- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
March 26, 2004

Re-thinking Reality: The art of a woman out of place

The painter has pasted on canvas a picture from some western magazine with a jug, a glass and a cut lemon. Waiting for the full effect of spring, it ' s cold in her apartment on the ninth floor. It ' s even colder in the attic, the studio. The cold is even in the frozen color of the picture, which she reproduces identically, only several times bigger in size.

Karine Matsakyan is an artist who does not easily warm to the conventions of her surroundings; one caught between cultural tradition and free thought; between accepted standards and the need to expand boundaries.

She shares the feminist ideology, but is not a new convert. She is a veteran of going against the stream of popular thought.

Twenty-five years ago Matsakyan used her art to oppose Soviet fine arts, Soviet power and social morals and manners in general.

“When I just entered the Fine Arts institute and was just starting to see what Armenian painters are painting, I had the feeling that a whole army is busy with lyrical, pastoral themes. The paintings were so filtered and secure that no one was interested in psychological, sexual problems, they didn't see that someone might be having problems in his life,” she says.

Ideals of the time, like family and work, were being propagandized from canvasses. The most famous and favorite painter was Minas, whose subjects were not different from the others', family and mother, that were idolized. Among western painters most of the attention was paid to Arshil Gorky's painting of his mother with sad eyes.

“At the Fine Arts Institute, we were told to paint pitchers, garlic, pepper,” she says. “It was convenient for the students, they were not looking for other figures, it was easy when they were told what to paint.

“I did not understand how one could express himself by painting jugs and how it was that everyone would self-express the same way. There was no individuality.”

But in her household, individuality was being encouraged.

“I understood that the idea also came from my father that family is not a sacred duty, but it is love and when it disappears the family gets destroyed,” says 45-year old Matsakyan. “And in our reality family is the only purpose of a person. A person is born and grows up to start a family and dedicate himself to his children. The family cult destroys individuality. My father would always tell me and my sister – don't get married, it's not the most important thing in life.”

Her father's non-traditional attitude was not lost on the young artist, drawn to a different way of thinking.

But: “On the other hand rules imposed by society would influence upon me and I would blame my father for not being like others – a strong man who earns money and cares about the family.”

Out of that conflict and the freedom to think for herself grew a style. By painting in “hyper-realism”, Matsakyan expressed an anti-culture viewpoint that today is also present in her new genres – video installations and performances pieces.

The artist describes her work this way:

“Mine is a camera without a photographer, which doesn't get to choose. It casually clicks, neutrally, and whatever was not chosen becomes a painting, just like me, not chosen, not existing, having no thought.”

She began, painting pieces that duplicated photographs and took her first work to the Union of Artists, in 1985.

“They thought I'd brought a photo,” she recalls. “Someone tried to scrape off the painting from the wall. He didn't realize it was oil paint and not a photo. They were unaware of that art, they did not consider it art. If it's done from a photo then it has to be changed, there has to be some attitude. How can one make an exact copy?”

The artist as performer.

The artist herself was no copy of her environment, but found others who did not have conformed ideas and a general aesthetic concept, who were reading forbidden books and studying non-Soviet philosophy.

Finding that she wasn't alone and estranged, Matsakyan gradually warmed to other forms, and began experimenting with pop art. During “perestroika” an exhibit of previously shunned or unaccepted art was displayed in an exhibition called “Plus-Minus”. Karine Matsakyan was the only female participant.

As her work has evolved it has addressed the cultural contradictions of her formative years, including her impressions of the role of women in Armenia .

“What is a woman in our society?,” she asks. “Either a saint mother or a sex object, and if you want to be accepted then you have to become a real individual, a pop star. So I started painting pop stars or a woman advertising soap, where a beautiful woman is means to present the product – the soap.”

Turning away from an environment she opposed, Karine turned to the West for inspiration, to artists such as Andy Warhol.

“I painted what I liked. I liked American culture,” she says. “I never thought they would say I'm influenced by that. I could not choose Soviet symbols, I hated them. If I painted them I would become the same socialistic-realist.”

In 1997 Karine held a solo exhibition in Yerevan in which she opened her own supermarket containing a three-meter long backpack, a coffin-size sport shoe, huge deformed batteries – her commentary on consumerism penetrating Armenia .

That exhibition was her farewell to the kind of art which was more an admiration of the art itself, than self-disclosure.

“I didn't think that I created something myself,” the artist says. “It was a love confession to art. Romanticism was followed by cynicism, by taking the world with humor, after which comes a stage when you shouldn't be afraid to say what you have gained.”

Who is the consumer of supermarket? In the photo section Karine finds him in the meat department in a mirror behind hanging “carcasses”. There he is shooting himself with a toy gun. Consumer and the goods, corpses hanging on the wall, become alike.

In her exhibitions and performances, Karine she presents woman's condemnation. For instance, she uses a man's transparent shirt as a screen onto which she plays a video of herself putting the shirt on and off exposing her breasts. The intention is to symbolize male desire and the female willing to adjust to it.

Last year in Berlin, reaction to that installation was mixed. Die Tageszeitung wrote of her work as presenting how the charm of a woman's naked skin is better emphasized through male attributes.

Bonni Rundschau newspaper, meanwhile, said the exhibit “wants to attract attention at the splitting of a family and at growing prostitution.”

During another performance wearing white clothes with a white face she's working at a sewing machine producing white breasts, legs, which she hangs on a string around her. A woman weaves a cobweb from her body. At the end she gets in a female body made from white cloth – the , mother's womb -- out of which pieces of foam plastic, a placenta, are coming out. It is meant as a statement illustrating regression and the idea that the collapse of the Soviet Union did not turn Armenia into the country of the artist's dreams.

“That's not what we've dreamed of, Mafia capitalism, where people are the most law-abiding and authorities the most criminal,” Matsakyan says. “On TV there's only some double-faced pop stars and thick-necked businessman who fawn upon the authorities. Members of the government, slaves, who only think of how to make money and provide their clan. The can step over anything in the name of the clan. They're looking at you as if saying – we'll destroy you.”

Mixed media for a single message.

“Karine was the first in Armenia who presented women's art and brought up women's problems,” says arts critic Nazareth Karoyan. “During the liberalization of the ‘60s women-innovators appeared, however they created in man-like strategy. As it's typical of women's art Karine throws aside the depth. She's interested in surface – the skin, the peel, the glittering clothes that change all the time.

Many connect her pop-art works with American influence. But on one hand it is her interest in surfaces, on the other hand her opposition to the world. Her interest is clothes, bright cars, faces that can be caressed. It is important for her to put the color the way that will look as if no hand has touched it as the self-created nature. On the other hand it is rebellion against society – is that what you want? Beautiful women, bright cars? She serves the need of society without leaving a place for her ego and emphasizes her estrangement from the world. Greater rebellion is in greater serving.”

The works of Karine Matsakyan have been exhibited abroad in six exhibitions, including Biennale in Venice. She's currently has an invitation to take part in a modern art exhibition in Salzburg.

However, traveling abroad does not excite her.

“There, you are a feminist arts specialist from a retarded country,” she says. “A career in art is not for you. It's for them. You want your works to have response here. But in your home country where your individuality was created, no one needs you. You want to commit suicide for the art to have impact at least that way. Something even more unbearable came instead of the things I was against: instead of soviet values there came a clan feudal structure. And if you don't belong to any clan, you'll be destroyed.”

Where to escape from the reality? In Europe the only way an emigrant can provide for living is by doing blue-color work. At least with the money from exhibitions abroad and sold works she can take care of her and her mother's everyday needs here.

Marriage? Once the artists saw it as an unfair station for women. Lately, though, she is starting to look at is as shelter.

Meanwhile, she will reproduce a photo in cold weather with cold colors.

(Click here to see a gallery of Karine Matsakyan's work.)

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