Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Starry Night / Starless Night

By Charles Kessler

Charles Garabedian, Starless Night, 2009, acrylic on paper, 48" x 81". Collection of the artist. Photo courtesy of L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice, CA.
I couldn’t get this painting out of my mind. It was one of the newest works in the Charles Garabedian retrospective that I just blogged about. The painting is unusual in that he foregoes the universality of the nude so typical of his past work, but Garabedian nonetheless captures the unfortunate universality of mankind’s mad drive to destroy.
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, Saint Remy, June 1889, Oil on Canvas, 29" x 36" (MoMA)
The title is an obvious reference to Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and the paintings have several things in common. Both depict a small village in a large landscape.  Both artists draw with paint, employing vigorous and bold brushwork with very little blending of colors (although the shoe and helmet of the crouching soldier are blended beautifully and seem to glow from within).  Mostly they paint with flat strokes fitted together like a puzzle, or with squiggly strokes scumbled and scrubbed with a quick back-and-forth motion.
Click on image to enlarge
And they are similar in the way they use the medium of painting expressively. Van Gogh's swirling brushwork, like Leonardo’s Deluge drawings, evokes the power of nature in a very visceral way. It’s not a mere representation of power; it’s a re-creation of it. Likewise, the chilling impact of Starless Night is re-created by the starkness of the painting itself — the crude, sometimes ugly brushwork, the dry, matte surface, and the flimsiness of the wrinkly paper.

But the really interesting thing is their differences — and their subject matter couldn’t be more different. The Van Gogh, of course, is about the awesome power of God or nature. The man-made structures of Saint-Remy, even the church steeple, look puny in comparison to this cosmic spectacle. Garabedian’s subject, on the other hand, is about man-made ruination. The only celestial activity in the bleak sky is smoke from the village inferno (Vietnam?), and the earth has become a desolate and ravaged ruin. Even the strangely beautiful pool of water looks toxic (radioactive?) in this context.

But it gets even more horrific. The crouching, hollow-eyed soldier, his face demonically glowing from the village fire, is holding something, and I think it’s a hand grenade. After laying waste to the village, is he intending to kill the sleeping soldier and himself too?  And the ordinariness of the act, like the soldiers executing prisoners in Goya's Third of May or Manet's Execution of Maximilian, makes it even more chilling.

Starless Night is a very depressing painting — and unfortunately for us, it says a lot about our era.

Charles Kessler is an artist and writer and lives in Jersey City.

1 comment:

Kyle Gallup said...

Charles, thank you for this beautiful and descriptive comparison. You are opening up a new world for me with your entries on Charles Garabedian and his paintings.

As you suggest, it looks like CG took the blue and yellow of Van Gogh's painting and the immense emotional content and re-directed it for his own feeling of desolation and helplessness at the state of the world. Even though I am seeing the painting on line, I can imagine it packs a huge punch as it did for you.