(South Carolina State Museum)
Edmund Yaghjian got his big show in South Carolina four years ago and I missed it and I'm sorry, but, fortunately, there is this slim volume with its reproductions to show us what we lost out on. What I missed most of all were the neo-primitive Van Goghesque paintings from 1950 - 1975 which have a nice touch of claustrophobia and crowding with things tipping over on each other, chairs ready to dump you onto the floor, stoves angling precariously forward to pitch stuff on your lap, colorful twists and turns of utensils and heaters and other ho-hum appliances brought comically to life. Van Gogh with a smidgen of Looney Tunes.
Or a basement room with stairs so canted that you could never make your way up (or down) what with tools and bottles and drums littered around, lamps and tires and corkscrews and spiderwebs ready to launch themselves at you as your make your way past, even an old overcoat and hat hanging there hunched over in sheer weariness, the walls canted this way and that, the window-panes askew, knots in the floor ... the very floor itself tilted so that you could never walk over it without being sent sprawling --- in all, a cockeyed assemblage that shows no need nor place for humans, building tension by the very angle of it all.
Yaghjian was born in 1905 in Harpoot, Armenia. Harpoot! I swear --- at least that is what it says here, and I doubt the curators of the South Carolina State Museum would make up such a name. (It also says that he married a woman named Candy and even had a girl named Candy II. Or Candy Two. Or Candy Too.)
The earliest oils and watercolors shown here are pretty much pro forma 1930s Manhattan: tugs on the East River, snow on 56th Street, buildings on sky-line, taxis in Times Square. Then, the artist moved to Columbia, South Carolina in 1945 which --- if you knew Columbia, South Carolina in 1945 --- was a fairly insane thing to do.
I mean, from the Rhode Island School of Design and the Art Students League in New York City to the Arts Department in Columbia Soggy South Carolina, home of mosquitoes as big as bats, with grits and corn-pone for breakfast, turnip greens and fat-back for dinner, and Spanish moss and strange fruit hanging on the live oak trees.
The outdoor scenes from the south mostly concentrate on black life, and are very beguiling; there are a couple that may have made a few eyes bug out there in Columbia. One from 1950 is so charming I'd like to have on my living-room wall: four black guys shooting craps under the willow tree, a smart young lady stepping smartly out of the corner grocery store and another lady in bed up on the roof just lying there, buck-naked: maybe just a vision. The colors are a treat and the guys ogling her are a kick.
What did the chairman of the art department have to say about that one? Nothing. Yaghjian was chairman there at the University of South Carolina.
The last exhibitions are dated 1972, the last paintings shown come from 1975. Yaghjian apparently lingered on until 1997. We will never know if he got nailed for this ever-so arch, serio-comic "folk" art: so lively, so fine.