His son has got him covered

Special to The Times

ON the walls of a quiet Spanish-style house in suburban Glendale hang two paintings that, although largely unknown to art critics, are million-sellers.

Titled “Mezmerize” and “Hypnotize,” the works are the source images for the covers of two albums released in 2005 by the hard-rock band System of a Down. The originals might constitute an odd choice of home decor for Vartan and Zepur Malakian -- except that Vartan, 59, is the artist who created them, and the couple’s son, Daron, is System’s guitarist, co-vocalist and principal tunesmith.

The attention the elder Malakian has garnered from the album covers has helped revitalize an artistic career that was on hiatus for almost two decades after he emigrated to America. Reproductions of “Mezmerize” and “Hypnotize” are selling briskly on the Internet, thanks in part to System’s albums, with the same titles, having sold 1.7 million and 1 million copies, respectively.

The original artworks -- 4 feet by 3 feet by 5 inches deep -- possess a heft that is not readily apparent on the album covers. The layered “Mezmerize” is composed of multiple sheets of semi-transparent painted gels and chrome vinyl separated by two panes of plexiglass. Malakian is pleased by its effect: “Do you see how it moves, if you walk with the picture?”

Despite the labor-intensive techniques in producing three-dimensional work, Malakian says he likes to keep his approach simple.


“I like to be like a village person,” he says. “When your mind comes into it, there is always a ‘yes/no,’ ‘do it/don’t do it’ fear in your brain, so I prefer to just work with feeling and keep it simple like a village person might.”

But a villager he is not. Malakian was reared in the third largest city in a vast country with a violent and complicated history: Iraq. An Armenian Christian born in Mosul in 1947, Malakian recalls the times before the rise of the Sunni Arab-nationalist Baath Party as more tolerant of religious and ethnic minorities.

While still a child, Malakian decided to devote himself to celebrating the country’s rich culture by pursuing art.

“I never played outside with the kids,” he says, laughing ruefully. “I was always inside doing artwork.” The hard work paid off quickly. “My older sister was a math teacher, and her friends, the other teachers, used to buy my art when I was like 10 or 11 years old.”

By the time he was a young adult, Malakian had many exhibitions in Iraq, but his greatest professional success came when he channeled his knack for art onto a dance-floor canvas.

In 1968, Malakian became head choreographer of Iraq’s national dance troupe. Though expert Russian ballet teachers helped him train his dancers, Malakian once again took his principal cues from the Iraqi countryside.

“I used to go to the villages to see how village people dance, how they dress, how they eat. Then I [arranged] the choreography so it gives the feeling about the village.”

Malakian’s indigenous dance style was a hit, but the good times were not to last. Though Ahmed Hassan Bakr was president at the time, a certain power-hungry vice president began exerting a dark influence on Malakian’s work.

“When Saddam [Hussein] came to regime, he forced me to do my choreography to serve his Baath group,” Malakian says. “Saddam wanted me to make war dance, to make revolutionary dance, dance to serve his party. That is not my style, so I said, ‘Bye-bye.’ ”

After fleeing the increasingly repressive regime in late 1973, Malakian remained in Beirut just long enough to rendezvous with and marry his sweetheart, Zepur -- an erstwhile sculptor he affectionately refers to as “Zepi” -- and after securing the sponsorship of an American church group, the couple immigrated to the United States, where their only child, Daron, was born in 1975.

The artist and his wife had little more than the clothes on their backs when they settled in Hollywood. Unable to impart his traditional choreography to a new generation of dancers during a one-year teaching stint at Glendale College, Malakian instead slogged through a string of low-paying jobs to keep his family fed: a Neiman Marcus presser, a gas station attendant, a lunch truck caterer. Finally, in 1993, after saving enough money to open a small gallery and antique shop, Arka, in Glendale, Malakian began to paint again in earnest.

“I sold more than a hundred of my paintings,” he says proudly, noting that the nature of his clientele was encouraging. “Most of the buyers were artists.”

IT was another artist, not coincidentally, who gave Malakian his biggest break. In 2002, after tallying his share of the quintuple-platinum receipts of System of a Down’s 2001 breakthrough album, “Toxicity,” son Daron dropped a welcome bombshell: “He said, ‘Dad, you tried your best with me. You influenced me to be a good musician, a good artist. Now it’s my turn to help you. I want you to stay home and do just artwork.’ Then he bought me this house.”

Making the most of the windfall, Malakian entered into his most prolific period in decades. In addition to creating the cover art for System’s “Mezmerize” and “Hypnotize” albums -- and subsequent single releases like “BYOB” and “Lonely Day” -- he produced a slew of new paintings, mosaics and multimedia works. Some, including “Mezmerize,” are on display at the Harvest Gallery, 938 N. Brand Blvd., in Glendale through Tuesday.

The bittersweet side of his success is evident in Malakian’s latest work, much of which was inspired by the war in Iraq. “I have family in Iraq. They don’t leave the house. Always they expect some bomb and they die -- it happened in front of my sister’s house!”

Still, he refuses to let war dominate his work. “I want more to do artwork about beautiful things, about life ... how it’s nice,” he says wistfully. “We are not going to be born again. We have to live in peace and love each other. That’s what I want to express in my new paintings.”


Liam Gowing can be reached at