A girl walks alone across a snowy expanse at night. A young man sits amid a scattering of books while sun filters in through brightly patterned curtains. The placid countenances and lax postures of these and other subjects in Raffi Kalenderian’s new works, all from 2011, are painted with a light but precise touch, capturing the subjects’ immersion in worlds of their own making. Born and based in Los Angeles, Kalenderian has painted portraits of his friends and acquaintances ever since receiving his BFA from UCLA in 2004. His choice to paint directly from life ties him to an increasingly narrow yet hardy branch of art-making that notably includes Alice Neel and David Hockney. His work also seems aligned with a small group of his peers, for instance, fellow Angeleno Jonas Wood.
The 10 paintings and 14 works on paper in Kalenderian’s recent exhibition emanate a compelling combination of breezy efficiency and laser focus. The economical brushstrokes suggest the artist has found a delicate balance between attending to the process of painting and taking in a fuller experience, which involves sounds, colors, conversations and underlying feelings.
The works on paper are particularly strong and demonstrate a heightened level of experimentation. In Jenny (Crossed Legs), a pale woman with a thin face, slanting blue-lined eyes and short golden hair sits cross-legged in a chair. The focus of the smallish (20-by-14-inch) colored pencil and pastel drawing is a brilliant blur of green-clad legs made quickly and effectively with a few thick lines. In a kind of ghostly echoing ef- fect, which appears in numerous works, Kalenderian renders her legs in double, suggesting both the instant that the legs were crossed and a continued anxious motion. The artist’s subjects—seemingly hip young men and women—are lost in thought. The subtle subtext of their inward, knowing gazes and graceful gestures conjures timeless narratives of existential crises, love and loss, or the slow and certain creep of years. The beautiful bland faces are contemporary but seem also the stuff of 19th-century novels, hinting at powerful emotions run- ning beneath polite surfaces (Anna and Vronsky for the 21st century).
Kalenderian has flirted with abstraction in the past, emphasizing bold patterns in depicted environments, but several of the works on paper in this exhibition nearly let go of representation entirely; subjects float freely in a hazy sea of angular lines or soft smudges. In two pastel drawings, Shanti (Green Jacket) and Tif, the sitters (a man and woman, respectively) appear to merge with an explosion of triangles in an array of colors (red, black, white); line and shape become dense building blocks for emotion and psychology. This level of abstraction nearly unmoors the work from the tradition of portraiture but opens up a vein rich in poetic interpretation.
Photo: Raffi Kalenderian: Shanti (Green Jacket), 2011, colored pencil and pastel on paper, 32 by 22 1/4 inches; Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.