Video tour: Walk through Gallery 25’s ‘Coronian Art’ with artists Carol Tikijian and Robin Dolarian
It is a hot July afternoon at Gallery 25 in the M Street Arts Complex in downtown Fresno, and I am doing something that would have been commonplace six months ago and now seems astonishing:
I am in a gallery looking at art.
Isn’t it crazy what we took for granted?
The occasion is a (now) rare look at an actual art exhibition and a (now) rare in-person interview with the artists involved, namely Carol Tikijian and Robin Dolarian. No Zoom involved. We’re all in masks, of course, and properly socially distanced, but even so, there seems something almost sneaky about it, as if we’re breaking curfew and hoping we don’t get caught.
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The occasion is one of the only installed exhibitions in the Fresno area since the pandemic began. Gallery 25 had big plans for July with Tikijian and Dolarian’s “Coronian Art,” a joint show featuring the two longtime friends. (Tikijian is a member of the gallery while Dolarian is a guest artist.) Up until the final days before opening, the artists had a big reception planned. It was the first show for the gallery since pandemic restrictions were relaxed by Governor Newsom.
Unfortunately, the day before opening, those restrictions had to be tightened, and the exhibition never got to be seen except by special appointment.
However, I was able to arrange a visit with the artists for me and CMAC photographer Cesar Perez. It’s a detailed look at a relatively small show, with the idea being that we’re there to be the viewer’s eyes and ears.
Think of it as a virtual tour:
THE MUNRO REVIEW ON CMAC: EPISODE 35
(You can also watch it as part of the August episode of “The Munro Review on CMAC.”)
For those who aren’t in the video-watching mood, here’s a brief rundown on the story:
The title: Tikijian and Dolarian playfully titled the exhibition “Coronian Art.” I at first didn’t get the obvious reference, figuring it was an allusion to some ancient Mesopotamian civilization and that I’d skipped that day in my college art history course. But, indeed, the exhibition does include some artworks inspired by the coronavirus pandemic. And the two friends and artists wanted to add “ian” in acknowledgement of their shared Armenian heritage.
Tikijian’s art: Some might call her works assemblage, but she likes to call them constructions. (She favors power tools.) Interestingly, she is a big fan of boxes, and she often incorporates a box design into her pieces.
Tikijian Work No. 1: Titled “Covidcita” (pictured above), it’s a play on the Spanish, with “cita” as a term of endearment. The artist’s concept is that while the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the human population, it’s actually been a bit of a boon for the natural environment. “The Earth really loved the Covid-19 virus, especially in the early months” she says. “Pollution went down and the air is clearer.” The base of the piece represents the blossoming of nature. Above is the head of a child doll perched atop a swooping neck. The child wears a kind of crown of thorns (prominently featuring barbed wire and broken glass, a favorite Tikijian technique), suggesting religious implications, and the eyes are depicted in an interesting way — Tikijian painted one brown, the other green.
Tikijian Work No. 2: This is another personification of Covid, but it has a more sensual and dangerous feel. Titled “Covid Novia: The Temptress,” it features a woman’s torso with no head. Walk around to the back and you’ll find a hand with crossed fingers, as if she might be telling a lie. She has secrets. The torso is surrounded by stiff but flowing organic forms that suggest perhaps a ballerina or bride. Yet the material is hard and rough. “It’s a complex sort of outfit she has on,” the artist says. There’s something very illicit about this piece and yet she’s innocent. She’s very complicated.”
My take on how she represents Covid: I think it’s a fascinating impulse to personify the disease as both a radiant child and slithering temptress. I tell Tikijian that I’ve been very interested in the ways that when writing about Covid, journalists and sources often personify it, describing it as sneaky, ruthless or calculating. It’s almost as if we think of the virus acting on its own volition.
Tikijian Work No. 3: This non-Covid piece is titled “Zevart,” the Armenian version of the name Gladys, named for Tikijian’s mother. Her mother grew up on a farm with a vineyard and she used to cut grapes with the family. The piece features a child’s hand holding a grape-cutting knife sitting on a base that once again includes broken glass. Picking grapes wasn’t a negative experience for her mom, but Tikijian sees the work as a commentary on child labor.
Dolarian’s art: His works in the show are like a combination of collage, assemblage and Byzantine mosaics. (Instead of tiles, he uses a cornucopia of beads, baubles, glittery bits, pieces of plastic children’s toys, shards of glass and all sorts of other fascinating items.) While mostly abstract, there are some figurative elements, especially crosses. He also has a portrait in the show.
Dolarian’s influences: “I guess I am pretty much a product of my culture and my time,” he says. “My father was an art professor and introduced me to art at a very young age. (Dolarian would go on to earn graduate art degrees at UC Berkeley and Stanford.) I was enthralled by Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky. From there I followed that same style my whole life. As an Armenian and a Christian, it’s trying to make art that’s relevant to who I am and what I believe, and this whole idea of the Armeninian Orthodoxy style in combination with being a modernist artist.”
What would Byzantine artists say: I like to think that those highly trained artists many centuries ago who produced the intricate art of their era might have seen some connection between Dolarian’s art, with its ornate crosses, and their work. Dolarian spends months on his intricate works, affixing each tiny element with care, just as those long-ago artists spent months and years on their mosaics. There is some kind of link there, and I can sense it. As Dolarian puts it: “I like that there’s some sort of weird genetic tie.”
News about Gallery 25: “Coronian Art,” which was taken down at the end of July, was the last Gallery 25 show in the M Street space. The board of the long-established cooperative gallery decided to shift to a virtual format presenting its exhibitions until such a time as it can go back to a physical location. The gallery will persevere, Tikijian emphasizes. “We’ve been around since 1974,” she says. “We don’t want to shut it down.”