Varouján Hovakimyan: Music as Image, Image as Form By Peter Frank

“All the colors and shapes are like sounds and melodies,” muses Varoujan Hovakimyan of his painting, “floating around on the surface of the canvas, trying to find their right place to exist, and my job as a painter is to help them find that place. I would like to be able to hear my paintings one day.” In his art Hovakimyan thus maintains one of the modern era’s great experimental traditions, the generation of form in one artistic discipline from another. In doing so, the painter opens up a visual world that transcends rather than perpetuates the subjugation of form to image. Wrested as it is from a whole other sensate context, Hovakimyan’s form is his image – and from this conflation emerges a vibrant personal style.

Oddly, though, that style stresses neither form – the basic condition that makes music of incoherent sound – nor image. In taking inspiration from music, Hovakimyan experiences it neither as a synesthetic phenomenon nor as an ekphrastic condition – that is, neither as a spontaneous sensorial alignment of sonic-to-visual incidents nor as a conscious effort to approximate the substance (or, if you will, meaning) of a particular musical work in visual terms. Aspects of both circumstances manifest in Hovakimyan’s work, especially in his work of the last several years; but he does not seek to effect the “translation” of music into art, at least on a systematic basis. On the other hand, Hovakimyan’s approach is sober, measured, informed, and deferential. His art does not look like music, but it feels like music.

As well it should. Trained as a painter and printmaker, Hovakimyan also received substantial instruction in the violin. And he did so in the context of a cultural atmosphere (the late Soviet era) that not only placed great store in the classical Western arts but encouraged their interface. Russian culture of the 20th century, which defined Armenia’s, presumed the practical as well as spiritual relationship of artistic disciplines – allowing, among other things, abstract visual art to emerge from visual artists’ apprehension of music’s inherent abstractness. But if Kandinsky and Scriabin and Ciurlionis are Hovakimyan’s predecessors, so are Walter Pater – “All the arts aspire to the condition of music” – and Paul Klee (who served for a time as violinist in the Bern Philharmonic), Frantisek Kupka and Morgan Russell, who both conjured music-derived painting out of Delaunay’s Orphism. Ever since the European artistic vanguard embraced Wagner’s late-19th-century notion of Gesamtkunstwerk, visual art has been under the sway of its sonic counterpart (as well, of course, as vice versa).

In this regard, then, Hovakimyan maintains what has become a grand tradition. His method is intuitive but not self-indulgent: the “architecture of sound” afforded him by music recurs quite clearly in his work, undergirding his pictorial approach even as he literalizes such architecture. But Hovakimyan does not subjugate his style to musical order, preferring to suffuse such compositional coherence throughout his pictures.

Or are his “pictures” images? Or “compositions” and “improvisations,” as Kandinsky considered his? In fact, how might we regard Hovakimyan’s artworks? Are they integral structures (i.e., compositions) translating musical line into optical line? Are they unpremeditated elaborations on some otherwise invisible prompt (improvisations)? Are they translations, no matter how approximate, of specific but unnamed musical works? Or do they embody a more generalized visualization of music, one which allows the artist much latitude but provides armature to his inventions with music’s sequence-borne logic?

The latter description comes closest to the truth. “When I’m listening to music,” Hovakimyan testifies, “all the sounds and their nuanced variations become colors in my imagination, floating in the air, taking different forms and shapes.” Harmony and poise, no matter how delicate, are not simply the predominant ingredients in Hovakimyan’s mix, they are practically the subject matter – the reason, within the framework of shape and composition, for each artwork to exist as it has come to exist. As have so many abstract artists before him, Hovakimyan seeks to exploit and at the same time literalize music’s inherent abstractness and concomitant immediacy of impact.

Hovakimyan has never professed the influence or model of any particular composer(s). For all his love – a musician’s, not just artist’s, love – for Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Stravinsky, et. al., he pays no single one of them any sort of overt homage. It is to music itself that the artist has dedicated his oeuvre. Embracing the art of “organized sound” (to use Edgard Varèse’s term) with the art of organized vision, Hovakimyan directs us towards the exotic but surprisingly accessible place where any one of us can grasp the experiential as well as formal similarities of two disparate media.

Or more. There is scant room here for consideration of the other arts; but Hovakimyan’s work does bespeak a near pan-artistic reach, whether in the choreographic and architectural references of his earlier (1990s) graphic work or the calligraphic “writer’s line” that courses through his recent and current paintings and work on paper. Suffice it to say that Hovakimyan sees the disparate artistic disciplines as in an ongoing dialogue, mirroring, echoing, and reconfiguring one another. The relationship that most compels him, however, is that between the eye and the ear.

Varoujan Hovakimyan does not hear pictures. He hears pictorially. He does not make visualizations of musical works. He makes visual music. He does not regard art and music as parallel aesthetic discourses. He regards them as parallel, and interactive, sensory stimuli. To make art out of optical information, he finds, one must know how to wrest music out of auditory information. Chaos turns to coherence with the stroke of a brush just as it does with the stroke of a bow. The grace and wit, depth of mood and lightness of spirit that have pervaded Hovakimyan’s art for the last several decades come from inside his ear no less than from behind and around his eye. Listen closely to what he is showing you.

Los Angeles, April 2022

Peter Frank is art critic for the Huffington Post and Associate
Editor for Fabrik magazine. He is former critic for Angeleno magazine and the L.A. Weekly, served as Editor for THE magazine Los Angeles and Visions Art Quarterly, and contributes articles to publications around the world.