Seven Days, Vermont
Aug 22 2012
Cross Cultural: Eyewitness: Philip Hagopian
By Amy Rahn
Philip Hagopian creates paintings that seem like glimpses of a
beautiful, vanished world. His lavish works currently on view at
Salaam on Burlington’s Church Street are painted in bold, unctuous
oils, their settings festooned with woven rugs and patterned draperies
that cascade around exotic women. Hagopian evokes an atmosphere of
mystery and sensuality so palpable that you can almost smell perfume
wafting from censers and hear the rustle of silk. This fluent
brushwork flows from an artist who is passionate about history, family
and painting itself.
Born to an Armenian father and American mother in East Longmeadow,
Mass., Hagopian, now 53, manages to straddle the two lands and
cultures. Accordingly, his paintings combine classical Western
techniques honed at the Art Institute of Boston with the rich
patterns, landscapes and traditions of Armenia.
Hagopian’s exhibit includes figurative works, still lifes, pastoral
scenes set around the high-altitude Lake Sevan in central Armenia and
examples of `multi-dimensionalism,’ a term the artist coined to
describe a mixture of painting and assemblage. Hagopian’s wife, Naira,
often appears in his paintings. In `Above Sevan,’ she stands holding
mounds of blossoms on a grassy hillside dotted with pink, purple and
white flowers. She is also in the works `A Change of Mood’ and
`Gathering Flowers,’ among others.
While Hagopian is primarily a visual artist, he is also an avid
musician who plays the Armenian doumbek (an ancient drum) and guitar.
In 2006, Philip Hagopian made his first trip to Armenia to seek out
other Middle Eastern musicians. While on that trip, he met Naira, who
was working as a translator. The couple moved to Vermont, where
Hagopian has lived on and off for 27 years total, since his parents
brought the family there in the late 1970s.
When Hagopian talks about his life as a painter, his story is marked
by the births of his three children and the choices he has made to
support them, including moving the family to Armenia for the past four
years and taking a businesslike approach to his art making. Each step
of his life seems to pivot on his concern for his parents, wife and
Hagopian, who recently returned to Morrisville, Vt., admits the
Armenian culture he paints is more traditional than contemporary. His
expansive grasp of the country’s history helps fuel his desire to
celebrate and preserve its unique culture, even as Armenia has
incorporated some of the traditions of bordering nations. Hagopian
calls Armenia the `epicentral crossroads of very ancient trade routes
between far Eastern Asia, India, Africa, the Mediterranean cultures
and, of course, the Middle Eastern neighbors.’ In Hagopian’s
paintings, the sumptuous patterns and colors of the region sweep
across the canvas.
In `Hayuhi Girl,’ a painting displayed in the front window of Salaam,
a woman tilts her face upward, partially obscured by the shadow of a
teal and purple curtain. Her full, red lips and long neck seem
spotlighted in a beam of daylight that illuminates the scene. Golden
coins from a traditional Armenian headdress tumble to her shoulders.
The shimmering discs recall the gilded ornamentation of 20th-century
Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, whom Hagopian cites as an influence on
his work. In another Klimt-like touch of ornate decoration, he has
given the woman several richly beaded necklaces, one with a heavy,
red, rectangular medallion. Swirls and arabesques crisscross her
beaded gown, continuing the dance of line, pattern and color that
animates the work and conjures the richness of Armenian culture.
Hagopian’s `multi-dimensional’ works combine disparate elements such
as intricately carved wooden frames, superbly painted surfaces and
almost dollhouse-like niches, which are recessed several inches into
the paintings and hold objects ranging from talismanic artifacts to
action figures. In these works, illusionistic fragments of ancient
Assyrian reliefs, small replicas of famous paintings and a demure
brass Buddha jostle one another.
In `Cecropia,’ one small niche brings together a green, plastic alien
toy, a nun figurine and a toy monkey. A circular magnifying lens
covers another niche, simultaneously enlarging and distorting its
contents. Foreign coins seem to levitate in yet another niche, while,
near the artwork’s center, an old-fashioned brass lock serves as a
metal frame for – or a doorway into – the small `room’ of the niche.
Hagopian’s heady blend of references deepens the enigma of his works,
though his convoluted musings on history, culture, politics and
religion can sometimes be confounding to the viewer.
After creating art for more than 30 years, Hagopian speaks humbly
about the talent and tenacity required to make a life as an artist. He
compares selling his paintings with a street performer juggling for
coins, yet he also seems proud to have used his considerable skills to
provide for his family.
Inside the colorful quarters of the Salaam store, Hagopian’s bold hues
and mesmerizing patterns are simpatico with the similarly vibrant
clothes. Likewise, his passion for a faraway country seems right at
home in Vermont.
Philip Hagopian’s exhibit remains at Salaam and the Men’s Store in
Burlington through September. philiphagopianarts.com