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A Modern Juxtaposition in ‘Hercules’

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TIMES ART CRITIC

Even in a town noted for the eccentricity of its art, Charles Garabedian’s seems quirky. These days he’s seen as a forerunner of the neo-Expressionism of the ‘80s, but neither before nor since has he been identified with any set style or movement. He just works away producing compelling images that appear more or less bumbled together.

A current exhibition of about 20 large paintings at the L.A. Louver Gallery pursues the theme “The Labors of Hercules.” There’s an almost humorous disjuncture between the classical heroic theme and Garabedian’s entirely ad hoc style. It’s like imagining a “Venus and Adonis” by the Douanier Rousseau.

This kind of grand subject isn’t new to Garabedian. He’s always grappled with the paradoxical relationship between gritty reality and sublimated myth. His previous show was devoted to the Odyssey. There was a lot of battle-scene gore in it, but it came across with the innocence of an ancient James Thurber cartoon. In it, a fencer has just decapitated his opponent. The severed head says, “Touche.” Garabedian’s a lot like that.

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The present show is more lyrical. Its leitmotif image is probably “Amazons in Albania.” In it two figures lie recumbent in an Italian Renaissance square in forced perspective. A horse rears in one corner like something out of Uccello. Edges are rendered in a stuttering line, and hues are as liquid as watercolor. It’s a picture that joins a Renaissance Italian like Mantegna to a modern one like Di Chirico, bringing out the culture’s smiling weariness and charm.

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Garabedian’s quotations from old master art seem as unlikely as his classical themes. Turned inside-out they point to the piston that drives his aesthetic engine. Its basic attitude is one of populist egalitarianism. This is an Everyman art that seems to say, “Just a second. I don’t wish to be presumptuous, but I believe a regular citizen like myself has something to say about these matters.”

Sometimes he’s as direct as in “In the Ocean Stream,” in which a little fire evokes early Matisse and his sophisticated grasp of the primal. At other moments Garabedian is philosophically oblique and discursive. “Hercules and Antaeus” includes an image recalling Pollaiuolo’s famous little sculpture of the subject and sets it next to another based on Manet’s paintings of the American Civil War vessel the Kearsarge.

The unlikely juxtaposition carries the idea of violent solutions to human conflicts across the gulf of time. There’s an unflinching gentleness about this art. It’s baffled and bemused by the human condition but never tries to hide either its beauty or its ugliness.

* L.A. Louver, 77 Market St., Venice, through Dec. 23, (310) 822-4955; closed Mondays.

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