Born and educated in Armenia, Emil
Kazaz was raised in a household alive with applied creativity; his
father was a cobbler and his mother, a seamstress for a local theater.
Kazaz credits his mother as his primary artistic influence. She took him
to work and introduced him to the intricacies of theatrical spectacle –
costumes, drama, lighting, and staging, which continue to b3 core
devices for his artwork. She also bought art posters and hung them in
their home, Another major influence was religious art. A highly
Christian country, Armenians have long used Christianity as their
cultural compass, and elements from its robust iconographical tradition
manuscript illumination, tapestries, and laconic architectural forms,
which have deep roots into Kazaz’s “aesthetic identity,” as well as the
Armenian collective conscious.”
Kazaz pays homage to his parents in the double portrait, “My Father and Mother,” (acrylic on paper, 29”x41”, 2000), in which he effortlessly mixed his multifarious aesthetic and ethnic identities with a fresh contemporary stylistic overview. Framed within an open oval locket referencing his continues reverence, his father and mother are dressed in thespian-like smocks, and set against a viscous light blue wash suggestive of illuminated manuscript backgrounds. They look direcly at the viewer and are secure within the illusion of their connectedness while remaining quietly separate. Their facial expressions are reminiscent of Arshile Gorky’s familial portrait, “The Artist and his Mother,” without its brooding psychological overtones. The broad active brushstrokes used to suggest the father’s ruffled collar and tassel-less green fez are in striking contrast to the couple’s sober mood. Conversely, his mother’s image is captured by a minimum numbers of strokes. Though stoic, her complexion seems almost otherworldly, she is softer and more approachable than her no nonsense looking partner. Her large red hat acts like a beacon; guiding the viewer towards her uncomplicated steadfastness while also possibly the creative fires she gave her son.
Kazaz’s work also embodies other elements from his childhood environment, hearty earth tones, large expanses of open sky, winding roads, churches and monasteries, wallpaper, embroidery, hand hewn objects filled with the spirits of both eastern and western cultural phenomenon find their way into his oeuvre. Without boundaries, his figures chase multicultural relationships, ambition, deceit, love, hate, and fear as they try to mold these universal subject matters into new truths. He is no stranger to “sensual mysticism,” or the appropriation of multiple belief systems for the formulation of an aesthetic ideology. Kazaz’s work grows out of a diverse personal cosmology that has interwoven traditional art practices; anatomy, color theory, life drawing, perspective, etc., with a stream of subconscious reference, spatial ambiguity, religious iconography, and storytelling. His creative position is in direct contrast to the “idealized realism” of Soviet academic agenda that underpins his formal training, where”… Abstraction and imagination were discouraged. ... Under the Soviet regime there was little or no room for self expression through fantasy…”
Like Michealngelo’s unfinished marble Slaves, “Salto” drips with customized reinterpretations of classical iconography and conjures multiple allusions regarding the ongoing battle between good and evil too. A twisting and morphing set of forms teeter on the brink of physical exhaustion. Their internal pathos is magnified and illuminated by Kazaz’s anatomical liberties, facial expressions, sharp linear planes, and vigorous gestures. In a swirl of unknowing, they struggle against the prospect of melting into each other and becoming a single being. IN “Salto” incoherent confessions create and abstract lyricism; neither figure wants to accept its limitations, nor, more importantly, surrender to life’s jagged moments. “But… the almost ritual stylization of his figures; activities bespeak an awareness of a painted theater much older – and much closer to “home” – that that Kazaz learned n Soviet-style academy he originally attended.”
As a student Kazaz was exposed to non-Soviet art forms, and probably, his creative energy is more informed by those brief western-aesthetic interventions than he would like to admit (he is also quick to say he doesn’t look at other artist’s works). It is easier to establish his pictorial relationships within the complicated narratives and participatory nature of High Renaissance and Baroque painting. Roman figurative sculpture, the grandiose gestures of early Expressionism, Chagall’s search for archetype in everyday life. Of Gorky’s abstract expressionist nightmares, than in the social realist territories of his formal training. Kazaz’s work is born out of a revolutionary concept, at least from the former Soviet Union’s point of view, artistic liberty, product comodification and the creative freedom that encapsulate modernism.
When Kazaz left Armenia in 1980, it was still part of the Soviet Union. Following his immigration to the West, he did not become intoxicated with its material culture, conceptualism, or want to criticize or contrast its eco-political systems with his homeland as did many of his generation, i.e. the Sotsart. Instead of concerning himself with the obvious vulgarities of contemporary Western society, he looked inward in his search for answers to life’s central questions. He looked to the Church for answers too. Many of Kazaz’s works have religious underpinnings…” using religious elements within… works, mainly because Christianity was an integral and defining part of Armenian history, For Armenians, being Armenian and Christian is synonymous.”
A very inventive storyteller, Kazaz blurs the distinction between drawing, painting, and sculpture. By its spontaneous nature, drawing is his most fluid activity, followed by sculpture, and then painting, which, more often than not, seems sculptural. Kazaz is also a master of emotional transparency. His animated gestures and atypical postures project internal thoughts as secondary props, i.e. building details, cups, hats, etc. add to pictorial succulence and multilayered translations. All of his works are dominated by atmosphere, color, and implication; with a twist of the brush, a dab of color , or glob of clay, he creates a nose, a questioning gaze, and/or personal with complicated social situations as tiny pieces of architectural detail, furniture, or landscape identify locations in which his participants read their lines, and life their lives.
Emil Kazaz is an artist’s artist, an independent spirit and freethinker. He was taught the old fashioned way, extracted the best principles of his social realist training, added to them his adventures in the new world, and creates things no on else has ever seen. The work is saturated with humanist integrity. Whether using recognizable people – he often inserts himself into his paintings – human forms or morphed creatures existing within ornate psychological contractions like “Corsican Gate” or “Long Sheep,” his sense of emotional drama and visual physicality circumvent the rules of nature with unquestionable authority. They develop organically and, like life itself, evolve without preconceived plans or knowing their final destination.
In a sense, Kazaz has a lot in common with William Shakespeare, because both stage the world’s epic stores within highly controlled microenvironments. His art brings us closer to the fringe of human nature that most, attaches itself to something deep within each of us and, like cartographer, his imagination makes maps that locate new meanings within our own personal histories. We user the coordinates to fine ourselves within the loose and fluid human narrative that s never finished. There is nothing subtle about Kazaz’s connections. Whether on paper, linen, or cast in bronze, his well-crafted people, places and things, his poetics of imagination imitate nothing. They are real. However, in their presence it is not difficult for the viewer to be transported out of their time and place.
Adapted from "The Work of Emil Kazaz" by Joe Lewis.
Copyright © 2011 Emil Kazaz