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H. Armenian: "A Requisite Labor of Love" by Ann Van Dayk,

The collection of images contained within this volume is a testament to the devotion of their creator, Haroutune Armenian, to the art of watercolor painting. A constant companion on his many travels, his watercolor set has recorded subjects all over the world. The paintings’ titles transport us from the United States where he has lived since 1986, to his birthplace of Lebanon, to his ancestral homeland of Armenia, to a host of countries as disparate as Japan, Kuwait, Ukraine and Peru. All works on paper, the paintings range from the dimensions of a postcard to almost 2’ x 2½’. Their primary subject is landscape, both natural and manmade. Some were painted decades ago; others are brand new.

Armenian came to watercolors by chance, inspired by the sight of a young nephew’s paint set. This was in Beirut in 1976, the site of terrifying sectarian violence during the opening years of the Lebanese civil war. Borrowing his nephew’s watercolors, Armenian sat on the balcony of his brother’s apartment and painted the view of the Mediterranean sea stretched out in front of him. Mixing color with water and brushing it on the paper provided an unexpected respite, creating a mental oasis of calm that temporarily kept the war’s endless anxiety at bay. Armenian kept painting, recording tranquil corners of the wooded campus of the American University of Beirut (At the AUB campus, ca. 1983-4, 19½” x 14”), a place of refuge from the war where he was on the faculty, and where he and his family lived between 1978-1986. Over the years, painting became one of the necessities of life, an activity for which he has carefully carved out time from a daunting schedule of teaching, research and administrative duties while Professor in the School of Public Health at the Johns Hopkins University, later President of the American University of Armenia, and now Professor in Residence at the University of California in Los Angeles. Largely self-taught, Armenian has described his time spent painting as “the most fulfilling and peaceful…. It seemed worth while to live the daily commonplace and all the hardships of the uncommon for the opportunity of this brief effort at creativity” (Colors and Words, 2004, p. 5).

Armenian’s approach to his subject matter spans the gamut from clearly representational to highly abstract. At one end of the spectrum are paintings like Beautiful Chesapeake (2003, 16” x 12”). Here we easily recognize the bay’s calm expanse, interrupted by a breakwater and a dock, a boat floating alongside. Above the dock, the interspersed green and reddish tones of a clump of bushes indicate the changing season. Below, we see the reflections of the boat and dock in dabs of color and small patches of paper left white. Parallel to the breakwater, a distinct horizon line separates the watery blue from the pale coral pink of a fading afternoon sky. Overlapping forms and a careful alternation of warm and cool tones create a persuasive illusion of space receding into the distance. Fine pen lines add definition to the areas of color, describing planks, rocks, branches, railings. Looking at this image, we imagine we are there and then; it transports us to the peaceful conclusion of a fine, early autumn day on the Maryland coast.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, an image like Construct at Lake Sevan (1997, 13” x 11”) teases through suggestion. Its title encourages us to identify the irregular aqueous shape in the center as another body of water, Armenia’s largest lake and a popular tourist destination. In this image, we appear to look down on the water, which is almost completely contained within a border of russet and purple patches, perhaps meant to evoke a burnt and barren surrounding landscape. A long peninsula stretches into the lake from the left and numerous islands dot it, but looking at these, our perspective shifts and we view them from the side. Small, colorful rectangles catch our eye, seeming to rise from these landforms. The speckled pattern they form creates a jeweled effect, evoking something rich and precious. What are they? Buildings? Boats? Or is their primary inspiration the row of rectangular holes running down the left side of the paper, where it was once attached to a spiral pad?

Most of the watercolors occupy a middle ground, firmly rooted in a single perspective but more concerned with capturing an impression of light and space and atmosphere than with painstakingly crafting a detailed illusion. Paintings like Light Tree (1999), Afternoon in West Virginia (2000), Sunset mood in Ahwaz (2003), Loch Raven sunshine (2004), Danube delta colors (2008), Second Day on the Trail (2013) all situate the viewer in front of an expansive vista. Soft, rich colors carefully juxtapose luminous sky, warm earth, cool shadows, lush plants. Calm, quick brushstrokes evoke billows of cloud, a mountain’s underlying structure, a network of branches, the ruffled surface of water. A network of fine pen lines dances over the colors, joyfully suggesting the contours of branches, rocks, grass, a distant tower. By contrast, such works as Conference in Lyon and Blue and white in Mogador-Assouirat (both 1998), and Yerevan, an afternoon (2005) use more highly saturated colors and more precise pen work to anchor our vision in the foreground, presenting the patterns and planes of human constructions for our visual exploration. In all of these paintings we glimpse the world through their creator’s eyes, but most of all we witness the serene wonder of his own interior landscape.

School of Art

Northern Illinois University

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