"People are the matter of the city, but its ordering and government are its form." (Aristotle)
Although this may seem surprising to some enthusiasts of contemporary art, at this beginning of the third millennium, the representation of the city continues in the pictorial creations of some painters whose aesthetic approach sometimes perpetuates tradition. Among these artists, Arto Yuzbasiyan introduces a vision of astonishing and paradoxal vitality which is unique to him.
Smitten by the artist's contemporary urban landscapes, most of them representing Toronto, the viewer inevitably thinks of European cities at the end of the 19th century or at the beginning of the 20th century teeming with life, humans with their habits and ideas. By looking at them over and over again, bearing in mind that the western world has always placed greater emphasis on the built form of the city than on social affects, we inevitably wonder which aspect of the city is most apparent in Yuzbasiyan's canvases: its form or its matter, or even its soul? How can we distinguish one from the other, if a distinction is to be made?
The City was originally a Sumerian creation of static space strongly anchored in social knowledge, a major urban centre, giving rise to a strong communication between affects, property and persons. However, the Romans always conceived it both as urbe (the city's civic territory) and civitas (community of citizens who dwell there) or, using the terms of Aristotle quoted above, as "form" and "matter." Throughout the centuries, the city was built, transformed, enlarged, in short it evolved both in form and matter. Many artists, in different periods, were able to to capture in their works the city's form only, while others were able to grasp its soul. In Canada as in Quebec, since their arrival as a new pictorial genre, urban scenes were generally overshadowed by works portraying natural landscapes as represented by the famous Group of Seven, and were therefore less popular among the public and artists alike.1
In spite of this, a great demand was created by collectors for Canadian urban scenes. In a similar vein, we could follow Yuzbasiyan's recent pictorial creations quoted in this catalogue which appear in an exhibition entitled "Urban Rhythms" at Galerie d'Art Vincent in Ottawa.
Like Andrien Hébert, Philip Surrey or, closer to us, John Little, Yuzbasiyan's works use essential ingredients calling on the notions of composition, construction, rhythm, silence or noise to arrive at a dazzling organization of space accompanied by colour in various tones, broken and varied.
"I'm trying to bring out the uniqueness of the city," Yuzbasiyan explains. "I'm an observer, as well as an interpreter. I let myself become part of the picture. Although I have a natural affection for older buildings, for sentimental reasons, not always aesthetic ones, I like the whole spectrum."
Arto Yuzbasiyan's work is exceptional in more ways than one. Especially for an apprehension of the interpretation of the explicit landscape both by the use of chromatic pigments and by the objective topographical construction of the urban landscape. It is difficult to say which comes first. But some have appreciated the overlapping of the interpreter and of the landscape topographer in his paintings. Therein lies the strength and uniqueness of his pictorial approach.
Carried out using a central vanishing point which stongly brings out an Albertan perspective and structures the bidimensional space of the canvas, and with other plans converging around this central point, as we can see in Dundas Street East, and with various chomatic brush strokes spread all o ver the surface, Arto Yuzbasiyan's paintings aim to redefine and question the notion of urban landscape, calling for an interpretation, both subjective and objective, of a given place at a given time, night or day, summer or winter. Most of these paintings show streets lined by buildings whose architecture refers to an urban space originating from a picture of the beginning of the 20th century to which is added the hum of cars, tramways and pedestrians busy walking or shopping.
In his watercolours and oil paintings, everything seems frozen: "the times" are suspended (King Street East Winter Evening) in the fragments of reality captured at precise moments (Lower Manhattan) in which the viewer's attention is drawn to an infinite number of details. Thus, the artist suggests to us his position in the landscape: on the sidewalk, in the middle of the street, inside a store, on a storey of a building, before a house, at the top of an alley, and so on. However, whether we are in the position of the painter (Saint James Cathedral) or of one of his many anonymous figures, wearing a hat or holding an umbrella, hurridly crossing the street (Toronto Queen Street West), we feel overwhelmed by the timelessness of the landscape which is fixed on the canvas, carrying along with it brick reds, off whites, greening greys, in an infinite variety of intense chromatic tones.
Beyond the iconographic elements making up his paintings, the artist not only interprets the urban landscape, he also tends to criticize what Aristotle calls the matter making up the city in its essence. The figures' pose, according to the painter, is very eloquent: caught from behind or in front in their everyday actions with undetermined, almost blotted out expressions on their faces, they seem to dissolve into the urban landscape because they appear indifferent to their surroundings. Did the painter want to invite us to reflect on the sway that our everyday tasks hold over our lives?
In short, both in their physical attitude and in their psychological portrait, Yuzbasiyan's figures determine in a way the form of the city, but also definately make up its matter, its soul, without which the city could not survive. Faced with these breathtaking city landscapes, it would be interesting to know if the viewer would like to in the painter's position or in that of one of his figures.
Florentina Lungu, B.A., M.A.
Art Historian and Art Critic
1 - We can refer here to the latest studies on this period by Esther Trépanier, Art Historian, Professor at the Université du Québec C3 Montréal, among others: Univers urbains. La représentation de la ville dans l'art québécois du XXE siècle, Quebec, Musée du Québec, 1998; Peinture et modernité au Québec 1919-1939, Quebec, Nota Bene