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The flowering of art rage

An essay on a friend's work

This is not a photograph, but what is it? It is an image, but one that is shrouded. It is not literal, it is not abstract, but it hovers between planes of reality, like a ghoul. We are not critics, but consumers, wondering what morsel we are ingesting. Koopelian’s work might leave us uncertain. We are captivated by the luminosity of the execution, unnerved by the violence that coexists with the obvious beauty, and left searching for a response in our belly and brain even as we absorb the hung plane, the image, awash with its iridescent sunset palette. It is an avatar of Blowback, our Blowback.

Ara Koopelian’s exhibition Colossus is a response to bewilderment. But why do we feel so? In our Age of Disruption – an exciting age filled with scientific and social progress – our sense of self and society is being overturned. We sense incipient chaos. Our compass is spinning as our social relationships, mass and intimate psychology, and perception of the shape and proportions of the human universe are being unnervingly mutated by social media, by artificial intelligence, by the loss of identity and power linked to our labour, and by new forms of remote economic empowerment and more tangible deprivation. We are richer and poorer, with a foot upstairs and another downstairs.

Our epoch, except for a short and briefly hopeful period of apparent stability and certitude (famously, hubristically, and vainly dubbed ‘The End of History’ by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama) following the Cold War, has also been characterised by disruptive disciplinary wars, and economic upheaval. The Greed-is-Good decade spawned a different kind of avarice and arrogance. Feckless, bloody adventurism in the oil engorged Middle East, girded by the lying of our elected political leaders, has cudgelled, pillaged and drained the countries of that unhappy region, ruining millions of lives. The legendary Hippy Trail has shut for business.

Our Colossi, our leaders, have run amok. Our way of government has been cynically devalued. Trump, Brexit, renewed authoritarianism, Crypto-currency, the GFC, trolls, hegemonic info wars and radical climate change denote systemic instability. So many facets of existence seem at a point of rupture. How can we advise our children when we cannot navigate the trusted mechanics of our lives? The stars, seasons, sea currents, the causal chains and the systems that used to guide us and to buttress our belief that our course is a progressive one, have been somehow subverted from within. We are Chaplins, innocent and puzzled by new forces in Modern Times 2.0. We are bewildered.

It is not that we live in a time of despair. That view would be folly, and an impoverished appreciation of the arc of Time, history and scientific achievement. By most metrics, life is better than it has ever been for a majority of people on earth. Relatively fewer live in poverty, fewer die at childbirth, and a world beyond the short, brutal, and nasty has opened up through education and migration, and sheer force of globalization. And yet, despite all the genius that we have at our fingertips, we have been cast into uncertainty. We are troubled by a future that seems adrift, lost in a fog of complexity beyond human management, but wide open to mismanagement.

At the centre of this work is an emotive question that troubled me when I spent years in regions convulsed by war: What place does art take, which pedestal, in a time of social upheaval and bewilderment? What should art do beyond adorn? Moreover, what should art do when a democracy is at war, amongst the dross and asphyxiating chokehold of pop culture? How should art respond in an era when citizen engagement is vital and when the mechanistic Colossus of Disruption is overturning the assumptions of our political, economic, and social order?

A word on origins: The 20th century brought political art to both high and low expression, as state actors and non-state subversives fought ideological street battles, co-opting art to serve political purposes. Fascist and Communist states, democracies and rebels, in the Occident and Orient, subsumed art forms such as theatre and song, poetry and fiction, symphony and dance, and painting and photography to the requirements of, or in opposition to state violence (Weber’s reductive definition of ultimate political order). “Art,” said Picasso, “is subversion,” but subversion was a weapon wielded by all in the struggle for power.

Out of all this furious agitation, from Brecht to Riefenstahl, Shostakovich to Sassoon, Seeger to Banksy, perhaps the most resilient work and, by most measures, the most successful was Picasso’s Guernica. It is a gargantuan, menacing photomontage, rendered in black and white scale, a simulacrum of the printing press photo. Picasso even sprinkled the matt canvas with crushed glass, giving it the kind of shimmering immediacy present in an Ansell Adams silver-tone of Yellowstone, or a Sebastião Salgado portrait of an Amazonian glen.

The question of what is the place of art is particularly pertinent in the case of photography. Anybody who has worked as a photographer in conflict or other theatres of distress senses – before they even know and fully understand, before they can articulate it – the uneasy lines that hover between observation and participation; between objective narration, and the inescapably subjective selection of narrative lines; between documentation and the transmutation through the lens of the sometimes abject misery of life, into art of excruciating beauty. Mesmeric photography leaves you uneasy.

Painted from exile in Paris, Guernica is a snapshot of extreme violence, painted in an era of extreme fluctuations of power. It is pure art-rage, a response to an atrocity almost beyond the power of expression. It co-opted the medium of photography to portray a horror that no single photo could articulate. Moreover, the very act of aerial bombing was photogenically mediated by sheer altitude. The violence was industrial, corporate, robotic in its insensibility. Though painting “an ocean of pain and death,” as Picasso said, Guernica bridges, however unwillingly, the monstrous and the beautiful.

The work you see before you draws its title from an earlier Spanish response to war. When faced with Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, and the ensuing marauding, wasting, and atrocities of his army, Francisco Goya, a painter who had achieved the highest post as portraitist in the court of Charles III, responded with private vigorous journalistic art-rage. This remarkable stylistic volte face resulted in the pieces attributed to Goya’s depressive ‘black’ period: The Colossus (‘el Colosso’), The Giant (‘el Gigante’), and the series of 82 etchings known as The Disasters of War (los Desastres de la Guerra).

From his life as a court painter and portraitist, a painter of the privileged, elaborate and beautiful, Goya retreated inward to ugliness. It was a response to war, but also to political regression following the restoration of the Bourbon crown. Goya poured his energy into his private life, the one secreted during his years of self-imposed exile in the house known as the “House of the Deaf Man.” We can measure the great artist’s evolution into Political Man from his output now known as the Black Goyas, as well as The Disasters of War that were collected and eventually published decades after this death.

Koopelian has never placed politics at the centre of his work. He asserts Beauty as his aesthetic ideal, and Beauty, he would frequently maintain, is at the centre of all that he does, of all his ambition. Yet by birth, Koopelian is very much a political product. He was born in Sadaam Hussain’s Iraq, and at the age of eight his family was forced to flee as a result of his father’s involvement in politics. His first languages were Arabic and Armenian, his first home was Baghdad, his second was that of a refugee in Sydney’s western suburbs, his third in New York’s Lower Eastside during the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump presidencies.

Koopelian’s persistent avowal of Beauty is now belied by Colossus, which provides a sense of the forces at work in Koopelian’s own life. Like Goya, Koopelian has turned his back on beauty, on measured portraiture, to embrace the ugly and produce Colossus. This work is an entirely personal response to our bewilderment, one that also reflects the political responses of Goya and Picasso. It occupies the allegorical space that only art can fill, when personal revulsion, or despair, or powerlessness defies words and must rely on abstracted images that can tap into the viewers’ consciousness.

Just as etching gave true form to Goya’s gestation as a political artist, so too the form that Koopelian has deployed for his series is particular, rigorous, and is one that has been developed and refined over many years. Koopelien uses large, intimate portraiture, in this case the figure of a friend Carlos, now dead, and other models. The images are printed to matt paper, and blown up close to life-sized. The first renderings are photographed, painted, photographed, and painted again, and the process repeated until the finished product has acquired its peculiar, ebullient ferocity.

That ferocity springs from the quality of its light, a product of the workmanship that makes these pieces unique. The canvas is radiant. Flesh melts like lava, tissue wings are on fire, limbs and breath and air are incandescent. The Colossus and his angels are burning, setting the world ablaze with destructive, amoral, unhinged rage. The figures are captured in a searing phosphorescent scarlet, their bodies flush with an ember glow set against enveloping shadows. Their outlines are blurred and uncertain in their macabre dance. They soar, cackle, vomit blood, grimace with abandon, and scream at us from their inferno. Play your iPhone torch across the surface and you will see the full quality of the effect, the luminescent liquidity of the material changing form like a river reflecting a burning town.

This is not photography. These are not photographs, and nor are they images. They are photographs and images that have been taken beyond image into the realm of the artisan and artist, where effect is wrought from substance as intentionally as a sculpture is cut from stone or drawn from molten metal. The raw image is the point of departure, from where the artist’s voice, hands, imagination, and emotional and intellectual power take over, and deliver works of art of a controlled beauty. Like Guernica or Los Disastres, the Colossus is not for the feint-hearted.

Behind Colossus is a combined body of work that has yet to see the light of day, the first consolidation of which is this exhibition. In the next few years, Koopelian will release ten exhibitions of work that cover his global photographic foci on topics that range far beyond the exigencies of commercial photography, or a singular concentration on Beauty. Colossus and the forthcoming Hercules in 2020 are at the cutting edge of 30 years of social observation, and wherein the personal, for Koopelian, is political, no matter how beautiful the final rendering of the form.

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