Born on January 14, 1953 in Gyumri, Armenia, Emil Kazaz was trained as an artist in the traditional academy style. Beginning at the age of seven, he studied sculpture at the local art school and attended the Mercurov Art School when he was 12. After moving to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, he continued his studies at the Terlemezian Art College, which he finished in 1972, and the University of Fine Arts and Theater, from which he graduated in 1978 with honors. He settled in Los Angeles in 1980. His CV since then reads like any aspiring artist’s dream come true: a steady stream of exhibitions in Europe, Asia, Russia, North and South America, Canada, and throughout the United States, along with international critical recognition, including the prestigious Lorenzo Medici medal from the Florence Biennale in 2003 and Grande Lorenzo il Magnifico (Medici) Prize in Sculpture from Florence Biennale 2007 and 2009. Emil Kazaz lives and continues to work in Los Angeles.
Born and educated in Armenia, Emil Kazaz (Emanuel Kazazian) was raised in a household alive with applied creativity; his father was a cobbler and his mother, a seamstress for a local theater. Kazaz credits his mother as his primary artistic influence. She took him to work and introduced him to the intricacies of theatrical spectacle – costume, drama, lighting, and staging, which continue to be core devices for his artwork. She also bought art posters and hung them in their home. Another major influence was religious art. A highly Christian country, Armenians have long used Christianity as their cultural compass, and elements from its robust iconographical tradition [Armenian Art dates back to the late pre-Christian period. During the early Christian period Armenian artistic production flourished and their under-studied achievements in architecture, decorative objects, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture and textiles stand on par with their European counter parts. An argument could be made that likens Toros Roslin (1256-1269) to Giotto (c. 1267-1337). For further information see Mathews, T., Wieck, R. 1994, Treasures in Heaven, New York: The Pierpont Morgan Library, Princeton University Press, and Nersessian, S. 1978, Armenian Art, London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.] manuscript illumination, tapestries, and laconic architectural forms, which have deep roots into Kazaz’s “aesthetic identity,” as well as the Armenian collective conscious” [Lais-Tufenkian, C. 1999, Six Armenian Artists in the Multicultural Art Forum of Los Angeles: Six Styles, Six Venues, One Community, Los Angeles: California State University, Northridge p. 25].
Kazaz pays homage to his parents in the double portrait, “My Father and Mother,” (acrylic on paper, 29”x41”), in which he effortlessly mixes his multifarious aesthetic and ethnic identities with a fresh contemporary stylistic overview. Framed within an open oval locket, referencing his continued reverence, his father and mother are dressed in thespian-like smocks, and set against a viscous light blue wash suggestive of illuminated manuscript backgrounds. They look directly at the viewer and are secure within the illusion of their connectedness while remaining quietly separate. Their facial expressions are reminiscent of Arshile Gorky’s familial portrait, “The Artist and his Mother,” without its brooding psychological overtones. The broad active brushstrokes used to suggest the father’s ruffled collar and tassel-less green fez are in striking contrast to the couple’s sober mood. Conversely, his mother’s image is captured by a minimum numbers of strokes. Though stoic, her complexion seems almost otherworldly, she is softer and more approachable than her no nonsense looking partner. Her large red hat acts like a beacon; guiding the viewer towards her uncomplicated steadfastness while also possibly signifying the creative fires she gave her son.
Kazaz’s work also embodies other elements from his childhood environment, hearty earth tones, large expanses of open sky, winding roads, churches and monasteries, wallpaper, embroidery, hand hewn objects filled with the spirits of both eastern and western cultural phenomenon find their way into his oeuvre. Without boundaries, his figures chase multicultural relationships, ambition, deceit, love, hate and fear as they try to mold these universal subject matters into new truths. He is no stranger to “sensual mysticism,” or the appropriation of multiple belief systems for the formulation of an aesthetic ideology. Kazaz’s work grows out of a diverse personal cosmology that has interwoven traditional art practices: anatomy, color theory, life drawing, perspective, etc., with a stream of subconscious reference, spatial ambiguity, religious iconography, and storytelling. His creative position is in direct contrast to the “idealized realism” of the Soviet academic agenda that underpins his formal training, where” … Abstraction and imagination were discouraged. … Under the Soviet regime there was little or no room for self-expression through fantasy…”(Lais-Tufenkian, C. 1999, 63).
Actually, Kazaz views his years of traditional arts training as a liberating experience. It allows him to create, at will, imagine and introspective communities that expand our sense of reality far beyond the known. On a visit to the sculpture studio at California State University, Northridge, Kazaz criticized an undergraduate student’s bas-relief due to its poor proportion and rendering. When the student said it was an abstraction, Kazaz noted that even in abstraction there are some rules, some things give life and meaning (paraphrased). Furthermore, his wild freshness and unusual compositional juxtapositions give contradictory visual relationships authenticity and weight. For example, Kazaz’s use of hybrid human and animal forms, the half man or woman and half beast motif, ring true because they are tethered to his mastery of comparative anatomy like more photographic figurative representations.
Kazaz does not make preparatory drawings for his works but “The Last” (ink and acrylic on paper, 22”x30”) could in fact be seen as the precursor for “Salto” (bronze, 24”x13”x19”). A drawing and sculpture respectively, they share anatomical vigor, emotional atmosphere and structural similarities. These works further underscore Kazaz’s essential characteristics, a keen awareness of the human form, compositional spontaneity and fantasy.
Kazaz relies heavily on the interaction of positive and negative space to intensify his subjects’ interaction. “The Last” is structurally formalized by its primary activity being inscribed with a circle in a square (“Salto” responds in kind by using the inscribing square motif as its base with the corresponding circle established by the positioning of the figures’ hooves and feet). The couple’s sweeping physical gestures tumble outside of the artificial framing devise, reinforcing the notion of a fierce struggle. At first glance the couple seems in pitched battle but closer inspection reveals an understated tenderness hidden beneath a few oozing dabs of red and the perception of lust gone awry. The male figure is actually trying to comfort a wounded female. With great theatricality, she cups her bleeding breast, operatically flings her head backward in the “last”throws of life, as the color is drained from her body.
Like Michelangelo’s unfinished marble Slaves, “Salto” drips with customized reinterpretations of classical iconography and conjures multiple allusions regarding the ongoing battle between good and evil too. A twisting and morphing set of forms teeter on the brink of physical exhaustion. Their internal pathos is magnified and illuminated by Kazaz’s anatomical liberties, facial expressions, sharp linear planes, and vigorous gestures. In a swirl of unknowing, they struggle against the prospect of melting into each other and becoming a single being. In “Salto” incoherent confessions create an abstract lyricism; neither figure wants to accept its limitations nor, more importantly, surrender to life’s jagged moments. “But… the almost ritual stylization of his figures’ activities bespeak an awareness of a painted theater much older – and much closer to “home” – than that Kazaz learned in the Soviet-style academy he originally attended” [Frank, P. 2001, Modern Icon: Contemporary Artists and the Legacy of the Armenian Illuminated Manuscript, (exh. cat., Glendale, California: Brand Library and Art Center), p.6]
“Everything began on the 14th of January, 1953, when I was born in a world called Armenia. I was enslaved by art at a very early age. I studied at different art schools and became a soldier in the great battlefield of art. I observed the great masters and I dreamed. I realized that the whole truth stands tall in front of the human creature incomprehensible and mysterious.
I learned from Donatello, Michelangelo, the entire Renaissance, the Baroque era, the Great School of Spain. I was fascinated by the mysterious and profound world of El Greco, Velasquez, Goya, Zurbaran and Rivera.
It is a unique state of bliss when the human creates and feels the mysterious meaning in the creation of the whole world, you hear the echo of distant worlds, and you become the linking chain between the old and the new.
My objectives are beauty, love and force.
My ultimate goal is love…” – Emil Kazaz
As a student Kazaz was exposed to non-Soviet art forms, and probably, his creative energy is more informed by those brief western-aesthetic interventions than he would like to admit. He is also quick to say he doesn’t look at other artists’ works. It is easier to establish his pictorial relationships within the complicated narratives and participatory nature of high Renaissance and Baroque painting, Roman figurative sculpture, the grandiose gestures of early Expressionism, Chagall’s search for archetype in everyday life, or Gorky’s (Arshile Gorky, an Armenian immigrant to the United States, developed an abstract painting style influenced by Surrealism, but, like many 20th-century artists, he first revealed his skills in representational work) abstract expressionist nightmares, than in the social realist territories of his formal training. Kazaz’s work is born out of a revolutionary concept, at least from the former Soviet Union’s point of view, artistic library, product comodification and the creative freedom that encapsulate modernism. (For a lively discussion about the relationship between European art and art history East and West see Belting H., 2003, “Europe East and West at the Watershed of Art History,” in Art History after Modernism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 54-61).
When Kazaz left Armenia in 1980, it was still part of the Soviet Union. Ironically, Kazaz did not make art as a vocation until he reached the US. Initially, he worked for a jeweler and held a number of odd jobs, making artwork when he could, before deciding to try and make it as full time artist. He sold his work door to door in the Armenian community. At first, things did not go well. After his major sale $1,800 for a number of pieces, he returned to Armenia. Once there he realized his destiny lay in the US. After eighteen months he returned to the States to try again. Following his immigration to the West, he did not become intoxicated with its material culture, conceptualism, or want to criticize or contrast its eco-political systems with his homeland as did many of his generation, i.e. the SotsArt. [Russian emigrant artists Komar and Melamid… initiated SotsArt in the 1970s, a Soviet reflection of Pop Art, offering a dissident version of Socialist Realism that used political satire, criticism and self-irony to deconstruct the myths of the Soviet system. At the 1974 “unofficial” art police made Komar and Melamid heroes of the Soviet dissident movement when they bulldozed and destroyed their artwork, among others during an unsanctioned, open air art exhibition. In 1977 they immigrated to Israel and soon after to the United States.” See Richard Mebee’s article, The Swastika and the Star of David: Dangerous Games of Postmodern Art, for a brief but focused overview of SotsArt. Mebee, R., http://richardmcbee.com/komarmelamid.html ]. Instead of concerning himself with the obvious vulgarities of contemporary Western society, he looked inward in his search for answers to life’s central questions. He looked to the Church for answers too. Many of Kazaz’s works have religious underpinnings… “using religious elements within… works, mainly because Christianity was an integral and defining part of Armenian history. For Armenians, being Armenian and Christian is synonymous.” (For an in-depth discussion of the use of Christian iconography in contemporary Armenian art see Lais-Tufenkian, C. 1999, 16 and 34-82).
Although he draws from icons, “iridescent Arabic” manuscript illuminations, and sacred texts, Kazaz is more of an iconoclast than a fanatic. It would e easy to tie his aesthetic moorings to the Church but his imaginative pictorial arrangements extend well beyond orthodox or papal iconographical directives and are therefore detached from religious doctrine. Informed by cross-cultural architectures, European compositional restraints emotion and color – … – confronting line and form, or better said, the collision of Eastern and Western real-time experiences, secular interventions provide the real fodder for his creative subterfuge, as in “The Cardinal’s Pillow” (oil on linen, 51”x66”). “Just as an individual person dreams fantastic happenings to release the inner forces which cannot be encompassed by ordinary events.” (Alexander C., Ishikawa S., Silverman M., 1977, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, New York: Oxford University Press, 299). So does the Cardinal dream. Atop an implied chaise lounge, he is dreaming of Europa while hovering in a room without corners. His eyes wide shut; they do not question the somber primacy of his moral character but blindly focus on a floating female figure depositing strange fruits upon his underbelly. The scenes physicality is further exaggerated by Kazaz’s homage to Baroque painting – manipulation of a saturated earth-tones palette, deep contrasting shadows, and back lighting help his characters to defy gravity, and make it difficult to ascertain where the composition begins or ends. The Cardinal is a prisoner of the space between his convictions and the flesh. “Kazaz does not subordinate his mythic and “supernatural” beings to anything: not to the malevolent Old Testament God or the god-haunted demiurge of Greek thought.” (Adapted from Lewis, J., Emil Kazaz and Nature and the Art of Emil Kazaz). His troupe and their scenes are alive despite their genealogy, in the here and now, with one hand on their destiny and the other inviting the viewer to suspend the notion of their physical reality, “and like the adventures of Homer, move through unreal worlds of appearances where nothing is what it seems.”
For example, in two versions of the story of Judith and Holofernes “Judith” (bronze, 63”x28”x23”), he gently subverts the tale by down playing the sword. “…The sword was an established and horrific attribute of Judith, of many martyrs, and of such Virtues as Justice, Fortitude, etc.; thus it could not be transferred with propriety to a lascivious girl.” (Panofsky E., 1939, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, Boulder CO: Wetview Press, 13) He places the sword in close proximity to the lower half of Judith’s scantily clad, vivacious and patina blood stained body. Judith, neatly tucked in a contrapposto pose, glances away from the viewer with a benign smirk. Head in hand, breasts and nipples erect, and she is a victorious and satisfied tart.
In a bit more swashbuckling style whose bitter realism presents a more convincing psychological portrait “Judith No 5” (ink and acrylic on paper, 22”x30”) is in the process of beheading Holofernes. Working with simultaneous narratives, time lapse, and events sequence by inventing external and internal architecture artifice, Kazaz uses an implied archway in the left quadrant to separate the human-headed rodent form of Holofernes from the main action of the work. The mid section reveals a swinging Holofernes strung up by his hooves. A black rectangle surrounds his brightly colored rib cage, heart, and hind sections. It looks like Judith is gazing at her prey through an x-ray. She is the dominant figure. Her disheveled hair counterbalances her Rubenesque form, and establishes a dynamic diagonal thrust. Sword in hand, about to do the deed, she lunges the blade forward. Kazaz’s free and fluid drawing style captures the essence of Judith’s psyche as her positioning and actions challenge the traditional role of women in society, rejecting sober and restrained images in favor a more contemporary persona – strong and capable.” … A man’s presence … may be fabricated, in the same sense that he pretends to be capable of what he is not. But the pretense is always towards a power which he exercises on others” (Berger J, 1973, Ways of Seeing, London: Penguin Books, 46) “Kazaz’s powers of imitation and aesthetic judgment fool us into thinking we know the terrain. However… we find ourselves questioning our very nature, while tightly holding on to what we believe, and accepting flux as stability.”