Minas Halaj: Follow the Line
By Peter Frank
To the casual eye, Minas Halaj seems to be two – or more – artists at the same time. There is Halaj the gentle romantic, rendering graceful figural imagery with a fluid, supple line and a keen awareness of classical models. There is Halaj the wit, making subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) fun of his own pretenses, turning his seductive presences into cartoon grotesques. There is Halaj the expressionist, unleashing his line so that it describes a world of tortured souls, their features erupting into abstracted cries of pain and confusion. There is Halaj the experimentalist, affixing all manner of material to a surface and painting on, in, and around that material so that it coheres into busy, modern rebuses. Which is the “real” Minas Halaj?
They are all the real Minas Halaj. Look closer. Follow the line. The same skills at rendering, composing, and painting undergird the furious expressionistic visages no less than they do the poised, classicist figures. The very same sense of absurd juxtaposition and dissonant surprise drives his comic drawings no less than it motivates his tumultuous collages and assemblages. No matter how wild and seemingly unbalanced a Halaj picture or painting, drawing or visual concept may be, it settles, subtly and almost virtuosically, into an expansive rhythm that keeps the observer’s eye afloat, shall we say, moving constantly from element to element, detail to detail, moment to moment. Follow the line: ultimately, no matter how things fly apart, everything falls into place.
Even the wildest of Halaj’s collages and assemblages betray a classical training: the elements may jam up against one another in spectacular non sequitur explosions, but once the dust clears it is apparent everything has come together with exquisite balance and even logic. Conversely, even the most languid of his (deceptively) sweet figures bristles with a welter of detail, inferring much pricklier characters, much tougher individuals, than the eye first senses. This is a little bit more apparent where Halaj’s satiric mindset emerges and he indulges himself, and us, in surrealistic fancies; here he employs his facility to ironic ends, proposing to lure us with a beautiful touch and an erotic sense of volume, only to cast us into a theatrical farce or some sort of dreamscape. And those portrait-like paintings, in which the sitters are seemingly stewing in their own angst or dissolving into corroded landscapes? Follow the line: they are sewn together with strategically described strands of energy even as they threaten to blow themselves and their whole universe apart.
Halaj’s work combines the impulses of a natural-born artist with the refinement of a well-trained craftsman. Indeed, his own gift for line and sensitivity to color were inherited directly from his father, the accomplished Armenian painter Samuel Hallaj. Halaj received several degrees in art in his native Yerevan, but clearly the gist of his education – the assured pictorial sense, the knowledgeable irreverence, the mastery of materials, the adventurous but never self-indulgent approach to form and subject matter – was gained at home. His skills were burnished rather than compromised once Halaj came over to the United States in 2002 and studied further at several California schools.
Halaj has named his most recent series “American Renaissance,” paying homage to the country he now inhabits by celebrating its bountiful diversity, frenetic energy, and vast and compulsive appetite. A vast array of sources and references, both carefully selected and randomly found, tumble their way into these tumultuous compendia. To be sure, there are quotations from and references to specifically American signs and symbols, from the flag to swaths of newspaper to Native American textiles. But many other, seemingly non-American apparitions also insinuate themselves into the mix, from Renaissance portraits to pages from German prayer books to old photographs that look as if Halaj or a relative brought them from Armenia. By incorporating such a subjective rainbow of things and thoughts, the artist has at once spilled the contents of his mind onto the canvas and demonstrated that the breadth and endless variety of American culture comes from its wealth of peoples. In its myriad segues between incongruous segments, every “American Renaissance” painting replays the democratic kaleidoscope of the American experience – and in its poise, every painting reasserts the stability of this culture.
The antecedents to the “American Renaissance” paintings are clear, from Robert Rauschenberg’s Combine paintings and the Nouveaux Réalistes of the 1950s to the jazz-driven painting-collages of California painter Raymond Saunders. But these are artistic ancestors for Halaj, not practical models or even motivations for working in this manner. Like that of his actual father, it is the example rather than the practice of these collagists and assemblagists that has inspired Halaj to join their ranks. Similarly, it is the example rather than the practice of old masters such as Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach that informs the precision and elegance of Halaj’s figurative work; his paintings and drawings of classical deities and human beings involved in droll and poignant interactions do not recapitulate the subjects and practices of the European Renaissance so much as update and personalize them. Meanwhile, the thoroughly modern spiritual turmoil embodied by Halaj’s expressionistic imagery re-examines the anguished, existential mid-century figuration of artists such as Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning, and Antonio Saura, but refuses to emulate any of them; and, likewise, however much the young artist’s sprightly surrealism might bring anyone from Max Ernst to Léonor Fini to mind, it looks truly like none of these. In all cases, Halaj’s sensibility pervades and drives pictorial practices that take only superficial cues from their precedents.
This becomes especially apparent when we recognize how much these disparate practices relate formally and spiritually to one another. Everywhere you look in these bodies of work, the serpentine Halaj contour, the glowing Halaj palette, and the buoyant, balanced Halaj composition evince themselves. It comes inevitably as a surprise to find a single artist producing such a wide range of styles. But the sensibility pertains throughout. Follow the line: Minas Halaj may work in many manners, but every one of those manners bears not only his signature, but his artistic DNA.