He may deny it (proclaiming “Surrealism was outdated [a] long time ago”), but there is a true Surrealist working in our midst. Samuel Saghatelian is a “true” Surrealist because he puts the whole of his artistic energy at the service of the dream. In this service, and to confound our expectations further, Saghatelian’s vision engages a constellation of styles. He doesn’t have a signature “look,” he has several. His Grotesque series presents Saghatelian as a deft and expansive caricaturist, an animator of human folly: the paintings and drawings in the Grotesque series update Punch & Judy, replacing the crude knockabout of the puppet show with the petit pathos of debased everypeople, spiced with exaggerated features and skewed perspectives such as are found in dream images. The Open Letter on Black series, by contrast, is a collection of dark ruminations on personal and social history, a shared dream of ghostly memories and the psychoses unleashed by political machinations and other (anti-)human outrages. The Open Letter from Left series verges on the non-objective, filled as these paintings are with broad, rocketing strokes of color offset by myriad gnarled lines drawn, it would seem, in a hypnotic fever. And then there are Saghatelian’s installation and photographic projects, embedding collaged figures, familial, official, or erotic, in scenes of cooking and feasting, often engulfing the flat little figurines in pulp and viscera.

Certain elements continue from one series to the next: the scrawled lines jump between the Open Letter series, from Left to Black; the scrapbook figures in the Open Letter on Black works are the ones that reappear in the photos and installations; and the overall grande bouffe spirit translates easily from those installational apparitions to the boisterous yet tender Grotesques. Still, the overall style employed in each series is entirely distinct from those associated with the others. Saghatelian has worked on all these series simultaneously since the middle of the last decade, and one gets the feeling that in his mind, as in his studio, a veritable one-man group show must be going on.

But all Saghatelian’s series share a sensibility, one that sees the world through a hypnagogic scrim, never awakening nor ever closing its eyes. Saghatelian’s art critiques current reality and human history, although it deliberately avoids focusing on any one particular tribulation or foible. Sexual obsession, genocide, poignant memory, crass exploitation, raw hunger, ideological blindness, militarism, dandyism, the dynamics of manipulation among family, friends, and lovers, all these and so many other impulses and conditions erupt and flash by in Saghatelian’s pictures – caricatures and notations, elaborations of the mind and scrapbooks of the soul – taking the form of cartoons, diagrams, environments, abstract forms, flea-market montages, all subjected to processes of distortion the seeds of which Saghatelian seems to find embedded in the very images he recoups.

Saghatelian’s sensibility not only obeys his dreamt grasp of reality but embodies that grasp in a literary manner. One finds oneself reading even the most purely visual of his artworks, finding crucial bits of information embedded in the busy pictorial fields he favors. The tiny bed in the corner of a Grotesque painting, a shadow floating behind or near a more articulated figure in one of the Open Letters on Black, a remote scribble in one of the Open Letter from Left abstracts, a collaged figure nearly engulfed by fruity pulp in one of the photo projects, any of these may go unnoticed at first glance, but when they appear on further examination, their tiny resonances fill in meaning(s) like pieces missing from a nearly completed jigsaw puzzle. Except that, when they fall into place, the revealed picture is not the usual reaffirmation of what we know and what we want from the world, but a revelation of what we want to avoid knowing and want to deny the world contains. No, Saghatelian’s revelations are not uniformly horrible; indeed, they are rarely repulsive – he may insist we know humankind at its worst, but he brings us to this knowledge through rituals of mourning and comedies of manners and errors. He would have us cry rather than cry out, laugh nervously rather than cringe. However sardonic his humor, Saghatelian still relies on wit, or at least on the humor of absurdity – and if our dreams are anything, they are absurd to the point of hilarious. Saghatelian is not dreaming for us, he’s dreaming with us. Those familiar with Eastern European literature, notable for its mordancy, will find a similar dark grasp of the world coursing through Saghatelian’s art. But the resiliency with which the humankind in his imagery struggles with its fate is distinctly Central Asian, at once fatalistic and defiant. In fact, while in his pictures Saghatelian often achieves the gloomy eloquence of a Gogol or a Dostoyevsky, his basic need to tell such tales, and to elaborate them with sharp but measured exaggeration and scraps of memory – that is, to confabulate them and season them with a hint (well, actually, more than just a hint) of the lyric – betrays his Armenian heritage. So, of course, do his preoccupations with family and peoplehood, and with memory itself. For a people whose artifacture has been so broadly destroyed and scattered by encroaching civilizations and the natural elements alike, after all, memory is art.

Saghatelian embellishes on this peculiarly Armenian condition by reminding us of the universal fact that dreams are part of memory, and vice versa. Dreaming is an act of re-knowing – of making new sense of old recollections, of rehashing the effects of what has happened to one so that one can better negotiate one’s way through what is going to happen. If knowledge is power, dream-wit – the intuitive, perhaps even psychic knowledge of the subsconscious mind – is skill, the skill to reshape the world (which, of course, shapes most of us to a far greater extent than any of us shapes it) on the unreal – yes, surreal – level of personal meta-consciousness.

“[R]eal life is more surreal,” writes Saghatelian, averring that the life we know, wrestle with, and (must) come to accept, is far more peculiar, unpredictable, and, yes, dreamlike than anything proposed by the Surrealists – and, by inference, by any other artist, writer, or other would-be fabulist. What Saghatelian insists is that he does not seek to transform life, but simply to capture it – albeit through his own eyes and hands – and reflect it back at us, so that we might better savor its queer ironies and sudden reversals, its sly beginnings and false endings, its epic scope and its never-ending trickle of minutiae. He depends on dreams to assist him in this impossible task, and in this dependency Samuel Saghatelian is a true Surrealist; but in cycling back to, rather than seeking release from, reality, he is, as he insists, no Surrealist at all.

Peter Frank Senior

Curator at the Riverside Art Museum
Art critic for Angeleno Magazine and La Weekly Editor of THE magazine Los Angeles December 2003