REVIEW: BETTY BROWN

BORIS GIULIAN: MASTER OF SIGN, MYSTERY & MEANING

 

        Although the dream is a very strange phenomenon and an                           inexplicable mystery, far more inexplicable is the mystery and                        aspect our minds confer on certain objects and aspects of life.

                                ~Giorgio de Chirico

        I have found a new potential inherent in things--their ability to         gradually become something else. This seems to me to be     something quite different from a composite object, since there is    no break between the two substances.

                                ~Rene Magritte

 

        Boris Giulian creates astonishingly well-executed paintings that translate the languages of Metaphysical Art and Surrealism into resonant statements about contemporary culture. Inspired by the work of Giorgio de Chirico and Rene Magritte, Giulian focuses on symbol systems—from signs to alphabets to archetypal abstractions of the human form—in order to explore the multivalent nature of meaning construction.

        Giulian’s most recent body of work, the “Alphabet Series,” began in 2008 with an examination of the letters of the Armenian alphabet. Next, he took Persian and transformed the letters into a bush of exquisite red flowers growing in desert sand. The Greek alphabet became a spiral of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns. For France, he turned the alphabet into fleur-de-lis that echo both Louis XIV’s emblem and Vincent van Gogh’s iris painting.

        As the series progressed, it became increasingly complex. Belgium is represented by a take-off on a Magritte self-portrait, vases of Brussels sprouts, beer glasses, and a box of Belgian chocolates that has a whimsical “Ceci n’est pas un chocolat” limned on the side. The alphabet appears as frosted letters atop each dark brown candy.

        For Japan, a large red disc serves as both an outsized Sakura cherry and a vase holding flowering branches. Next to it are two green cups and a teapot as well as a diminutive Zen sand garden. Behind them is what appears to be a white brick wall with words written on it. In fact the whole painting is done on aluminum and the words are engraved into the metal surface. (Imagine the time and precision required to carve the tiny letters into the flat plane of the composition!) The words range from well-known Japanese corporations to common Japanese terms that have been adopted into English: karate, origami, wasabi, etc.

        The masterpiece of the “Alphabet Series” may be the one dedicated to Russia. (This makes sense because Giulian, now a resident of Southern California, was born and raised in Yerevan, capital of the Armenian Republic in the Soviet Union). Multi-media and interactive, Iconic Mir Station/Warm Welcome from Cold Russia at first appears to be a symmetrical depiction on a flat surface. The central image is a famous icon of the Virgin Mary, with Cyrillic script etched into her golden halo. The Virgin lifts her hands in prayerful blessing over a chalice. Two birds emerge from the chalice. They are not the twin eagles that traditionally symbolize Russian power, but a swan and an eagle, to represent the artist’s hope for grace as well as force. The icon hangs above a checkerboard table set with black bread, salt, and a brass samovar. To the right are three empty glasses, waiting for shots of Russian vodka.

        As the artist speaks of the healing powers of the icon—how it is believed to cure even deep-seated alcoholism—he touches the brass frame of the icon and it opens like a cabinet. Inside is a multitude of miniature vodka bottles, all filled with white daisies. Then he pulls out two drawers from the bottom of the painting. (When the artist first came to this country, he worked as a carpenter. His high level of skill is evident in the beautiful craftsmanship of the cabinet and drawers.)

In the left drawer are clear glass bottles shaped like revolvers. In the right, are two large bottles molded to resemble AK47s. Transformed into vases for daisies, the violence-coded vodka bottles become symbols for peace and health.     

        All of the paintings in the “Alphabet Series” are richly rewarding with deep, affirmative cultural insight. In addition to the ones described above, there are paintings representing Hawaii, Holland, Italy, Mexico, and Switzerland. Currently, Giulian is working on a piece for the United States. In the artist’s continued encyclopedic survey of cultural references, the US example will include everything from computers to Pop Art to energy drinks.

        At the same time, Giulian continues work on his “Vessels of Light” series. These are smaller canvases that create intriguing interactions between De Chirico-like manikins that function as stand-ins for human beings. In one, a manikin couple sits at a round café table. Their yellow heads are pierced with circular holes for eyes and mouth. Although their red wine bottle is anchored on the table, the glasses float upward in magical defiance of gravity, with red spheres of liquid suspended between them. One thinks of De Chirico’s Le Duo (Les Manniquins de la tour rosel) from 1915, but while De Chirico’s figures seem mute and impenetrable, Giulian’s are open and filled with delight, even as they remain elusive and mysterious.

        Another example from the “Vessels of Light” is Trilingual Dictionary. A take-off on Magritte’s The Key to Dreams from 1930, Giulian’s work is similarly gridded, with both image and words in each framed rectangle. Magritte paired his images with French words that had little or no relationship to the objects represented: a bowler hat was glossed with French for snow. In contrast, Giulian combined images with related words in both English and Italian. In the upper left rectangle, the words “eye” and “l’occhio” (Italian for eye) are written below the artist’s “Vessels of Light” abstraction of a human head—an open yellow vessel—that is pierced with a red disc for an eye. And in the upper right, “tongue” and “la lingua” are written below a yellow “head” with an opening at mouth level. The art historical references are deliberate and painstaking: Giulian writes in the same generic script Magritte used, and his forms are simplified in the same style as Magritte’s signature shapes. But Giulian brings a degree of engaged humor that is uniquely his own.

        Combined with his impressive knowledge of history and culture, as well as his considerable technical skills, this humor gives Giulian’s work a note of delight that puts it in positive contrast with so much of Postmodernism’s cynicism. Giulian’s work invites the viewer to long and unexpected contemplation—and rewards richly those who spend time with it.


Betty Ann Brown, Ph.D.

February 2013