Real Utopias

Vardan Azatyan

If taking into account artistic and technical characteristics, as well as the scale and ambition of Karen Ohanyan’s series Real Utopias (2005-2006), one can claim that they are among the best paintings recently produced in Armenia. This article attempts at a formal-structural and social analysis of this series.

Vibrant and active colors emanate from the canvases  the smallest of which is approximately two by two and a half meters. Each canvas is constructed by  specific relations of dominant colors. Karen works with acrylic which, on the one hand, makes color  bright and synthetically artificial, and on the other hand makes the surface of the canvass matt. Karen’s brushwork is mainly rough, he paints large surfaces at once; this is perhaps the consequence of his earlier, expressionist phase. His works, although photo-realistic, avoid the sfumato effect created by blurring colors.

Karen produced this series throughout a year. He went to the countryside in different seasons and took pictures of human figures through the dewy glass. What is interesting is that these digital images were later directly transferred from the computer screen onto the canvas.

Karen works in a small room, so small that the canvases occupy almost all the space. The canvases are so large that they do not enter the door, and Karen is compelled to bring them in via the balcony. And if we add the laborious and lengthy process of finding proper frames, stretching the canvas and transferring the primary drawing onto the canvas via a projector, than it is clear that the painting phase constitutes only a small part of the whole process of production. Therefore, here we do not deal with pure paintings, but with a painterly project that incorporates elements of the discourse of painting (landscape painting in the countryside, subtle impasto) and contemporary technological reality (digital and computer technologies).

From an iconographical perspective, we see the backs of male figures who stand, and in one case sit, behind the dew drops. Interwoven with the figures these drops blur their visual contour. As a result they seem out-of-focus and half real; it is not by chance that in a structural sense the place they occupy in the ground plane is the middle ground. At the same time, the dew drops in the foreground in opposition to human figures are visually precise. In the amorphous forms of dew drops the small and deformed images of the figure behind is reflected upside down. Thus if one rotates the canvas hundred and eighty degrees it will be filled with numerous tiny human figures. This visual transgression of the image perhaps witnesses Karen’s earlier surrealistic phase inspired by the great transgressor of images Rene Magritte. And finally in the background one can discern the landscape.

Thus, the whole picture can be divided into three structural spaces planes; the dew drops in the foreground, the figure in the middle ground and the landscape in the background. And yet, one has to observe that there is one more, invisible plane: the transparent dewy glass that at the same time corresponds to the physical surface of the canvas. Indeed, in the process of production Karen’s gaze towards the reality to be depicted is mediated first by the lens of the photo camera, second by the dewy glass, third by the projector’s lens, and fourth by the computer screen. This multilayered intermediation problematizes the simple, innocent and harmonious relation between the artist and reality and makes it complex. The work of art is not an outcome of the artist’s spontaneous inspiration; it is produced in the complex relations between the artist and his/her reality. Thus Karen’s pictures reveal the difficulties of making art and being an artist in Armenian reality: these images are not only technically but also psychologically hard won. It seems that these difficulties are concealed in Karen’s works, just as the surface of the glass is hidden from the viewer. Their colorful and optimistic mood makes the viewer pass over the hardships of everyday life. The works seem to breathe with creative spontaneity and freshness, though they were borne out of the lack of that very spontaneity. Karen’s works are utopias, as they attempt to show what is impossible to find in real life—a harmony. However he does not recreate harmony in art, but rather finds it in reality where it is absent. His images are fixed and identically reproduced in Armenia; paradoxically they are part of Armenian reality. This fact gives them the status of real utopias. Karen turns to the countryside, tries to fix the absent harmony between the human being and nature and fuses the natural force (water) with the figure as one inseparable whole. But the whole process of achieving this is intermediated with daily financial, technical and psychological problems which would face any middle class artist living and working in Armenia and one who attempts to carry out a painterly project of this scale (these problems vary from finding a car to reach to countryside, to negotiations with the frame maker over the high prices of the frames).

And a question that often rises in this and similar situations in Armenia is: Is it worth of carrying on?

Yes! If one wants to make the place we live in, less unfavorable than it is.


It is not by chance that the intermediated image as a symbol of difficult interrelations with reality can be seen in the works of other Armenian artists of Ohanyan’s generation. Examples are Astghik Melkonyan’s series of photographsDon’t Lean (2004 and Loucine Davidyan’s video Bang Bang (2004)., See Vardan Azatyan, “Do Not Lean”,Actual Art, #3, 2005, pp. 139-142 (in Armenian).