Striking out on his own for a hike into the verdant Palatinate Forest that skirts Kaiserslautern, Germany, artist David Yaghjian either caught up with, or outpaced, Everyman.
Patrons, collectors and art critics have speculated since the first appearance of the scantily-clad pauchy middle age man in Yaghjians paintings, and as subjects for his cardboard and wooden sculptures, that the works are self-portraits. He is still not saying, but a half-smirk takes over his face at the mention of pundit Pogo’s revelation: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Everyman is no enemy to Yaghjian. Sitting, dancing, performing with a small dog or playing guitar, dangling from a trapeze or blowing leaves, Everyman has been Yaghjian’s close companion for six years. In fact, Everyman was the artist’s ticket to Germany. It had been Everyman images that got Yaghjian invited to Kaiserslautern in the first place. Wim Roefs of If ART Gallery, who coordinates the informal, ongoing cultural exchange with artists in one of Columbia’s sister cities, transmitted a selection from recent Yaghjian works (along with images of Jeff Donovan’s works) and, based on those pieces, the German artists chose the two colleague for this fall’s swap.
When he left Columbia for this opportunity to paint alongside a cadre of seasoned artists in a European city that has prevailed since the ninth century, Yaghjian had an entire overnight flight to think of what he’d create during the exchange. He could ditch Everyman and do something different, new. He didn’t know what would surface from his cerebral recesses. “I wait for an intuitive notion,” he said.
To give the two American artists a chance to walk off their jet lag, their hosts took them for a hike in the forest, one of their city’s greatest prides, a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Then they got down to work. Half-way through the adventure, Yaghjian was well on his way to a productive week. Sculpting in cardboard, Yaghjian had created a canyonscape based on one of the natural wonders they had seen on Sunday’s hike. There also were sculptures; the figures bore a striking resemblance to Everyman. One had the lower body of Everyman, but a tree for a head. Had the walk in the forest crept into the artist’s subconscious?
Like Yaghjian, an inveterate walker who can name off tree species he strolls past, Everyman also was quite comfortable in forests, or woods. Leafless tress had figured significantly into stages on which this evocative subject was centered in the painting after painting in the series – as props. Everyman found support in trees, responded to them as passageways, transitions. But never in the works do the trees protect Everyman from the Sun’s glare or shadow him with moonlight.
So mid-week with his output on pace, comfortable he would have a half-dozen finished pieces to enter into the group’s Saturday evening show, Yaghjian took a break from the pleasantly-intense studio routine. He returned to the forest, this time solo. The lush Palatinate was not Everyman’s forest, but the artist found the surroundings mirrored symbolism in the paintings back home.
In the painting entitled Rope, for instance, the figure Everyman hesitates in a psychological moment of decision. Here the trees represent an entrance, or perhaps even an exit, but the rope is holding the figure back. Some time after the painting was done, Yaghjian learned something interesting: “The Hebrew high priest would have a rope tied to him as he entered the holy of holies in case it was all too much in there,” he said. Could be the light behind, or in front of the figure, anticipates something luminous beyond.
In Scene X, House, Everyman seems to be using the prop trees as support – or is he holding them up? The house appears to have been disturbed by a flood or perhaps wind. The crescent moon is a feminine element. Cool colors, like the greens in the forest Yaghjian is hiking in – refer to the emotional, and perhaps actual, temperature, at that static time of day.
In the painting the artist entitled Lizards, one of the trees bracketing Everyman has an inert lizard paused on its smooth bark; juxtaposed to another tree that casts no shadow to veil the lizard on the forest floor.
Yaghjian’s walk through a section of the forest brought him to cross paths. “For a moment or two, I was unsure which way to go. There were signs, but in German, and I had no German,” said Yaghjian, who had made a hail and hearty effort with German language tapes from the library before departing, but to little avail. “There wasn’t enough time. We only learned a month before we left that we were going.”
Eventually, his wayfinding instincts kicked in and he made it back out of the forest and down the cobblestone streets to Kunstlerwerkgemeinschaft (KWG), the studio where the other artists were still working on their pieces. It was nearly seven and, as had been the practice all week, one of the host artists had prepared a communal dinner. “There was a kitchen at one end of the studio’s open space, and the meals we shared were simple to them but novel – and always delicious – to us,” Yaghjian said.
“Their breads were dense, their cheeses and butters richer than ours. Soups were full meals. Sharing those evening meals by candlelight pulled the cultural experience together,” Yaghjian said. “The artists talked about their day’s productivity. Their English was very good, but when they addressed each other, they lapsed into German. Jeff nor I felt left out, though. It was like listening to music; you can get the gist from expressions, tones and gestures and follow the conversation.”
The table they hunkered around was a wide rectangle. Yaghjian thought about his painting Round Table at which Everyman is seated in a human construct, an aluminum yard chair – alone. And, here the artist is basking in the glow of candlelight, good conversation and food while his alter ego is back home, stuck in a painting, without a dining companion.
In The Round Table there is a curtain, but is there an audience? If so, the subject exhibits no apprehension of what is beyond it. There is a certain calmness in the color of the curtain, with a little tension added by the red of the table top. The table’s shape suggests earth, life, eternity.
After dinner in Kaiserslautern, satiated with camaraderie, the Columbia artists begin their mile-long stroll back to their small hotel. They are backlit by a full moon reminiscent of a key element that shows up in a Yaghjian painting by the same name. In it, the moon is a ubiquitous symbol from man’s mythologies. The light available from the moon lightens whatever heaviness may hover, countermands the darkness. The moon also contributes a feminine element to the piece. Yaghjian hopes at the hotel there’ll be an email from his wife Ellen. There is no Wi-Fi at the studio, so he is out of touch throughout the day. He checks messages before collapsing into restful sleep.
The Columbia artists got up and moving in the mornings to the chimings of a centuries-old town clock that bonged out the quarter hours, a different sound to signal the top of each hour. “On our walks to and from the studio, we noticed there was an average of three bakeries on nearly every block. We discovered fabulous soft pretzels,” Yaghjian said.
The culmination of the exchange was the Saturday evening group show for which all works had to be moved on Friday to The Magazine, an exhibit space the art group often used. About the work for the show, Yaghjian said, “Our mediums differed, as did our ages, ranging from thirty-something to seventy-something. Reiner Mahrlein used old metal boxes with small music boxes hidden within them to play the romantic theme of the symposium. Klauss Hartsmann made a tongue-in-cheek model of a public plaza with several pools containing unexpected objects. Roland Alpert’s layered cardboard sculpture had the look of a couple formed by erosion. Jeff made drawings and paintings of his ‘malleable people’ on canvas panels.”
Yaghjian’s crayon on cardboard sculptures provided evidence that Everyman had stowed away and followed him to Germany.
But he may soon be nudged out of the limelight.
“An experience like this cultural exchange to Germany certainly has loosened me up as an artist,” Yaghjian said. “I imagine some of that influence will come through in new works I’ll create for the annual Winter Show at Vista Studios, coming January 26 – February 7, 2012, with Mike Williams, Stephen Chesley and Edward Wimberley. I’ll probably do more sculpture, more people, both male and female. Not just Everyman.”