Ani Kupelian’s Postmodern Monuments
Written by Betty Brown
Ani Kupelian creates massive, symbolically resonant sculptures that function as contemporary monuments. Her artworks refer back to historic memorials of important people and events, from British dolmens to Egyptian obelisks, Mesopotamian victory stelas to Roman Triumphal Arches. Ancient monuments are characterized by extraordinary size and power. Kupelian’s oeuvre is similarly immense and impactful: trespass (1993-95), for example, is over fifteen feet tall and weighs more than a ton.
Kupelian employs traditional art materials–paint, photography, metal, clay–as well as non-art materials, such as industrial brakes and wheels. Her practice involves techniques from throughout the history of art, mixed with engineering and construction skills. Her use of art and non-art media, combined with art and non-art processes, establishes her as a postmodernist. Rather than thinking in binary either/or terms (e.g., art vs. non-art materials), she is open, experimental, and inclusive.
Kupelian’s wide range of materials and her savvy engagement of contrasting concepts place her squarely within the postmodern deconstructive praxis of exposing–and often subverting–historic dualities. Her oeuvre evokes binary concepts through time and space, from conventional concepts about gender, to spiritual abstractions representing culture and nature, to the primal dualism of self vs. other. Some of the monuments interrogate depictions of men and women. Others look at the connections between national identities and world religions. Still others explore the alienation of war, exile, and diasporic migration.
As with many–perhaps most–artists, Ani Kupelian’s art reflects her lived experiences. She was born to Armenian parents in Beirut, Lebanon. She left the war-torn country in 1976, fleeing to the United States with her husband and young son. They settled in Southern California. At the time, Kupelian was working as an accountant. Then, inspired by an art display in a Reseda storefront, she decided to take some life-drawing classes. After that, she attended California State University, Northridge (CSUN), where she continued her drawing studies with Hans Burkhardt and pursued bronze casting with Dave Elder. She also studied mechanical engineering, welding, and machining at Pierce College. These diverse experiences–her Armenian background, the Lebanese Civil War, her immigration to the US, her classes in drawing and metalwork–have provided prodigious grist for her creative mill.
Having lived through the nightmarish destruction of war and the ongoing trauma of migration, Kupelian has a heightened sense of the vulnerability of the human species–and of all the species we share this world with. She often depicts war, weaponry, and soldiers as symbolic of patriarchal cultures. Women, trees, and animals (birds especially for Kupelian) are positioned in binary contrast or opposition.
In 1985, in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War, Kupelian created madonna. a pairing of two irregular enclosures that resemble a sarcophagus or tomb. One of the large enclosures is pierced by a niche containing a ceramic female figure with exposed breasts. The niche in the second coffin-like enclosure is filled with birds. They appear to be wounded and dying, perhaps injured during warfare. The sculpture is topped by a bronze bird that functions as a sentinel. (An avian gargoyle? Does he protect against other predators?) Behind both enclosures is a series of vertical black metal shapes that recall skyscrapers or weapons or machine parts, all symbolically masculine. If they are skyscrapers and represent a city, it is one that has been attacked and is now in ruins. And if the wounded birds represent nature devastated by war, the ravaged city reminds us that war destroys culture as well.
A second work that grew out of warfare is Kupelian’s 88 from 1989. It was inspired by the Armenian/Azerbaijan territorial conflict that had been triggered by the fall of the Soviet Union. A large basalt boulder is flattened and carved on one side. Textile-like folds cascade down the center, suggesting a figure hidden by a burial shroud. The draped fabric is flanked by a weapon-like bar of metal. Both shapes are encircled by a narrow groove carved into the stone surface and suggesting the rounded-top shape of a tombstone. Recalling stelas and funerary monoliths from the past, 88 could be a memorial for a soldier with a weapon. Or it could commemorate the anonymous victims of the war. The artist asserts that “The upright position of the shrouded figure and the weapon signify defiance, resilience, perhaps resurrection.”
Kupelian’s frontier (2015-17) presents 101 birds made as metaphors “for all people who are migrating all over the world.” Some of the avian figures are solid metal, others blade-cut with various designs. Installed together on narrow poles, they have a rhythmic grace and delicacy belied by their weighty materiality. The variety and invention astound. Each bird captures the sense of flight, even while impaled on its metal pedestal. One of them combines perforated steel and oxidized copper with chicken wire to represent a bird just opening its wings. Another has perforated steel wings that attain a remarkably avian grace. Yet another has a sharply pointed head. A fourth is simply two swirls of patterned metal that nonetheless evoke feathered finesse. The free, almost ethereal nature of the birds is cannily juxtaposed to the solid, stiffly angular poles and platforms that constrain them. The flock of feathered steel creatures flutters, floats, and seems to sing. As a sculpted chorus, they are simply glorious.
Kupelian’s monument (to displaced people) from 1991 involves two quotidian objects–a bed and a shipping crate–that, combined, relate to exile and immigration. The bed mattress is covered by a wrinkled sheet, and installed vertically on a red resin wall. One cannot help but think of US assemblage master Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed from 1955. Although both artists hung their beds vertically, they did so for distinct reasons. Rauschenberg slathered his with thick, broad brushstrokes to reference Abstract Expressionism. Kupelian encased her bed in a large plywood crate to recall the Minimalism of artists like Donald Judd and his Untitled plywood boxes from 1976. The handles on the crate facilitate easy movement: monument, like the displaced people themselves, must be portable, ready to travel. Our beds are undeniably central to rest and comfort. But people forced from their homes due to war or ethnic cleansing or any other kind of political oppression cannot take their beds with them. They are stripped of the one of the key artifacts that designates a house a home.
Kupelian’s huge installation trespass (1993-95) is an outsized metal gate on wheels. Fifteen feet tall, eight feet wide, and two and a half feet deep, the massive structure weighs 2,500 pounds. Composed of steel, wood, tiles and cast iron wheels, it looks like a postmodern Triumphal Arch. Over the opening is a thick entablature of steel marked with vertical bars. The side elements of the gate are modular blocks held together with silver bolts. The gate is a deep olive green, but lining the inside of the doorway is a thin red strap like an opened vein bleeding down the sides. The artist intends the red stripe to mark the point of territorial or ideological transgression.
Roman Triumphal Arches were often erected to celebrate a victorious Caesar and his generals. After winning a war against foreign armies, the commanders re-entered their imperial capital in majesty, parading through the arch in full military regalia. Today, our country is embattled over the wall intended to separate us from Mexico. Perhaps a more positive cultural comparison would be Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Gates (2005) in Central Park, New York. However, Christo’s Gates were less than half as tall as trespass, and they were covered in saffron cloth, unlike Kupelian’s metal-clad doorway.
Because of its historic precedents and its martial configuration (heavy metal, army green color, blood red lining), Kupelian’s trespass reminds us of the glorification–and tragic outcome–of warfare. Remember that Mars, the Greek God of War, was symbolized by the color red. And we name the “red planet” after him.
Art historian Ramela Grigorian Abbamontian writes eloquently about trespass. Abbamontian argues that, like Kupelian’s monument (to displaced people), trespass honors the “Diasporic experience.” Further, Kupelian’s gate “suggests the dual modes of belonging and unbelonging experienced by Diasporans.” The term “diaspora” was originally used to refer to the dispersion of the Jews outside Israel. Today, it can refer to the dispersion of any group outside its native land. The artist descended from Armenians who fled their country after the genocide perpetrated by the Turks between 1914 and 1923. In turn, she had to leave her home in Lebanon. So Kupelian is doubly diasporic. But the artist denies any specifically Armenian content in trespass. Instead, she insists, it speaks to universal themes. She writes, “Is trespass an invitation to transgress? Is trespass a warning to stay out? trespass is a monument for change, an invitation and challenge to take a risk by stepping into a new realm.”
Again and again, Kupelian takes risks and steps into new realms. Her work is not always easily accessible, but it inevitably rewards careful viewing. Kupelian engages symbolic iterations through time and space, from traditional concepts about gender, to spiritual abstractions representing culture and nature, to the primal dualism of self vs. other. Because her artworks suggest rather than describe, they invite viewers to co-create with her. And in doing so, they stand as powerful postmodern monuments.
(N.B. Most of this text comes from the essay I wrote for a forthcoming book about Kupelian’s work. Look for news about its publication on social media.)