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Never Mind the High Praise. How About a Little Ink?

His Work Is Priced as High as $150,000. He's Been Commissioned to Paint by the U.N. But There's No Place in the World of Fine Art for Yuroz and Others Like Him.

February 03, 2002|DAVID FERRELL | Times Staff Writer

On the night he unveiled his first life-size bronze, Yuri Gevorgian seemed more than merely one of the city's great rags-to-riches stories: He seemed a bona fide giant in the world of art. The once-homeless painter and sculptor--who signs his work "Yuroz"--was a grinning, engaging focal point of attention among 100 wealthy collectors and dealers who gathered at his series of lofts in Los Angeles' downtown Artist District.

Guests sampled wine, ceviche and spring rolls, and were effusive about Yuroz's boldly colored, often-erotic oils--paintings with lush contours, sweetly upturned faces and harlequin patterns reminiscent of early Picasso.

A woman named Michelle Neild talked of a personal art collection consisting of Picasso, Mir-, Chagall, Matisse and her No. 1 favorite, Yuroz: "Nothing comes close to Yuroz in my opinion." Another admirer, Steve Berglas, waved a hand at more than three dozen vibrant pieces hanging in the main showroom. He labeled the psychological themes unsurpassed: "Where do you find an artist who has that breadth?"

Down the hall, in Yuroz's paint-splattered studio, hung a newly finished work that the artist considered his masterpiece: a 16-foot oil canvas of immigrants on packing trunks, the New York City skyline in the distance, all conveyed on a background of burnt-orange and black. The haunting mural was commissioned in 2000 for a series of postage stamps and was destined for the United Nations headquarters in Geneva.

Few who lingered to examine it, or who applauded after Yuroz stepped to a microphone and related his own ordeal as an immigrant, would have guessed that the prolific 45-year-old painter is still, deep down, a frustrated man. Yes, he commands hefty sums--up to $150,000 for some major works--a source of wealth that has enabled him to live as he chooses. Two years ago, fearing an urban meltdown at the new millennium, he moved his manager-partner, Deborah Murry, and their three children into a six-bedroom ranch home in Camarillo.

Yuroz's disaffection concerns his legacy. Like any artist, he wants to be remembered. But will he? Is it enough that he can paint for the U.N. if he cannot land his work in any of the nation's major museums? Is it enough to produce a substantial body of highly valuable work if he cannot get so much as one important critic to review him? Never mind high praise--just a little ink?

Can a man reach the summit on the shoulders of a narrow group of impassioned followers if the art world as a whole writes him off? Or doesn't notice him at all?

"where am i standing?" yuroz asks rhetorically on a day when we meet for lunch in the Artist District. "I don't know that I'm standing anywhere."

He grows acerbic talking about the gatekeepers who govern the museums of fine art. "If they are in a good mood, they say, 'This is a good artist, let's have a museum show,' " Yuroz says in a thick Armenian accent. "If they are in a [bad] mood, then you're dead meat. They reject you, then you're on the rejected list. Is there frustration? Of course there is frustration. There is a tremendous amount of frustration because of the bureaucratic system in art."

Art is a squishy subject, offering no objective standards of quality. There is no way to establish for certain that one particular creation--or one particular artist--is better than another. Yet there exists an underlying framework, a sort of invisible scaffolding, that enables these judgments to be made, for they must be made. Museum space is, after all, limited. If art were wholly subjective, even the lowliest sketch artist in Venice would command as many admirers as David Hockney or Joan Miro.

Howard N. Fox, a curator of modern and contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, notes that the art world is vast, multifaceted and free-flowing. It is less a world than a universe characterized "by every sort of creativity you can find. There are, in effect, many art worlds, many audiences--and, far more than that, there are many artists."

And no god to rule this realm. "If you look at the range of activity," Fox says, "if you go to all the galleries around town, which is only a small percentage of all the art activity in Los Angeles, you'll realize it's almost a free-for-all. There is not a monolithic controlling body of interest or canon of thought."

Instead there are networks of curators and museum directors, each looking for pieces that somehow fit an overall mission. For example, some museums covet Western art: Remingtons and the like. Others, such as LACMA, eschew it completely. A curator sees new art in the context of what is already there. Fox cannot calculate how many paintings he might see in a year. He attends hundreds of exhibitions. There are 50 or 60 galleries he visits regularly, and he might hit a dozen on any given Saturday.

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