Artist Gary Kachadourian has a room with a point of view

Gary Kachadourian, a $25,000 winner of the 2011 Mary Sawyer Baker award, has a current exhibition of his work at The Baltimore Museum of Art.
Gary Kachadourian, a $25,000 winner of the 2011 Mary Sawyer Baker award, has a current exhibition of his work at The Baltimore Museum of Art. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

Artist Gary Kachadourian loves homely things. He appreciates modest, utilitarian objects that don't call attention to themselves, objects that frequently are described as ugly but that are undeniably functional: Dumpsters, highway barriers, chain-link fences.

His black-and-white renditions of these familiar sights, blown up to the size of life and on display through Oct. 2, immediately conveys viewers to a world of surfaces and conveys nostalgia for a Baltimore that never existed.

Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, has long been a fan of Kachadourian's work, which she describes as "charming, engaging statements on urban life." She has admired his cut-and-fold paper objects — among them, an apartment building drawn to 1/320th scale, complete with tabs — and his larger, full-scale drawings of, for instance, a living room couch.

But she didn't appreciate the full range of Kachadourian's artistry until she stepped into his installation. What she saw brought to mind the work of a 15th-century Flemish master.

"This is the first time that Gary has had a quality museum space to take over and create an integrated work of art, and I think that's why it's so powerful," she says.

"The installation brings his work to a new level, in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Gary has built a complete room that combines public and private space, indoors and outdoors, past and present. He's such an amazing draftsman, and his ability to capture a simple element like a wooden floorboard is reminiscent of Jan van Eyck."

Kachadourian, 54, along with beat-boxer Shodekeh Talifero and performance artist and cellist Audrey Chen, were selected from a field of 696 visual artists, dancers and theater artists to win one of the three top $25,000 Mary Sawyers Baker awards. Their work, in addition to that of 18 finalists who each received $1,000 grants, is featured in a group exhibition at the museum.

Not only will the cash come in handy for Kachadourian, it's a gratifying vindication of a big risk he took in August 2009. That's when he retired from his job at the Baltimore Office of Promotions & the Arts to enroll in a master's degree program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and to work full time on his own drawings.

"My first reaction upon hearing that I'd won was that I really need the money," Kachadourian says. "It gives me the flexibility to not have to find another job right away. My second reaction is that all of my artist friends are going to hate me."

That's unlikely. Kachadourian, who during his 22 years with the promotions office became known as "Mr. Artscape," has long been one of the most popular figures in Baltimore's arts community.

Kachadourian was instrumental in expanding what has been described as the world's largest free urban arts festival to Mount Royal Avenue and Charles Street, creating room for dozens of additional artists to showcase and sell their works.

And it was Kachadourian who came up with the idea for the Walter & Janet Sondheim Artscape Prize, in which $25,000 is given each year to the top regional artist selected by a national jury. The award, which attracts hundreds of entrants, generated interest in the festival throughout the U.S.

Bolger describes Kachadourian as the opposite of the stereotype of the egotistical artist who can suck all the air out of a room.

"Gary is one of the loveliest individuals in this city," she says. "He's so incredibly supportive of other artists and organizations. There's always room for other people when Gary's around."

That's an interesting observation, because Kachadourian says that when he finally stopped incorporating human figures into his drawings and woodcuts about a decade ago, his artwork took a quantum leap forward.

"My wife and I have two sons, and when my first kid was born, I became aware of how precious time is," he says. "Then I turned 45 and realized that my life was halfway over, so I better get on with it. I decided to stop doing things I didn't like and wasn't good at. A Dumpster I can draw and draw and draw, and it's always entertaining. But my people always looked awkward."

But Kachadourian only seems to have eliminated most traces of the human from his artwork. The people haven't vanished; it's just that they're no longer drawn with a pencil.

"Gary's interior invites you in," Bolger says, "and once you take that step, you become a figure in the drawing. It's like suddenly being swallowed into a black-and-white photograph or a television show from the 1950s. But then you realize you're standing in a drawing."

Like the artist, the installation exhibits a subtle, dry sense of humor. The light pole originally was spotted on The Alameda, the real-life version of an embankment wall can be found in Brunswick, and a shrub with paper bags entangled in its branches was sketched in Frederick. Other objects, such as the Volvo station wagon, can be found parked outside the artist's Baltimore home.

By combining all these objects into the same environment, Kachadourian has constructed a made-up landscape that only appears to have a photographic reality.

Kachadourian traces his artistic beginnings to a childhood spent building model airplanes. He's never liked the process of reading and writing, and for him, drawing was a more satisfying method of thinking. He later developed his drafting skills at the Maryland Institute College of Art, graduating in 1979.

In a way, his affection for objects that are understated but useful becomes a kind of self-portrait, because they embody the values by which he lives.

"I like to draw ubiquitous objects that you see everywhere," he says.

"They're considered ugly, but when you learn something about them, you find that they're really carefully designed. For instance, those Jersey barriers you see on the highway have a specific curve. If you accidentally drive up on the barrier, it's designed to drop the car right side up on its wheels. It creates just enough of a jolt to wake the driver up."

A sole — and typically self-deprecating exception — to Kachadourian's no-figural drawing policy can be found in his Book of Cut and Fold Objects. Purchasers can assemble a black-and-white cube of the artist's head, drawn to 1/16th scale, his bald spot displayed prominently on top.

"I saw the top of my head in a security monitor when I was standing in line at the 7-Eleven," Kachadourian says.

"I'd been aware that my hair in front was thinning. But, it wasn't until that moment that I also realized that I had a bald spot in the back. You have to be able to learn from your weaknesses."


If you go

The 2011 Baker Artist Awards exhibit runs through Oct. 2 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Free. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.

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