Gallery & Studio

Portrait of the Artist: An Award-Winning Video-Bio of Vasken Kalayjian by Maureen Flynn

Hollywood has been notoriously poor at portraying the process of art-making on film. One has only to think of Kirk Douglas’ embarrassinghistrionics in “Lust for Life,” particularly the scene in the wheat fieldwhere Vincent in painting feverishly amid swooping crows. Then therewas Charlton Heston, still looking more like Moses than Michelangelo inthat paste-on beard, flat on his back on that rickety scaffold, smearingaway histrionically at the Sistine ceiling…

The only film maker who came close to capturing the excitement andsensuality inherent in the act of painting was Martin Scorcese in “NewYork Tales,” where Nick Nolte played the painter and  was reportedlycoached by a working artist, who taught him how to move and wield abrush with convincing grace and dexterity. It helped, too, that Scorcese,whose original ambition was to become a painter, has a first-handunderstanding of the painterly process and was enough of an artist in hisown medium to convey it to the screen.

Surprisingly enough, documentary film and video makers have beenalmost inept as Hollywood directors in this regard, until recently, whenproducer Kiyoko Watanabe and director Ron Myrvick made their award-winning video documentary,  “Vasken Kalayjian: A Painter for theMillennium.” For chronicling the art and life of the Armenian-Americanpainter so compellingly, the video won the Telly Award, one of the mostprestigious national film and video prizes, and a recent viewing of thedocumentary made clear why it succeeded where others had failed.

Dispensing with open credits, the video begins in Kalayjian’s studio inWestport, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife and daughter, prettymuch eschewing the art world social scene. It is night, his normalworking time. The  artist sits in a chair, wearing torn, paint-smearedjeans, staring at a black canvas. We watch him rise and begin puttingdown the first tentative strokes of color. The camera follows him as hemixes paint, steps back, deliberates, attacks the canvas again. There areclose-ups of his hand painting, his eyes gazing at what he has done. Asdramatic Armenian music plays on the soundtrack, the pace graduallyquickens, becoming almost balletic, a dance of the brush, as Kalayjianbecomes engrossed in the act of painting. Kalayjian’s inherently gesturalstyle, as well as his training in Japanese calligraphy, make for a gracefulballet of movement and color.

“Whatever concepts I cannot express through language flow through meinto the painting,” the artist’s sonorous voice intones on the soundtrack,as the painting takes shape before our eyes. “In that moment it’s like myconnection–a lifeline to everything and everybody. The separationbetween myself and the rest is healed; the gap between past, present, andfuture is bridged.”

At this point, the credits finally appear on the screen, and after they end,we are transported to Kalayjian’s opening night reception at the CastIron Gallery in Soho. By juxtaposing this scene with the previous one thedirector succeeds splendidly in capturing the contrast between theisolation of the studio and the social whirl of the art world, the monkishdevotion it takes to create, and the public rewards of the successful artist.As a spiritual man, a devotee of Zen Buddhism who mediated daily, wesense Kalayjian’s discomfort with the social demands of his growingfame, even as he greets his guests graciously. The camera pans the room,taking in the lively scene. We see people in the crowd smiling, drinking,talking, admiring the paintings, amid festive sounds of animatedconversation, laughter, glasses clinking, all building up to a subduedhubbub, over which we hear the voice of a narrator giving highlights ofthe artist’s career. When the camera finally comes to rest on oneparticularly vibrant abstract painting, we discover that we are now backin Kalayjian’s studio, and suddenly it seems as though the openingreception was a dream-like interval. This brilliant bit of editing serves toestablish the primacy of the place where the actual work of art isaccomplished, as opposed to its public manifestation. Kalayjian explains his influences and artistic philosophy, as he works at his easel. As he talks,the camera explores the studio, showing his painting table, palette, easel,tubes of color, brushes etc., giving us a sense of the physical paraphernaliaand materials of the creative process, drawing us into his private world.

“Vasken Kalayjian: A Painter for the Millennium” succeeds where otherdocumentaries fail in creating an intimate portrait of an artist at workand at one with himself. Indeed, Kalayjian’s carefully orchestrated careerpresents a serene contrast to the sad trajectory of ’80′s artists such asJean-Michel Basquiat, as chronicled in Pheobe Hoban’s rivetingbiography “Basquiat,” recently published by the Viking Press (forgetabout Julian Schnabel’s self serving film of the same name, which is asinane as any Hollywood product). By contrast to those artists who fallvictim to the hype machine, Vasken Kalayjian comes across as anexceptionally level-headed type who can handle the isolation of thestudio and the demands of the marketplace with refreshing equanimity.His spiritual beliefs, which are explored in depth, along with his strong