in as many years without getting exhibitions or making any sales, in the end feeling rather unappreciated. Mural commissions dried up, as did exhibitions; his next Atlanta exhibition, a group show, wouldn’t be until 1997.
For true love, Yaghjian had to stay closer to home. He married Ellen in 1988; their daughter, Clare, was born in 1990; and a hometown gallery gave him solo exhibitions in 1992 and 1993. The exhibitions at Columbia’s Morris Gallery were well received. The local newspaper called one of them “an impressive show,” and the public embraced the prodigal son, buying 25 of the 65 paintings in the two exhibitions.
By the early 1990s, something had changed. In the 1980s, Yaghjian had been imagining things, both on canvas and in terms of a career. The burst of activity, accompanied perhaps with heightened expectations, had been followed by a fruitful year in Columbia, where, too, he had stopped drinking. Next had been new hope in the big city, Atlanta, where things had started off well but faded within a few years. By the early 1990s, Yaghjian’s unspoken, matter-of-fact optimism of his Amherst years was no more.
“My parents were artists, I was the only son – I sort of always expected some kind of coronation, having the mindset that I was anointed. But I think that when I got in those galleries in Atlanta and nothing happened, I began to realize that something was amiss. Then reality set in when Clare was on the way, and I realized that we needed steady income. That’s when I went to work framing full time.” Yaghjian painted at the house he and Ellen had bought in 1989, and quite a bit, too, as the two Columbia exhibitions showed. But by the mid-1990s, Yaghjian’s life pretty much entailed his family, the job and painting; actively pursuing the career as an artist had fallen by the wayside.
“I simply didn’t have the energy,” he says now. “And I never had been ambitious. Never wanted to be rich or strive for it. But more than anything else, I was distracted and too tired.” Yaghian’s mood swung from resignation to anger and sadness. If he was disillusioned, he says, it was with himself. “I realized I had not put forth the effort that it would take. I wondered if I wanted to put forth that kind of effort, whether painting was enough for me or whether I wanted to push through some barrier.”
Even without pushing, he had a good outlet for his work through his Columbia gallery. Financially, he did better than ever, with paintings selling fairly well in Columbia and a job that paid more than he had ever earned. “But I wasn’t painting for income, anyway. Never have. Painting is what I do. I have jobs for the money, but I paint because I have to. Painting, painting the world around me, helps me make sense of it. It slows me down, stops me from getting caught up in negative thought. When I paint, chaos is less chaotic. If I don’t paint, I go completely berserk. I become unhappy, intolerant and intolerable. I don’t know why, but I know what happens when I paint. I quiet down, can handle things – everything is fine, regardless of what’s going on. It allows me to be around people and enjoy people and have genuine conversations about my work.”
“Painting is my way of getting into the world, being in the world. And I genuinely enjoy it. It’s exciting. I am amazed, but shouldn’t be, that it can be that much fun. And it gets better. I first discovered in college that painting took me to a place where I was comfortable, where I could be immersed and be separate from but comfortable in the world. Before that, I just dabbled in art.”
Despite getting in three group shows and two two-person exhibitions in Atlanta between 1997 and 2000, the Yaghjians moved back to Columbia in the summer of 2000. Selling their Atlanta home allowed them to buy another one in Columbia not far from where David had grown up. The move was a weight off his shoulders, Yaghjian told a Columbia weekly. Atlanta was eating them alive, financially somewhat with Clare in private school but more so in how the city wore them down. The many paintings, including the big mural, he had produced in Atlanta of freeways and isolated figures in cars, the sense of alienation the paintings revealed, were indicative.
“It was just very difficult to live there,” Yaghjian says. “You had to drive so far to get anywhere, to the grocery store or the hardware store. It was exhausting. We couldn’t see any reason to live there. In Columbia we had friends and family, the schools were good, the cost and ease of living was better. It was much more practical to live here. The size and pace of the city were reasonable.”
Yaghjian perceived Columbia very differently than in the 1960s, when he wasn’t just a typical teenager wanting to get out but also was embarrassed by the South’s race politics and intolerance. He hadn’t had many reasons to stay. With two busy parents, two older sisters, another one seven years younger and no classmates living in his neighborhood, Yaghjian had spent his youth rather isolated. Now things had changed. Columbia had changed, of course, including its cultural and social climate, but so had Yaghjian. No longer did he know everything, as he thought in college. He now was ready to embrace the community he had found on his visits back. He started to appreciate the city’s small scale and what he considered the people’s genuine nature, the absence of pretense and the relative sophistication that came with the presence of a large university and several small colleges.
His 1993 exhibition at Morris Gallery had been an early indication of a changing Yaghjian. “Around Town” presented Columbia sites, scenes and buildings. Yaghjian had produced the work at the suggestion of gallery owner Ginny Newell, telling the local daily at the time that ten years earlier, “I would have said, ‘God, no.’” In 2000, during his talk at another Morris Gallery exhibition, Yaghjian declared: “It’s wonderful to be back living in Columbia after 35 years. I am comfortable here. There seems to be enough time.” Referring to Columbia landmarks, some of which are in his paintings, he added: “It’s good to see Gerald’s, Hiller Hardware, the barbershop are still there; that Dunbar still sits on the corner soaking up the sun.”
Yaghjian’s sentiment wasn’t simply nostalgia. “It may not be necessary to ‘go home again,’” he told the Morris crowd, “but it might be that the familiarity of the physical surroundings rekindles a sense of self or direction that reinforces and refocuses that sense.” In Atlanta, he had continued to paint what was around him, including many architectural structures. In Columbia, doing so took on an extra dimension. “Part of me wanted to come back to see what it was about me that was tied to this place. On some level, I wanted to be immersed in this place where I came from, not just physically but psychologically – to acknowledge that I was born here and use those roots to express who I am.”
His Columbia paintings focused mostly on local buildings, be it a mill village home, an old gas station, majestic Main Street stores or the imposing Dunbar Funeral Home. “I like the architecture,” he told the local daily, The State. “But it’s more about what people have done to them … There are all these little places, so lovingly tended … The subject matter is just a jumping-off point. But it’s about everything being in the right place; everything is fine.” To a local weekly, he added: “It’s how the light catches the corners, and the color and shadings of architectural details that I like to capture. Something about the situation catches my eye. I am often interested in how a building is situated on the land.”
An early setback in Columbia was the closing of Morris Gallery in December 2000. That same month, Yaghjian began showing at Blue Spiral 1 in Asheville, N.C., where he was in a group exhibition in January 2001, although the association didn’t last. “David Yaghjian provided perfectly rendered images of perfect banality,” Asheville Citizen-Times reviewer David Hopes wrote of the Blue Spiral exhibition. “His awnings, chimneys, undistinguished intersections, caught at no particular radiant time of the day, were a puzzle to me, excellently rendered, bafflingly mundane. A pretty house, or an ugly one. A radiant slight of light, or disturbing shadow. Of course, the feeling that the bland is somehow more disturbing than the terrible may be exactly the string these ‘Twilight Zone’ backdrop-ish townscapes intend to pluck. It is possible that a few days from now I will have wrestled myself to the conclusion that these are conceptually great paintings.”
Two more, brief gallery affiliations followed in the next five years, one in Greenville, S.C., with a solo exhibition. More durable and important was Yaghjian’s inclusion in the “Winter Exhibition” at Columbia’s Gallery 80808/Vista Studios, a gallery-for-rent in a studio complex. Painters Stephen Chesley, Mike Williams and Edward Wimberly in 2003 invited Yaghjian to participate in the show, which they had first organized in 2001. The invitation by three of the area’s most prominent painters was a boost for Yaghjian. It also placed him in what is still one of the main annual events on the Columbia gallery scene.
In the following decade, Yaghjian received his fair share of coverage in the local press. He was invited to two projects for which artists painted scenes of Columbia’s Five Points area, Yaghjian’s stomping ground during his youth, near his current home. He participated in several artists’ residencies and in-state art competitions, winning awards. He was included in two group exhibitions at both the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia and the Greenville (S.C.) County Museum of Art, and the latter acquired one of his paintings. In 2005, he took at studio at Vista Studios, a major art hub in the city. In the 2006, he joined Columbia’s if ART Gallery when it opened in November. In 2007, Yaghjian had a two-person exhibition at the gallery that also included his father’s work. The gallery in 2009 organized a rather successful solo exhibition of his paintings at Vista Studios.
The decade brought significant artistic changes. In 2004, Yaghjian began painting in oil, which brought him, he says, “an almost irrepressible joy.” He painted small paintings of cockroaches that were “really about the qualities of oil paint and the availability of models.” In 2007, he produced monotypes with printer Phil Garrett at King Snake Press in Greenville, crediting the monotype process with loosening up his painting style. The grand breakthrough came in 2005 with the seemingly coincidental appearance of that scantily clad middle-aged man with girth resembling Yaghjian. The impetus was “A Fool For Art,” a fundraiser for the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum.
“Rather than being defiant, I thought I’d do something,” Yaghjian says about the theme for the fundraiser. “But what will I do? It called for something humorous, but instead of making fun of others, I decided to make fun of myself.” He produced two small, loosely rendered paintings, Fool For Art 1 and 2. In one, the man resembling the artist stands in a bare room, exposed and full frontal, wearing underwear only, spreading his arms and holding an empty frame in each hand, his belly pointing forward. In the other, the same man sits in a similar room on a chair with wheels, not unlike the one in Yaghjian’s studio, crossing his arms in front of his chest protectively, his elbows resting on his gut. A rectangular frame hovers over his head, like a halo. Everyman was born.
“That was six years ago,” Yaghjian says, “and this guy wouldn’t get back in the box. It was like a release. I’d been painting these buildings with these people inside, so I said: ‘I am coming out of the building, and you’re not getting me back in.’ Painting buildings with character was fun, but I like humor more. In those earlier years, I wasn’t into expressing humor through the work, though my works on paper often were more lighthearted. But those two paintings really opened the flood gates.”
A shock to the system
“Fool For Art” came at a good time. After his fast, energetic start back in Columbia, Yaghjian had started to slump a bit. He also had gotten distracted as he got busy, with his siblings, reviving his late dad’s reputation through two gallery exhibitions and one at the South Carolina State Museum. At the same time, in part through the Winter Exhibitions, he had more contact with serious fellow artists than ever before, sensing that his efforts fell short compared to theirs.
“The McKissick Museum thing came at a point when I realized I should be moving with more energy and was ready to do so,” Yaghjian says. “It was a confluence of things.” He had grown somewhat tired of painting houses, and, more importantly, couldn’t see himself in them any longer. “I knew I could paint houses and that people liked houses, and there’s a certain defiance in me that says that I am not going to paint pretty stuff. Or maybe it’s self-sabotage. At some point I thought that I really should do what I was feeling and thinking. Then came this ‘Fool For Art’ event. And, BANG!”
Yaghjian’s turn was a shock to the system in Columbia’s art world. Many were amused. Others were horrified. All were surprised. Critics signed on fast to Yaghjian’s new direction, pointing out the dark-comedy tension and one calling the paintings “the real standouts” in a 2006 group exhibition of Vista Studios residents. Collectors and other fans, on the other hand, scratched their heads, expecting, and not seldom hoping, that this would just be a phase. Who, after all, wants a nudish, middle-aged fat man on the wall? Sales started off slow and have not yet caught up with his earlier work. Fool For Art 1 and 2, for instance, raised no money for the museum or Yaghjian and still have not sold. Even the home front showed some trepidation. They aren’t self-portraits, Yaghjian’s wife argued, fearing that the woman sometimes joining Everyman would be seen as her. And when the man went full monty, daughter Clare, entering Yaghjian’s studio, offered an embarrassed squeal: “Oh God, now he has lost his pants.”
But it’s not just a phase – not so far, anyway. At a rate of some 100 paintings per year, many tiny, others large, Yaghjian has taken Everyman in many directions. After the initial shock wore off and the realization set in that, well, this is it, many a skeptic decided to give the work another look. Appreciation grew and sales improved, the high point being Yaghjian’s 2009 solo exhibition “Dancing Man.”
The Everyman paintings are a departure from Yaghjian’s earlier work but not a complete break. In addition to his precise paintings, Yaghjian throughout his career has produced loser work in watercolor and ink that stylistically is related to the current paintings. His more softly painted “imaginations” of three decades ago relate in style to the more heavily worked Everyman paintings. His paintings of everyday scenes and objects often highlighted the mundane and typically had an existential bent. His architectural work also dealt with the human hand and mind. The figure, of course, featured prominently in Yaghjian’s earlier work.
And the “imaginations” presented semi-narratives at a mid-way point the way the Everyman paintings do, albeit not through improbable scenes and focusing more on situations with an emotional component than the emotion itself. “The earlier ‘imaginations’ were tighter and more angst-laden,” Yaghjian says, “not as exuberant. Even though there is a lot of anxiety in the Everyman paintings, there is exuberance in that or through that. The work now is much more visceral, immediate and gestural, though at times just as accurate, which surprises me sometimes. And rather than painting what’s around me, it’s the core now. My core. I express it through that person. I hadn’t done figure drawing in 25 years, but it came through with an immediacy and, boom, landed where it was supposed to land. The current work feels good. It feels right. It feels like me.”
Finding Everyman reflects an artist more at ease with himself and the world. His recent tree paintings without the man symbolize the axis mundi, connecting heaven and earth, as manifestations of strength, frailty, color and a more direct link with the earth and the cosmos. Yaghjian can remove his man from those trees without removing himself from the man and feeling lost. Struggling with Everyman and the energy he derives from that has reinforced Yaghjian’s sense that the cave painters or 14th century fresco painters, including Giotto, were responding to different manifestations of the same forces he is. “I feel like I am dealing with the same subjects. How is a person in the world? It’s a step or two or three back from the scale of those painters, but I feel a connection. And an attraction.”
He knows he’s not going to be a rock star, Yaghjian says, and he’s fine with that, for the most part; occasional flights of fancy are now merely a distraction rather than an obsession. “I still fall into jealousy and resentment at times, but I take responsibility for what I’ve done and haven’t done. The excitement I get from what I do is enough. The genuine emotions I often feel painting, the fun that I have doing it – I hope that others can get those feelings of joy from the paintings, but also the sorrow and anxiety. Many people don’t pay attention to their frailties or try to deny them, and I am saying we all have them, and it’s alright. I try to communicate that it’s sufficient to be where I am, that all my thinking about this and that is fruitless. I just have to be quiet and do the work. It’s my occupation, my vocation and my salvation and I hope that through the work, there’s something available to others.”
Wim Roefs is the owner of if ART Gallery in Columbia, S.C., which represents David Yaghjian. He also is an independent curator, exhibition designer, art consultant and author.