Painter Charles Garabedian, 87, framed by an untitled piece, left, and… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
Charles Garabedian came to art at the relatively advanced age of 32, after fighting Air Force missions in World War II, studying history at USC, manufacturing tires for B.F. Goodrich, assembling cars for Chrysler and working as a night shift railroad clerk. He was living in East L.A., "at loose ends," as he puts it, with low expectations for the future, and he tagged along with a friend — the artist Ed Moses — to a drawing class with the Surrealist painter Howard Warshaw.
"Howard pointed me to a cow skull," he recounts, "and gave me some ink and some paper and said: 'Start making lines.' After a couple of hours he looked at it and he said, 'Not bad, why don't you come back next week.' And that was how it started." Two months later, on Warshaw's advice, he applied to study painting at UCLA and was accepted on a probationary basis due to the fact that, by his own admission, he didn't know what he was doing. "I applied myself with enthusiasm," he says, "and I think the enthusiasm sort of carried me through." He studied with the painter William Brice and completed his MFA in 1961, at the age of 38.
Speaking now at the age of 87, in the Washington Boulevard studio he's occupied for more than 30 years, he relays these stories with detached amusement, as if a little surprised, himself, by how it all turned out. "In one of my earlier classes," he recounts, "one of the teachers said to me: 'You're starting too late.' He said: 'You're too old to learn technique. What you have to do is go straight for the poetry.' So I said OK, not knowing what the hell he was talking about."
It was a prescient bit of advice, in light of what his work became. His trajectory as a painter — illustrated currently in a wonderful retrospective at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art — has been one of inspired introspection, in which the intrinsic dictates of self, material and subject hold sway over the external demands of technique or fashion. What may have begun as painterly awkwardness gradually grew into an emotionally resonant visual language quite distinct among Garabedian's contemporaries (though visible in traces among the scores of younger painters he's come to influence).
Blending whimsical abstraction with a robust, archetypal brand of figuration — the nude figure is his most consistent motif — and a bright, energetic palette much indebted to the Southern California sunlight, the work is lyrical and strange, yet startlingly lucid. He's drawn his subjects primarily from mythological sources since the early 1980s — Adam and Eve, Apollo and Daphne, Dido and Aeneas, Odysseus — and brings to these stories a degree of sensitivity that illuminates both their and painting's fundamental humanity. (For example, a series made in the early 1990s based on "The Iliad" — a stunning portrait of war, devastation and mankind's capacity for self-annihilation.) If by "poetry" one means that mysterious lifeblood of the human imagination, Garabedian found it in spades.
Not that he would put it in those terms. When asked whether he believes that what his teacher said was true, he replies, "Absolutely." But when asked whether he managed to find the poetry, he demurs with characteristic modesty. "No," he says. "No, no, no. But I was able to ignore technique, which is just as important, isn't it?"
The silent type
Neatly dressed in pale slacks, a gray sweater and a red plaid scarf, Garabedian has a quiet, dignified presence, an air of formality that is periodically dispelled by a wry chuckle or a casual gesture. Unlike many younger artists one encounters today, who are encouraged from the outset to articulate their work in verbal, often academic terms, or some of his own generation who've developed a calculated spiel over time, he seems not to have many words for what he does. He speaks slowly and pauses frequently, glancing often to the work tacked up on the walls around him.
"You can talk on forever," he says, "about what you've learned. I don't know. I've learned something. That's all I can say: that I learned something. In fact, I think I may have learned an awful lot. But a lot of what I've learned is what to discard. There are no absolutes. There's nothing you can really count on. And I think it's better that way. When I open that door in the morning, I keep telling myself I hope somebody new is walking through this door. You're looking to change. That's the exciting thing about it: change, who you can be next, who you can be later on."