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Size Matters

Gary Kachadourian's Absurd Realism

Gary Kachadourian's Drawing "Apartment Dumpster."

By Bret McCabe | Posted 11/19/2008

Gary Kachadourian: Life-Sized Prints and Assorted Drawing Projects

Through Dec. 5 at the Gormley Gallery.

The McDonald's storefront occupies an entire side of the Gormley Gallery on the second floor of Fourier Hall on the campus of the College Notre Dame of Maryland. And "occupies" is the operative word: the 18-by-42 foot large-form Xerox print covers the wall like a Mongol horde overrunning a tiny village--it's a little disorganized and not entirely perfect but it nonetheless dwarfs the entire room with its overwhelming sprawl. Yes, it's a graphite-on-paper rendering of a McDonald's franchise magnified to life-size scale via photocopy machine, but the gallery itself isn't big enough to accommodate such a building. So the print stretches from floor to ceiling, where it curtly bends and creeps halfway across the room overhead like an unruly ivy overtaking a steadfast stone wall.

There's something similarly insolent about Kachadourian's enterprise here, and that he does it with such casual glee only adds insult to the intellectual injury. As evidenced in various small-scale sketches on view--the "assorted drawing projects" aspect of the exhibition--Kachadourian is extremely capable of the sort of technically precise, photorealistic illustration that adorns how-to sketchbooks and professional graphic design portfolios the world over. By amplifying his own drawings to an actual scale, he mirthfully proves that the very idea of "realism" is one of many lies that artists can achieve through the manipulation of media.

That he achieves all this with so little fanfare is what makes the works such deadpan treats. Many local artists know Kachadourian through his position as the Visual Arts Coordinator for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, where he manages and curates exhibitions for Artscape and various other projects for the city. A few of these pieces--"Light Pole," his designs for portable toilet cut outs, or, at least, versions of them--were included in the Lyle Kissack-curated Artworkers exhibition at Villa Julie College (now Stevenson University) last winter, where their irrepressible wit was in plain evidence. When seen purely in the context of Kachadourian's other drawing projects, the volume of their inherent conceptual edge is amplified.

"Attack" is too strong a verb for how Kachadourian addresses realism, and "explores" too nebulously esoteric a choice for the gestural confidence and representational ideals. Kachadourian articulates a fairly obvious observation about visual vocabularies with this show, but he does it with such an affable insouciance that it's hard not to be seduced and even entertained by his commentary. That commentary is there, though, and it's fairly subversive.

Consider, for instance, one of the many stories about the evolution of visual communication. This version believes the camera and its inherent ability to capture objects as they exist in real life freed the traditional arts--painting, sculpture, drawing, etc.--from having to represent reality. Some followers and storytellers of this tale contend that the somewhat more widespread introduction of the camera as an artistic tool in the mid-19th century coincided with various artists exploring different representational strategies for interpreting reality, fragmenting and restructuring visual ideas until objects became abstracted from what the eye tells the brain is how they really are in real life.

Kachadourian is more than adept at drawing items as they appear in real life. His Signature Guitars series features painstakingly realistic illustrations of brand-name axes--the "Gibson Angus Young SG Model," the "Ibanez Andy Timmons Model AT300" (note: you know an artist is having one over on you when reviewing the show involves typing the name of 1980s glam metal band Danger Danger's guitarist)--drawn on crisp white sheets of 5-by-7 inch paper. Installed as an array of six, they look like showroom-ready illustrations for an advertising campaign. Ditto his Motors series--54 pen drawings of car engines--and LeeRoy Yarbrough series, which features drawings from photographs that appeared in the The Encyclopedia of Stock Car Racing, Vol. III. They are all precise and realistically drawn.

The first kicker is that so many of Kachadourian's drawings look and feel so casual. Here the subject matter is very boy--engines, race car scenes, electric guitars--and the Motors appear on 4 1/4-inch square sheets of paper, a size that corresponds to small sketch pads, or desk top notepads used for jotting down missed calls. These format and subject matter concerns cast the drawings as offhand pursuits, as if they could've been quickly darted off during a pointless conference call, or organizational meeting that had long since passed its usefulness. In other words, the drawings feel like what an active guy's mind does when he's supposed to be doing something else. This is why some boys doodle--band logos, comic-book characters, boobs--inside math books.

All of these subtle decisions contextualize the drawings as mere sketchbook fodder--until you consider the five life-sized magnifications. This translation isn't an act of the artist ego--everything better when bigger--but an integral part of this particular creative tangent from Kachadourian. You can tell that these works--"McDonald's," "Volvo 240 Wagon," "Light Pole," "Apartment Dumpster," "Cinder Block Wall"--are just as carefully considered and attentively drawn in their 8 1/2-by-11-inch originals, but the translation from a representational scale to real-life scale exaggerates all the imprecise details of the artist's hand. Any images you see of this work will resemble its represented subject more than the actual work does because any reproduction of this work by necessity re-downscales the work to an appropriate print or web size and resolution, where the eye perceives the realistic drawing. In person, the life-size drawings become disorienting, woozy, and more than a little fugitive. Smooth pencil lines are revealed to be imprecise and fuzzy. Shaded areas become as blocky and pointillistic as old computer imagery. And every hard edge becomes a soft gradient from dark to light.

The entire process turns these realistically achieved drawings into fuzzy, out-of-focus grayscale photographs, a familiar version of real life, but not exactly life as it is witnessed. Installing these mammoth pieces in such proximity to the small-scale drawings asks you to straddle the perceptional divide between them and consider realism a mere tool of the artist-magician, a sleight of hand admittedly removed from pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but coming from the same illusionary world. Again, that may be a pedestrian intellectual argument to make, but remember that it's one that Kachadourian pursues with just pen, graphite, paper, tape, staples, and a photocopy machine--that height of 1970s office technology. Being reminded of the obvious is rarely this cheeky.

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