Stir: Drawings and Paintings from the Onion Pot
By Karen Klein
The title of Marsha Nouritza Odabashian’s exhibition, Stir: Drawings and Paintings from the Onion Pot, carries multiple resonances. It can refer to the stirrings of happy memories of domestic rituals to prepare for Armenian Easter, or terrible memories of the Armenian Genocide—the joys of family connections or the deep sadness of profound losses. It is both—history at large and at home.
The centrality of Odabashian’s Armenian identity is at the core of her artistic process. To color Easter eggs, Armenians boil onion skins in water to produce a rich dye, similar to the hues of burnt sienna and ochre. How many onion skins are put into the pot and for how long they are boiled determines the intensity of the color. This water-based dye is the initial wash Odabashian uses. Placing her canvases on the floor of her studio or on the ground outdoors, she pours the pot of watery dye with the pieces of onion skins in it onto the center of what will become the painting. Some component of the boiled onion skins enables them to adhere to the canvas. Allowing each wash to dry before the next pour, her process of dumping watery dye can continue over time with many pots of different hues, creating subtle variations in tone. Like a watercolor, the painting dries between successive onion skin/ink washes. Between pours she might wait for several days, and sometimes, with the paintings done outdoors, she incorporates changes wrought by the weather. She often works on several paintings at a time and edits earlier ones.
Spill, 35 x 48 in., Onionskins, Onionskin dye, Graphite, Conte Crayon and Acrylic Paint on Canvas, 2019
In Spill , as in many other paintings, the onion skins are concentrated in the center. After completing the washes, Odabashian pours a watery acrylic, usually a cadmium red which complements the sienna and umber tones of the wash, and tilts the canvas to allow watery striations to run down, thus providing a geometric grid. After the acrylic dries, she uses a variety of materials, e.g.: brush, coffee stirrers, forks, cards, in order to add to the lines with a darker shade of acrylic in burnt or raw sienna, or in umber. She might also add a minimal white overpainting, or introduce a yellow from her earlier series Road Maps. This process can be completed with varnish over the painting and the onion skins, whose textures and sculptural shapes add a further tactile dimension.
Odabashian’s painstaking, sequential process connects her work to her women ancestors’ traditional Armenian arts and crafts, while uniting them with her formal training in Western art traditions. Odabashian received her Bachelor in Fine Art from the University of New Orleans, New Orleans, Louisiana, and her Master of Fine Art from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts/Tufts University. In Data Collection, a painting whose onion skins’ centrality resembles Spill, the wash is more minimal and ethereal, but faint lines tease out what might be figures or an imaginary hybrid animal. These lines do not delineate an object, but rather hint at what might be there.
Empire, 30 x 40 in., Onionskins, Onionskin dye, Graphite, Conte Crayon and Acrylic Paint on Canvas, 2019
These hints become more pronounced in Empire, whose title carries a socio-political component of power, dominance, and greed. Figurative shapes surround the power center of onion skins, resembling a departing procession, or as the artist indicates, “immigrant children separated from their parents and retained in cages at US-Mexican border.” Mysterious human faces appear in the mist, while faint outlines of imaginary animals, not unlike those found on the Bull-Headed Lyre from Ur, crowd the lower right hand corner. From the lower left, large, thrusting, sharp diagonals in white and a greenish blue intrude—a pointed emphasis toward the centrality of power. Almost isolated on the right side one discerns what might be a child holding a computer. Here Odabashian might be alluding to her concern over the use of computers: their possible misuse and inaccuracies in collecting massive amounts of data.
At the same time and on a lighter note, collecting is a necessary activity for her art, as accumulating sufficient onion skins takes a long time. Thus enters a social component to Odabashian’s work. Friends save onion skins for her from their kitchens, or pick-up and bag fallen skins from bins of grocery store onions. The old saw is true: many hands make light work.
The Art of Losing, 48 x 72 in., Onionskins, Onionskin dye, Graphite, Conte Crayon and Acrylic Paint on Canvas, 2019
Finally there is a poetic dimension. The title of her painting, The Art of Losing, comes from the first line of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, One Art. In the painting, the onion skins are no longer centralized, but dispersed throughout in small and larger blotches, as if blown by an unseen force. There are running figures, one male clearly outlined, one a shadow shape walking out of the painting. Partial faces can be perceived. The upper right corner has two thin, almost disappearing, line figures, tenderly sketched in pink wash. The figure with prominent eyes seems to be intent on watching the dominant image of the heavily outlined edge of a child’s skirt with two moving legs. Adding to the sense of female presence are two large ribbon shapes across the center, thickly painted in alternating bright pink and white shapes. An umbrella in light and dark pink tones floats out of the top of the painting, accompanied by its faint shadow. Some viewers might see The Art of Losing as a surrealist fantasy, but the feeling its colors and imagery exude is that of a dream and of loss. Odabashian is an artist profoundly rooted in her Armenian identity, her family history, while skillfully and profoundly bringing out universal themes. It may be worth noting that in Bishop’s poem, whose first line titles this painting, the only specifically mentioned is ‘mother’.
Marsha Nouritza Odabashian, Stir: Drawing and Paintings from the Onion Pot, October 30-December 1, 2019. Visit Galatea Fine Art at 460 Harrison Ave, #B-6, Boston, MA 02118, 616-542-1500. Gallery hours: Wednesday–Sunday 12-5pm and by appointment.