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Cross Cultural 

Eyewitness: Philip Hagopian

click to enlarge "If Sand Could Speak"
  • "If Sand Could Speak"

Philip Hagopian creates paintings that seem like glimpses of a beautiful, vanished world. His lavish works currently on view at Salaam on Burlington’s Church Street are painted in bold, unctuous oils, their settings festooned with woven rugs and patterned draperies that cascade around exotic women. Hagopian evokes an atmosphere of mystery and sensuality so palpable that you can almost smell perfume wafting from censers and hear the rustle of silk. This fluent brushwork flows from an artist who is passionate about history, family and painting itself.

Born to an Armenian father and American mother in East Longmeadow, Mass., Hagopian, now 53, manages to straddle the two lands and cultures. Accordingly, his paintings combine classical Western techniques honed at the Art Institute of Boston with the rich patterns, landscapes and traditions of Armenia.

Hagopian’s exhibit includes figurative works, still lifes, pastoral scenes set around the high-altitude Lake Sevan in central Armenia and examples of “multi-dimensionalism,” a term the artist coined to describe a mixture of painting and assemblage. Hagopian’s wife, Naira, often appears in his paintings. In “Above Sevan,” she stands holding mounds of blossoms on a grassy hillside dotted with pink, purple and white flowers. She is also in the works “A Change of Mood” and “Gathering Flowers,” among others.

While Hagopian is primarily a visual artist, he is also an avid musician who plays the Armenian doumbek (an ancient drum) and guitar. In 2006, Philip Hagopian made his first trip to Armenia to seek out other Middle Eastern musicians. While on that trip, he met Naira, who was working as a translator. The couple moved to Vermont, where Hagopian has lived on and off for 27 years total, since his parents brought the family there in the late 1970s.

When Hagopian talks about his life as a painter, his story is marked by the births of his three children and the choices he has made to support them, including moving the family to Armenia for the past four years and taking a businesslike approach to his art making. Each step of his life seems to pivot on his concern for his parents, wife and kids.

Hagopian, who recently returned to Morrisville, Vt., admits the Armenian culture he paints is more traditional than contemporary. His expansive grasp of the country’s history helps fuel his desire to celebrate and preserve its unique culture, even as Armenia has incorporated some of the traditions of bordering nations. Hagopian calls Armenia the “epicentral crossroads of very ancient trade routes between far Eastern Asia, India, Africa, the Mediterranean cultures and, of course, the Middle Eastern neighbors.” In Hagopian’s paintings, the sumptuous patterns and colors of the region sweep across the canvas.

In “Hayuhi Girl,” a painting displayed in the front window of Salaam, a woman tilts her face upward, partially obscured by the shadow of a teal and purple curtain. Her full, red lips and long neck seem spotlighted in a beam of daylight that illuminates the scene. Golden coins from a traditional Armenian headdress tumble to her shoulders. The shimmering discs recall the gilded ornamentation of 20th-century Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, whom Hagopian cites as an influence on his work. In another Klimt-like touch of ornate decoration, he has given the woman several richly beaded necklaces, one with a heavy, red, rectangular medallion. Swirls and arabesques crisscross her beaded gown, continuing the dance of line, pattern and color that animates the work and conjures the richness of Armenian culture.

Hagopian’s “multi-dimensional” works combine disparate elements such as intricately carved wooden frames, superbly painted surfaces and almost dollhouse-like niches, which are recessed several inches into the paintings and hold objects ranging from talismanic artifacts to action figures. In these works, illusionistic fragments of ancient Assyrian reliefs, small replicas of famous paintings and a demure brass Buddha jostle one another.

In “Cecropia,” one small niche brings together a green, plastic alien toy, a nun figurine and a toy monkey. A circular magnifying lens covers another niche, simultaneously enlarging and distorting its contents. Foreign coins seem to levitate in yet another niche, while, near the artwork’s center, an old-fashioned brass lock serves as a metal frame for — or a doorway into — the small “room” of the niche.

Hagopian’s heady blend of references deepens the enigma of his works, though his convoluted musings on history, culture, politics and religion can sometimes be confounding to the viewer.

After creating art for more than 30 years, Hagopian speaks humbly about the talent and tenacity required to make a life as an artist. He compares selling his paintings with a street performer juggling for coins, yet he also seems proud to have used his considerable skills to provide for his family.

Inside the colorful quarters of the Salaam store, Hagopian’s bold hues and mesmerizing patterns are simpatico with the similarly vibrant clothes. Likewise, his passion for a faraway country seems right at home in Vermont.

Philip Hagopian’s exhibit remains at Salaam and the Men’s Store in Burlington through September.

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