It would be an impossible task to sum up Musaelian’s work in a few short words, his intellect and artistic talent run deep and while his work is, at a glance, easy on the eyes, the key is to not let them fool you. The works are often layered with multiple meanings, based in the real world or somewhere in the realm of the philosophical, mythical or even nonsensical. One really has to look to see what’s going on, to understand why the artist chooses what he does to put on the canvas. With his initial Little Nietzsche series (2008) Musaelian draws from both real life and literary sources. Playmobil figures are the key components in explaining the complicated metaphors that come with the text that they explore, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” by Friedrich Nietzsche. Musaelian places the playmobil figures in very clean, simplistic rooms. The backgrounds vary slightly, some with buildings and fire escapes, others with large windows that look out onto the sea. It is important to note a key component of Musaelian’s work here, that the objects which make up the subject matter of his paintings are based on objects he owns. He only uses playmobil figures he has in his possession. Once he ascertains what he needs, he tracks down the specific pieces necessary to complete the painting.
Without getting into too much detail about the text itself and just reading the quotes that appear on the canvas, one gains a sense of the unique direction Musaelian chose in depicting the subject matter. Instead of representing pieces like “I will not let your fear spoil my pleasure at the sight of the wicked” with graphic or violent imagery (because the option is there) Musaelian utilizes the earnest and innocent nature of a child’s toy. The lighthearted approach weaves humor and thoughtfulness into conveying a message that is otherwise on the heavier side of life.
Musaelian delves deeper into the trajectory set forth with Little Nietzsche in “The Ass Festival” triptych from 2009. His playmobil figures are reprised, this time depicting a more complex scene from “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” the final phase of the book in which Zarathustra, up on the mountain and having come out of his cave, finds the group of men he invited there worshipping the kings donkey. Zarathustra realizes that they do not wish to become like the “overman” as he has hoped and watches as the men revel in their joke. Musaelian uses egg tempura instead of oil paint for the triptych, an incredibly precise, time consuming process which dates back to the first century A.D. and stands in bold contrast to the playful, contemporary elements he delightfully incorporates in relating the story.
Between 2008 and 2010 Musaelian executed a series of Woodcuts which in some ways mirror the playmobil works and in others preempt his “Situations/Heroic Paintings,” serving as an interesting hash mark in the timeline of the artists’ dynamism and ingenuity. They certainly bridge the gap within Musaelian‘s use of the figure in representational painting while maintaining his surrealistic aims. The artist’s follow-up series “Situations/Heroic Paintings (2010-2012) eschew the plastic childlike figures and props in favor of actors, friends and coworkers. In these works the scale of the figures juxtaposed against the moving landscape of the sea, a common thread amongst all his work to this point, provide the viewer with a skewed sense of place while maintaining a storybook tone with philosophical underpinnings. The viewers eyes move about the works, usually settling on the tables which are another important and unifying element in the series. For example, ”The Philistine Waiter” tells the Biblical story of Samson. The scene preempts the hero’s undoing by the hands of Delilah and the Philistine’s. Samson is poised to cut his hair at the behest of his lover, which is the source of his inhuman strength. There is a directness and uncertainty in his gaze that meets the viewers eyes which is unmatched in the face on Delilah. She, instead adopts a more vacant, open expression as if to be unfazed by the actions taking place. The waiter focuses his gaze on the tray he’s holding, idly standing by and waiting for the right moment to strike. In viewing the painting one senses that a terrible event is about to take place. Musaelian’s first rendition of ”The Philistine Waiter” had Delilah and the waiter gazing in different directions from the final version later modified by the artist with completely different models. While spectators are not privy to the modifications, they speak volumes in regards to Musaelian’s approach to getting the work right. Tension is a constant throughout this series, the viewer teetering somewhere on the edge of something that just happened or is about to take place.
In his most recent “Portrait” series (2013-2014) Musaelian takes a very different approach. Instead of using historical or philosophical devices as he has in previous bodies of work, here he employees more freedom, more flexibility. The works are more physical and less technical. The models are not actors and the animals chosen to pose with them are from a toy store. In the “Riddle Guesser” a model sits in an actors chair amidst a living background. The tree has a skin-like, almost scaly appearance and the creatures that inhabit the tree take on an atypical pose. Musaelian’s reference source is not necessarily obvious to the viewer, but it’s there. A certain children’s story, namely Alice in Wonderland, and the famous nonsense poem Jabberwocky make themselves known; the lizard, badger and the corkscrew serving as toves described in the poem.
Like all great painters, Musaelian explores his multi-layered concepts in depth, presenting each with a flowing consistency. While mutual elements tie the different bodies of work together, each stands fully on their own. This speaks to the nature of the artist and the way his mind works. His goal of engaging an idea or topic is to work it out, and once he feels he is able to communicate what he wishes to, there is no longer a need to continue the process. This directness comes back to the idea of intentionality and the important place it has in the work of Musaelian. His paintings convey what exists in the realm of ideas, which is no easy task. Through adapting stories, events from history, and even nonsense poems and retelling them in the smart and subtle way he does, Musaelian reaches a rare level of artistic talent. By looking to the past he makes that which is old new again. This in turn pushes one to reevaluate their opinion on what it means for art to be contemporary, reflecting the way we view the world today.
Plus Gallery is fortunate to have the opportunity to put forward such an in-depth debut for a sensational new talent. The thrill of art is not always what is most visible in the market, but often what slowly bubbles and brews beneath the surface. Musaelian’s dexterity as a painter and wealth of conceptual ideas belies his status as an emerging artist. And while it’s his paintings that viewers will have the opportunity to reflect on with “From Ass to Skunk,” those who might personally engage with the artist will discover an exceedingly astute individual exuding warmth and smarts in equal doses.
Plus Gallery and Abend Gallery will host a reception for Nick Musaelian to open the exhibition on Friday, February 13th from 6-9pm. Musaelian will talk about the many layers within his work on Saturday, February 21st at 3pm. Both events are free and open to the public. The exhibition will remain on view through March 13th.