Raffi Kalenderian: 'For the Dead,' at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

Raffi Kalenderian’s third exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, “For the Dead,” features a mix of portraits and landscapes with sensitive oil and encaustic surfaces. Searching and poetic, Kalenderian’s paintings are richly layered and tinged with melancholy. 
I recently asked Kalenderian about his background, his mentors and his approach to painting. 
John Seed Interviews Raffi Kalenderian

Raffi Kalenderian with his friend, the poet Dasha Nekrasova

Can you tell me a bit about where you grew up and what shaped you?
I was born in LA and went to high school in Laguna Beach. I had always loved drawing, loved sculpting clay, but I didn’t paint until college. When I was 15 I took a figure drawing class at the Laguna College of Art and Design. I became enchanted with figure drawing, it was the first time I had felt like I was truly good at something.  
I heard UCLA had a great art program, but my high school guidance counselor told me I had a 0% chance of getting in. I absorbed his depressing math and applied anyway. I was accepted (!!!) and ran up and down the street screaming like a maniac. Someone once told me there is a word in Russian that translates to: “this probably isn’t going to work, but I’m going to do it anyway”. I don’t know what that word is, or if it even really exists, but if I ever do find this word, I’m going to get it tattooed in huge letters across my back, as it appropriately describes my approach to both life and art.  

Patrick, 2016, Oil, graphite, wax on canvas, 36” H x 24”

Who have your mentors been at UCLA and elsewhere? 
UCLA was so amazing. When I applied, the only two artists I knew were Van Gogh and Michelangelo. I had no idea there was a contemporary art world.  In Laguna Beach, people made kitschy paintings of whales and dolphins that they sold to tourists and hotels. I was now taking classes with Yutaka Sone, Jim Welling, Julie Carson, Don Suggs, Charlie Ray, Chris Burden, Lari Pittman, Roger Herman, Laura Owens...it was so cool. Plus the other undergrads when I was there were so talented, as well as the grad students.  It was a special moment in the art department, I still feel so lucky to have been a part of it.
When I decided to focus on painting and drawing, Lari Pittman, Laura Owens, and Roger Herman were the ones who encouraged me, showed me artists to look at, gave me honest and constructive criticism, and basically made me feel like there was a place for me in the world as long as I committed myself to art.

Self Portrait (Benner Street), 2011, Oil on linen, 98” x 70”

Tell me about the theme of “For the Dead” and about your interest in Adrienne Rich’s poem.
My dear friend, the Poet/Genius Dasha Nekrasova saw my paintings for this show and thought I should read Adrienne Rich’s beautiful poem. I loved it so much, it made me cry. There is a part of the poem that can be read in a literal way: 
I dreamed I called you on the telephone
to say: Be kinder to yourself
but you were sick and would not answer
The waste of my love goes on this way
trying to save you from yourself
Calling your friend on the phone to try and help them, this feels universal to me. Everyone must know what its like to be the one to make that call, and also what its like to be too sick to answer.  But the part that makes me read it over and over and over is when the language starts to make leaps... it becomes impossible to read literally:  
I have always wondered about the left-over
energy, the way water goes rushing down a hill
long after the rains have stopped
or the fire you want to go to bed from
but cannot leave, burning-down but not burnt-down
the red coals more extreme, more curious
in their flashing and dying
than you wish they were
sitting long after midnight
The words have a seductive rhythm, the imagery is vivid, but this is no longer for literal-minded people. The reader is now invited to participate with the poem, let your mind drift as you think about the red coals that are more extreme, more curious in their flashing and dying.  The emotional weight of the beginning of the poem dovetails with the inspired, creative use of language in the second part.  
The poem represents everything I love about art and creativity. However, I knew that I could never make a painting as beautiful and perfect as that poem, so it didn’t seem right to use it for my show. But I kept reading it, over and over, each time feeling stronger and more certain of how to finish the exhibition. I began to think of how press releases are often so phony, and the idea that someone might read a press release with this poem in it became thrilling. It would be the best thing they read all day!  At some point it just became so obvious to me that the poem had to stay, to not include it would be so much worse, and the title of the show would be “For the Dead”.

Portrait of the Poet Dasha Nekrasova, 2015, Oil on canvas, 84” H x 60” W

Can you tell me about one of the portraits in the show and about the sitter?
I painted my friend Darcy Bartoletti in his studio sitting in front of his beautiful flower paintings. He told me these paintings came after making work for a while that wasn’t really engaging him, so he made what was most exciting to him.  You can feel it in the work. Plus, I love painting other people’s paintings, it is so interesting. I think of it like covering a song, trying to balance the spirit of the original but to also say it in my own way.

Darcy, 2016, Oil and cold wax on canvas, 36.50” H x 24.50” W

Can you say a few things about your use of media and materials? 
UCLA is an amazing school, but they don’t teach you how to paint (as opposed to a school like RISD, which makes you draw tinfoil over and over before you can do what you want....well, that’s what I’ve heard anyway). If you want to paint a certain way, you pretty much have to figure it out on your own. Just like real life!  
I learned how to make oil paintings by going to the art store and buying oil paint, medium, turpenoid and then just going crazy in the studio. In the beginning I would use oil paint with a drawing mindset, and eventually I figured out how to glaze and stain, add seasoning and texture. Sometimes the paintings take two years and change a million times as I search for something that works. Other times a painting will be done in a day.  
I have this rule: if it looks great, stop. And if I really have to go further, make another one. I think the future of painting is going to see a lot more variation by one artist, audiences are becoming more sophisticated, more open. Nicole Eisenmann is a hero to me, and I think the world giving her props right now is proof we are heading in the right direction.

Landscape (Wyoming IV), 2016, Oil and cold wax on canvas, 85” H x 60.50” W

What are your interests and involvements outside of painting?
I like watching NBA basketball and talking trash to my friends.

Raffi Kalenderian, “For the Dead,” Installation View

Raffi Kalenderian, “For the Dead”
July 16 - August 27, 2016
Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects
Project Space 1
6006 Washington Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232

What a stunning and seductive Greuze #Repost @mfaboston with @repostapp ・・・ Who’s that girl? It’s unlikely she’s an actual person. The young woman, who appears at once innocent and seductive, is probably the product of artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s imagination. He was born #OnThisDay in 1725. Pictured: “The White Hat,” about 1780, on view in our European Galleries.


On Museum Labels As Art, Critical Theory as Hot Air, Postmodernism as Over and Bad Cruise Ship Art


In her recent review of The Hammer Museum’s Third Biennial—Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only—critic and curator Victoria Dailey includes images of a number of the exhibition’s labels. Why, you might wonder, are the labels so important? The answer is that several of the installations in the Biennial exist only as labels, and the same is true for at least one “performance.” This is an absurd situation: when labels are the sole manifestation of a work of art, it strikes me that we are witnessing an exercise in Emperor’s New Clothes conceptualism.
Even in situations where actual objects are on view at the Hammer—for example Margaret Honda’s film cases—the labels are charged with playing a crucial role, which is to provide excruciatingly academic explanations and justifications for the items they attempt to support.
Margaret Honda’s installation of her film cases.

Here is some of the text that accompanies the film cases:
Margaret Honda’s films grow out of a sculptural practice that privileges a material relationship to the medium above any narrative or representational concerns...By displaying them in such a manner, Honda acknowledges the film’s objecthood, giving as much weight to this quality as to what is projected on-screen. 
The entire label follows below—if you care to read it—but just the language above, which has the contextual underpinnings of “critical theory,” attempts to justify the idea that staring at film cases is something that should interest us, maybe as much or even more than the content of films they contain. After all, they have achieved “objecthood.” It’s a telling example of epic dullness shielded by the veneer of an academic text; a blast of hot air inflating a hollow conceit. 
The wall text accompanying Honda’s installation

If you really care about art, just ask yourself: “Do you really want to visit the Hammer to stare at film cases and read labels?” Is this what you think of as “cutting-edge” art that deserves it’s place in a vanguard exhibition? If you do, let’s have a beer sometime, but I digress. 
No doubt, some will accuse me of welcoming the dumbing down of art discourse, but I’m convinced that over time the over-reliance on critical theory and textual analysis has led to the weakening and decline of Postmodern art. When John Baldessari brought suitcases full of European magazines for his CalArts students to read in the early 1970s, it was fresh material that was intellectually challenging. Now, more than four decades later, the “discourse” has become pedantic, and museum labels like these are the evidence of academic stagnation. 
Critical theory has ossified into a life support system that all too often pumps up anemic, pretentious and/or nihilistic works of art. As a result—in my view—the range of what our cultural institutions call “Postmodernism” in art has been blown up to the point of absurdity. Everyone is an artist, everything is art and context can justify execrable art. Thanks for that Duchamp and Derida...
I personally think of Postmodernism as being over—even dead— and I actually have a date when I think it formally expired: Friday April 25th, 2013. On that fateful day, artist Paul McCarthy’s giant inflatable poop sculpture was deflated by a sudden downpour in Hong Kong. The metaphor generated by the situation is just too delicious to resist: a confrontational and repellent work of art has it’s vulnerability exposed, revealing itself to simply be a pumped up gasbag. The era of “Anything Goes” vacuous pluralism must have deflated and ended with it, right? 
The inflatable poop, before (above) and after (below) deflation...

 Then again, calling Postmodernism “dead” is a rather irresponsible and potentially unsupportable thing to do. I know I have grown weary of hearing painting called “dead,” and that lofty pronouncement has always been wrong. 
When I recently posted a Facebook status with my opinion that Postmodernism is “over,” a flood of intelligent comments and counterpoints appeared in short order. Conor Walton, a representational painter based in Ireland, had this to say: 
The problem I have with ‘Postmodernism is dead, now Anything Goes,’ is that ‘Anything Goes’ seems to me to be the essence of Postmodernism. It seems to me that if you have a society in which the values of pluralism, consumerism, and individual choice reign supreme, some sort of ‘Postmodernism’ is going to dominate the art world...Before you say ‘Postmodernism is dead’, I think you should at least be able to sketch the new society its replacement will be based upon, and the new values that it will express.
Conor asks a great question: if Postmodernism is to be declared dead, what will fill the void? The vested academic and commercial interests of the art world demand a new stream of “isms,” to label, categorize and commoditize. If Postmodernism is gone, there is a vacuum to be filled, even if Postmodernism itself is a vacuum. 
Addressing the question “So what ever happened to Postmodernism,” in 2012, critic and curator Kim Levin, writing for ArtNews, framed Postmodernism as having lost its depth and offered her own nominee for the next dominant “ism.”
In the past couple of years, there’s been a new post-Postmodern movement lurking in Europe: Metamodernism. It features an agenda that involves art that is impermanent, incremental, provisional, and idiosyncratic, as well as site-specific and performative, emotive and perceptual, devious and questioning.
OK, Metamodernism sounds intriguing, but is just one of many competing approaches that seem to be jostling for attention: it’s an atomized internet-fueled world out there, up for grabs, highly unstable and filled with competing and conflicting circles and individuals. “What’s next?”—if there is a next— is a very complicated question. 
Discussing the that very question on my Facebook page, Alan Bamberger, the San Francisco-based proprietor of ArtBusiness.com, commented on some of the tendencies he is noting: 
The “blinders effect” of traditional art school educations is coming to an end, assuming it hasn’t ended already. The types of art artists make as well as how they get it out in front of the public are evolving before our eyes. Artists are increasingly realizing that they can make their own way and not be held back by traditional protocols, standards or requirements. 
Another of my Facebook friends, critic Shana Nys Dambrot, thinks that the internet is playing a central and positive role in art’s current evolutions:
The simultaneous manifestation of everything ever all at once represented by the Internet has also become the zeitgeist of the real world now. There are no more isms, only hashtags. I kind of like it.
Artist and writer Carol Diehl, taking a different tack, isn’t biding her time waiting for the end of Postmodernism: it is the commercialization of art that wears her out. Carol says she simply  “Can’t wait for Post-Commercialism.” It’s a great point, as the commercialization of art is a kind of inescapable force that seems to warp all forms of art, across the board. 
Speaking of commercialism, I recently took my family on an Alaska cruise, and discovered just how truly awful cruise ship art is. On board the ship there was a rotating gallery that featured Thomas Kinkade giclée prints, bad Cubist palette-knife knockoffs, Fisherman’s Wharf Surrealism and other dreck. Passengers were invited to fast-paced art auctions—where drinks were served—and “talks” that were hardcore sales pitches.
Kinkade prints on view in the cruise ship gallery

And why, you are likely wondering, am I suddenly talking about cruise ship art in a blog about the issues surrounding Postmodernism? The answer is that Postmodern art and Thomas Kinkade strike me personally as having something in common: both seem so “over,” and yet they linger. The truth is that both academic Postmodernism and cruise ship art remain popular with their divergent audiences. 
I can complain all I want but Postmodernism—including the rigorously academic variety that requires absurd labels to explain itself—is still the dominant mode in most academies and institutions. Postmodernism’s tacky, hyper-commercial opposite—cruise ship art—a form of mass art that requires only a few martinis to appreciate, seems firmly entrenched as well. 
In between these two extremes a lot of wonderful art is being made. The artists who are making it don’t care about the market and they don’t care about isms. My guess is that the best things are always going to be found where deadly dull labels and dry martinis aren’t necessary. 

David Leffel at the Frederick Weisman Museum of Art


David Leffel, Self-Portrait, 2010, oil on panel, 9 x 7 inches

David Leffel’s recent retrospective exhibition, which was on view at the Frederick Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University between May 14th and August 7th, was, in the artist’s own words; “a visual expression of the journey I call ‘learning to paint.’” Leffel’s journey, towards a Rembrandtian style that explores the inherently abstract underpinnings of representational painting, has been in opposition to modernism, which rejects the kinds of hard-won visual truths that he has found beautiful and essential.  

David A. Leffel: the Mastery of Light (Installation View)

Curated by Michael Zakian, the Weisman’s Director, Leffel’s exhibition opened a month after the closing of Andy Warhol: Life and Legends, a show of prints that have a nearly antithetical set of values from Leffel’s. The bookending of the two shows—a carefully considered juxtaposition—was a stroke of brilliance on the part of Michael Zakian, who offered his audience the opportunity to witness two wildly divergent artistic careers that also have some subtle connections and overlaps.
Andy Warhol: Life and Legends (Installation View)

Warhol and his art are widely known, but Zakian, who is the author of a new book on Leffel—David A. Leffel: The Mastery of Light— makes a strong argument that Leffel also deserves his moment in the spotlight: “Today he (David Leffel) stands as one of the founders of the contemporary realist art movement,” Zakian writes in the book’s introduction, “and as someone whose work is revered throughout the nation and beyond.” If you value art that comments on the era in which it was made you are likely going to always prefer Warhol, but if you value the idea of painting as a long, deep conversation with tradition, then Zakian has a point to make. 
Michael Zakian (left) and David Leffel (right)

Born within three years of each other—Warhol in 1928, Leffel in 1931—both were the sons of Eastern European immigrant families, both dealt with difficult childhood illnesses and both began their careers as commercial artists. Leffel’s differences from Warhol—his adherence to Old Master techniques and subjects, his commitment to skill and his disconnect from contemporary culture—are what make his retrospective both challenging and perplexing. 
Leffel’s retrospective offered, at it’s best, the chance to see paintings by an artist whose mesmerizing command of technique has taken decades to develop. The exhibition’s weakness, which is that Leffel’s work is so doggedly rooted in past traditions and idioms, is directly interwoven with its strengths.

Two Self-Portraits by David Leffel, from 1958 (left) and 1959 (right)

Two Self-Portraits Leffel made in the late 1950s, when he began to pursue painting seriously, show how in the course of a single year he veered from the influence of a Modernist (Modigliani) towards an Old Master (Rembrandt), a change in course that he has never looked back from. 
David Leffel, 45th Street Studio, 1968, oil on canvas

Leffel’s paintings have, for more than five decades, maintained a conversation with Rembrandt, so much so that it is tempting to dismiss Leffel as an epigone, the less-distinguished follower of a much-venerated master. Leffel’s paintings have Rembrandt-style lighting—strong directional lighting with cast shadows and reflections—and the flickering impasto of their surfaces is very much an homage to the Dutch Master’s varied and incomparable brushwork. 

David Leffel, Tony Reyna, 2013, oil on canvas, 20 x 17 inches

When applied to a portrait that needs to emanate dignity—as in his portrait Tony Reyna, a revered member of the Taos community—Leffel’s neo-Baroque lighting offers the necessary solemnity. WIth its soft edges and sensitive attention to lighting, color and brushwork, this painting exemplifies Leffel’s laudable capabilities as a portraitist. Some other works in the Weisman Museum show—for example a wedding portrait rocker of John Cougar Mellencamp and his bride—lack the sense of purpose and clarity of mood present in the Reyna portrait.The Wedding comes across as a pastiche with an indefinite mood. 
David Leffel, The Beauty of the Dance, 2013, oil on canvas, 32 x 26 inches

Leffel’s best works are his recent still life paintings. In these works, Leffel’s acute sense of materiality and his ability to manipulate oil paint come on strong, allowing him to achieve strikingly tender effects of space and surface. Leffel’s still lifes, seen at close hand, have a genuine poetry and revelatory visual power. Seeing the insistent abstractness of Leffel’s brushwork in person offers up some compelling questions about how representational painting works now and how it worked in the past. His brushwork is, simply put, masterful. 

Beauty of the Dance (detail)

“When I am completely by myself in the studio,” writes Leffel, “in a state of attentive waiting—to paint, to learn—there is a great sense of being alone but not isolated.” Leffel’s deep connections to the art of the past challenge the powerful notion that art must be married to “progress.” He and his art find connection in a kind of beauty that most contemporary artists no longer acknowledge. If you don’t care for Leffel’s work, or for his orientation, you can at least think of him as beautifully, even gloriously, out of touch.
David Leffel believes that painting is something messy you do with brushes in your hands, an idea that Andy Warhol once walked away from, smiling all the way to the bank. 
David Leffel, My Hands, 1975, oil on panel, 15 x 20 inches

Vonn Sumner: The Crowd Within

“Within any one person there are crowds of people, different characters that show themselves at different times.” – Gay Talese
Vonn Sumner, Crowd, Oil on linen, 66 x 60 inches
In Vonn Sumner’s new painting Crowd—a kind of group self-portrait—eighteen hooded figures jostle for a place in the lineup. Some, with their eyes hidden, seem to be lost in private reveries, some seem aware of the presence of others, and a few stare out at the viewer, alert and even a bit hostile. One pair of figures seems to attempt a conversation while others look away, beyond the borders of the canvas. Others just sulk.
Crowd (detail)
The individuality of each figure is deflected by his similarity to his moody clones, making any and every variation in posture and facial expression especially telling. The overall effect is decidedly weird, as Sumner seems to be teasing his audience, summoning up their voyeuristic interest while also deflecting it. “I’m willing to tell you some things about myself,” the painting seems to say, “but I’m still wrestling with myself to figure out just what those things might be.”
Crowd somehow manages to be both an image of self-absorption and a set of partial confessions at the same time. It’s about being yourself while finding yourself, and about giving just enough of yourself to others. Sumner has clearly been thinking about his place in the world, but he also knows that over-thinking is a danger: if you don’t put yourself and your ideas out there to face judgment your life may become an eternal funk.
Sock Hat Trash Can III, Oil on linen, 14 x 11 inches
The sock hats that appear in Sumner’s recent paintings are an inexpensive “found object;” they are sold in hardware stores for use during spray painting and wall texturing. The hats remind Sumner of a wide variety of types of headgear including the turbans and other head-coverings he glimpsed in the works of the 15th century Siennese artist il Sassetta, as well as Muslim hijabs and the hoodies of urban teenagers. The artist is content to let all of these references and implications run wild, so that his viewers have to make their own assumptions about whether to be perplexed, threatened or amused by his imagery.
Sock hats on view in Vonn Sumner’s studio
“People tend to be right on,” Sumner muses, “and I honestly don’t care that the characters are all me: its not a goal for them to be me.” In his leanings towards idiosyncratic means—and a hint of comic funk—Sumner bears the influence of U.C. Davis, where his mentors, including Wayne Thiebaud, reminded students that without humor there is a loss of perspective. In regards to the duality of “funny or not” Sumner doesn’t have a preference: “It doesn’t have to be one or the other. As in the works of Philip Guston, I think that imagery can be both tragic and comically absurd at the same time.”
Vonn Sumner
Pink Pop is a portrait of Sumner’s father Richard, whose Palo Alto frame store provided early exposure to art and to the bohemian intellectuals who spilled out the edges of the nearby campus of Stanford University. “He was a magnet for interesting people,” Sumner recalls, “and I certainly benefited from having a front seat in that little theater. I miss it.” The same paradoxes that apply to Sumner’s images of himself apply to those of his father: he is both utterly familiar and somewhat hidden. It’s a reminder that you can love someone while still respecting their mysteries.
Pink Pop, 2016, Oil on linen,18 x 20 inches
Perhaps the greatest strength of Vonn Sumner’s work is that he respects the power of mystery but also understands its limits. Knowing how much to say and how much to withhold is a vital skill for diplomats and painters. Saying too much veers towards gossip and saying too little risks rendering a work of art forgettable, which Sumner’s art most definitely isn’t. 
Vonn Sumner: To Be Seen
July 30 – August 27th, 2016
KP Projects
170 S. La Brea
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Artist’s Talk and Walkthrough with Vonn Sumner and John Seed
Saturday, August 20th at 2:30

Vonn Sumner, Crowd, Oil on linen, 66 x 60 inches. Now on my Huffpost blog: "Vonn Sumner: The Crowd Within"