Fool for Art: David Yaghjian Finds Inspiration in Humble ‘Everyman’ Alter-Ego

By Kristine Hartvigsen

Six years ago, David Yaghjian took the adage “dance like no one’s watching” to heart, and he’s been cavorting – devil may care – in his underwear ever since. At 57, Yaghjian created a counterculture alter-ego of sorts that today is becoming increasingly popular in the artist’s “Everyman” series of paintings and sculptures. The impetus came in 2005 when McKissick Museum  solicited works for its annual fundraiser under the theme, “Fool for Art.”

“I thought the idea would take away the pretense so many people attach to art,” Yaghjian recalls. “And I wondered, what can I do for that?”

Yaghjian looked in the mirror, and the idea formed through his reflection. “You know how when you get older and look in the mirror and you don’t recognize yourself in it? I think that’s especially so in unfamiliar mirrors, such as in hotels. Anyway, I realized I am getting old, and this belly is not going away. So I decided to make fun of myself being a fool for art,” he explains. “I was thinking of the long-suffering artist being a saint for art, the martyr for art. I was making fun of that. When you make fun of something, it’s more effective to make fun of yourself. People might resent it if you make fun of them. I pictured a guy who doesn’t know what the hell he is doing. So I essentially painted myself as a fool for art.”

He produced two small paintings for the fundraiser, both featuring a bald, middle-aged Everyman, conspicuous for appearing in nothing but his tighty-whiteys. One of the paintings featured Everyman in a chair with an empty frame floating over his head like a halo. Yaghjian noted that the “square halo” imagery is similar to the Buddhist concept of bodhisattva, and suggests that someone is close but has not quite yet attained full enlightenment. In ancient Christian art, the square halo also signifies that the character depicted is a living person, a mortal, with the traditional round nimbus reserved for saints.

The other of the original Everyman paintings depicted the aging figure, naked except for his underwear, holding an empty frame in each of his outstretched hands. Neither of the paintings sold at the McKissick fundraiser, and Yaghjian still displays them in his studio today. He took what began with these prototypes and ran with it, however, eventually producing hundreds of original oils of Everyman – exposed and conceivably vulnerable in his scant attire – in a variety of activities with moods ranging from jovial, pensive, curious, playful, melancholy, wistful, lost, adventurous, and more. Many represent the wholly mundane, with Everyman sitting on a bed, playing a musical instrument, singing lustily, or wandering through trees. Several include a lawn chair, trapeze, a bull, or swimming pool. Everyman’s everyday, often whimsical, scenes are strangely enchanting.

While many see the influence of realist painter Edward Hopper in Yaghjian’s work, particularly his earlier architectural renderings, another primary influence for both the architectural works and particularly the Everyman series is actually a writer − John Updike.

“In high school, I spent a lot of time alone, and I read a lot of work by John Updike,” Yaghjian says. “I spent a lot of time in my head imagining things. I think literature is a big part of how I experience things. Updike was a powerful influence.” Updike’s Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction was distinguished by its careful attention to the most common and ordinary facets of American life. Updike himself said he strived “to give the mundane its beautiful due.”

At first, even some of Yaghjian’s most ardent fans were bewildered by the new Everyman paintings. They seemed unpretty and kind of embarrassing. A few wondered whether Yaghjian might be sabotaging his career. And while mainstream reactions were mixed, art critics almost immediately embraced the works. “The real standouts in the show are David Yaghjian’s paintings of overweight, middle-aged men. They’re both funny and sad,” wrote Jeffrey Day in The State newspaper in 2006.

In celebration of Yaghjian’s iconic Everyman, if ART Gallery recently presented an exhibit titled “Everyman Turns Six” at Gallery 80808/Vista Studios. The show ran from August 19 through September 6.

Over years of developing Everyman, the 63-year-old Yaghjian turned inward to ponder things beyond middle age: mortality, the physical body, and the psychic and spiritual body. In later renderings, Everyman occasionally appears sans briefs, often with an equally naked female companion. Yaghjian acknowledges feeling pressure that many men in society feel to be the provider and family anchor − as well as the conflicts that can come with that. Yaghjian says he often thinks about the journey to achieve balance that all of us take.

“I prefer a non-specific Everyman, one that can be identified with,” Yaghjian says in Wim Roefs’ essay for the “Everyman Turns Six” exhibition catalog. “Rather than straight self-portraits, I want to comment on middle-aged men, using myself rather than pointing at others. I am saying that these are my foibles, and others might recognize themselves in that.”

From a very early age, Yaghjian was keenly aware of his arts pedigree. Art was a Yaghjian family affair. Both of his parents, as well as his three siblings, all created art. His famous father, the late Edmund Yaghjian, chaired the Art Department at the University of South Carolina until his retirement and was a well-respected painter across the region.

“My parents met when my father was teaching art in New York. My mother came to take painting and studied with him, and they got married,” Yaghjian explains. “My mother always painted, even while raising four children. They did not push art on their children though. They simply led by example.”

Yaghjian’s grandparents came to America fleeing political oppression in his native Armenia. That history has affected each member of the family in some way. “My grandfather came over because he was getting in trouble with the Turkish government. He was a rebel. That was before the genocide,” Yaghjian says. “My grandparents came over and settled in Providence, Rhode Island. They had a grocery store, and my father would draw on the paper grocery bags. … What I have gotten from my ancestry is a bunch of stuff. There’s a negative side. When a people are persecuted, there is almost a sense of shame and guilt about it. You think, ‘What is wrong with me that I would have been singled out to be done away with?’ The other thing is it’s an incredibly rich culture. It was the first country to proclaim it was Christian. Mostly, it’s a cohesiveness of the people and this sense of persecution that says this has happened to a people. Why? It influences how you look at things. Why are people this way? It erupts periodically. What can be done about it – politically, morally, and spiritually? Is there a solution?”

“My father had lots of different styles. He started with cityscapes,” Yaghjian recalls. “When we moved to Columbia, he did a lot of paintings of the poorer sections of town and industrial areas. I think he identified with that. He was an outsider. First, he was Armenian. Second, he moved down here from the North. Third, he was an artist. … There was something about these poor black people that he identified with. They were outsiders, too. I am not sure he did it on a conscious level. But he knew what it felt like to be persecuted.”

Growing up in such a family, Yaghjian always had a sense of being different, even special. That could be a mixed blessing, however. In approaching a career in art, Yaghjian says he had a sense akin to entitlement insofar as where his talent would take him.

“In college, when I took my first life drawing class, people around me said I draw really well. But it let me relax a little too much. It made me think I don’t have to work that hard at this,” he says. “People would say ‘you are so good’ and want to buy my paintings. I had this ability. It was great, and I thought there wouldn’t be any difficulties. That was the rub. It made me just a little too comfortable with what I perceived were my abilities.”

Sales may come and go with the Everyman series, but Yaghjian is following his energy and painting what he is moved to paint. “I always hope to sell stuff,” he says. “Aside from the very rare commission, I paint for myself. For the past six years, it has been this guy.” Everyman.

What does a philosopher look like? It certainly could be this good-humored, artist in spectacles and his paint-smudged apron. Though raised in the Christian church, Yaghjian is fascinated by many cultures and theologies, all of which inform his greater world view. He maintains that these explorations are not intellectual; they are driven more strongly by emotional and sensory longings.

“Whenever I start to think too much about anything, I get confused,” he says. “I read about different religions, and I get very excited about how other people saw the universe and how they described it and how they dealt with it. …

“I just can’t imagine that some power would make it very difficult for people to access it or be available only to one group and not the other. All religions talk about a separation from the source, whatever that is, and about death and dying and how to deal with it. There are so many myths about going into the ground and coming back out. I think all religions are intriguing.”

Yaghjian’s earlier works, including his architectural paintings, seem to be natural extensions of his famous father’s well-known streetscapes. “I think about history all the time,” he says. “A lot of my imagery comes from different religions and different cosmologies.”

The artist is mildly disappointed with the uninspired direction of today’s mainstream urban architecture. “So much of the architecture today is really distressing in its lack of detail and any kind of depth and overall design,” he says. “It’s just appalling. People make a choice of how they will spend their time and money, and they just aren’t spending it on architecture anymore.”

In producing his architectural pieces, Yaghjian looked for buildings that caught his eye. Older buildings, he believes, simply have more character. Even a part of a building, such as a particular doorway or window that exhibits real craftsmanship, could spark his imagination.

“Initially, the structures have to be interesting architecturally, colorful, especially if I happen to see it during the part of the day when it catches nice light,” Yaghjian says. “I think about the people who passed in front of the buildings or lived in them. The paintings are sort of a meditation on the building, the color, the space, the atmosphere, and the people who had inhabited the space.”

While Everyman continues to be his focus, Yaghjian says he is finished with buildings for now.

Yaghjian turned 18 in 1966, when half a million young men already were serving their country in the Vietnam War and still more were being deployed overseas. He registered with the draft board as a conscientious objector. He says he was willing to go to Vietnam as a medic but not as a combatant. Fortunately, Yaghjian never was called to serve. So he continued his education at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he majored in studio art. The mood in the country was chaotic, and Yaghjian, like many college students in the late 1960s, experienced restlessness and dissatisfaction in the mainstream urban environment.

“Many of my contemporaries felt the politics of the time were too crazy. They were going to go back to the land,” Yaghjian says. After he and others visited farm communes in western Massachusetts and southern Vermont, three of his good friends purchased their own 60-acre farm about 20 miles north of Amherst. “My friends said, ‘you should come live here.’ It sounded like a good idea to me.” So Yaghjian moved to the farm commune that was home to as many as 24 men and women at one time. At the commune, Yaghjian – who went by the nickname “Iago” – had a steady girlfriend. However, it was not your stereotypical 1960s free-love, sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll kind of place.

“We grew our own food and raised lots of vegetables. We had chickens and pigs and cows. Sometimes we would have sweet corn to sell and would drive down to Amherst and sell vegetables. We also grew cucumbers to sell to a nearby pickle factory, but we didn’t make much money. They paid $60 for a ton of cucumbers. It took a half-dozen of us all day long to pick enough to make a ton,” Yaghjian recalls. “It wasn’t a religious or political commune. We were people just trying to live a little more simply. Life outside just didn’t seem sustainable. At about that time, I think, they started calling people ‘consumers.’ Instead of doing stuff, they bought stuff. … We weren’t ‘hippies.’ It was more about organic and getting back to the land. All in all, it was relatively tame.”

Nevertheless, after a while, Yaghjian’s enthusiasm for the lifestyle waned. “It was intense to live with that many people 24 hours a day,” he says. “We had very little experience with relationships. It wasn’t easy. I had some philosophical differences.” He also wanted more time to paint, so Yaghjian and his girlfriend moved to West Woodstock, Vermont, where he painted and the couple raised goats and tended a large vegetable garden for two lean years before loading their goats (three of them) into the back of their car and moving to Saluda, North Carolina. In North Carolina, Yaghjian worked as a carpenter to make ends meet, secured steady gallery representation, and began to build a reputation for his work. Around that time, he also participated in several family exhibitions in South Carolina with his parents and sisters, Candy and Susy.

Through the early 1980s, Yaghjian continued to exhibit and sell his paintings in North Carolina. In 1984, he received “Best in Show” accolades for his painting The Escort at Tryon’s Upstairs’ Third Biennial Area Artists Exhibition. That summer, on a trip to Columbia, he met his wife-to-be, Ellen Emerson, and decided to move to the capitol city. Ellen’s work soon took her to Atlanta, and he followed. The couple wed in 1988. Their daughter, Clare, was born in 1990. But Atlanta took a harsh toll on Yaghjian.

“My parents were artists, I was the only son – I sort of always expected some kind of coronation, having the mindset that I was anointed. But I think that when I got in those galleries in Atlanta and nothing happened, I began to realize that something was amiss,” Yaghjian told Wim Roefs for the “Everyman Turns Six” catalog essay. “Then reality set in when Clare was on the way, and I realized that we needed steady income. That’s when I went to work framing full time.”

For the next decade, Yaghjian continued to produce art in Atlanta – mostly urban themes, work that one critic likened to Hopper’s Nighthawks – and to work in a frame shop. All the while, he also had periodic shows in the Carolinas. The family returned to Columbia in 2000.

In 2003, local artists Stephen Chesley, Mike Williams, and Edward Wimberly invited Yaghjian to show his work with them in their annual Winter Exhibition at Gallery 80808/Vista Studios. He happily accepted and has partnered in the wildly popular show every January since. In 2006, after Williams moved out of Vista Studios, Yaghjian leased his old space and moved in.

With the Everyman series still in full swing, Yaghjian’s studio walls are covered with variations on that theme. In October 2009, he had a show titled “Dancing Man” presented by if ART at Gallery 80808. Reflecting Yaghjian’s prolific output, the three dozen paintings in the show took Everyman through a wide range of fascinating activities and emotions. True to the show’s title, a couple of paintings depicted Everyman unaffectedly shaking his middle-aged tail feathers. Yaghjian sold 20 pieces from that show. Soon, he expanded the Everyman concept to wood-cardboard-and-crayon sculpture with Skateman and Lawnmower. He hopes to create even larger sculptures in the near future.

Like coming full circle, the mature Yaghjian’s values are returning to the simplicity that he embraced as a young adult during his “commune” days.

“Mostly what I think about is simplifying − getting rid of stuff in my life. My clothes won’t fit in my dresser. I pick up lumber off the street and think I will use it. I have old stereo equipment in my attic. The stuff sort of owns you. You think, ‘I need this,’ but it’s a burden because you have to take care of it,” Yaghjian says. “I have trouble throwing things away. I don’t want it to go into the landfill. Does it break down? I need to be responsible about it.”

With the “Everyman Turns Six” show behind him, Yaghjian is preparing for a new show in April 2012 at the Kershaw County Fine Arts Center. Meantime, he continues to dance, often exuberantly − as if no one is watching.





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