Visual Arts

Artist Denise Yaghmourian Talks Objects, Suicide, and Memory

Phoenix-based artist Denise Yaghmourian.
Phoenix-based artist Denise Yaghmourian. Sonoran SOL Films
More than 100 objects covered in dried black paint hang suspended in the air over the polished concrete floor at Bentley Gallery, where they center an exhibition called “Objects of Memory.”

Created by Phoenix-based artist Denise Yaghmourian, they form an installation that shares the show's title.

click to enlarge Part of Denise Yaghmourian's Objects of Memory installation. - JOHN DOWD/CLUTCH PHOTOS
Part of Denise Yaghmourian's Objects of Memory installation.
John Dowd/Clutch Photos
Like other elements in the exhibit, the installation references moments in time, the inner workings of the human mind, the shifting nature of memory, and the place of objects in our lives.

It's a powerful piece, especially when you consider its personal and cultural context.

"Objects of Memory" opened on Saturday, May 26, just 10 days before designer Kate Spade's suicide made headlines. She's best known for one particular object — handbags that blend whimsy with sophistication.

Culinary creative Anthony Bourdain died by suicide in early June as well, reminding people that suicide touches far too many lives.

The Bentley installation, on view through Saturday, July 14, is rooted in significant moments in Yaghmourian’s life, including her brother’s suicide. Andrew was 24 at the time; Denise, now 50, was 22.

“He was such a sweet person, but he got involved with drugs,” she recalls. “He was sober when he died; I think it was withdrawals and that kind of thing.”

His death prompted changes in Yaghmourian’s own life, including time away from making artwork. But eventually art became a way of moving forward.

“I always said I wanted something good to come out of it,” Yaghmourian says. “It’s come into my artwork quite a bit, in the best possible way.”

Several years ago, Yaghmourian made a bed of tissues called Andrew’s Bed, which she destroyed after showing it at the Icehouse.

click to enlarge The Bird Becomes the Cage by Denise Yaghmourian. - BENTLEY GALLERY
The Bird Becomes the Cage by Denise Yaghmourian.
Bentley Gallery
In 2016, Bentley Gallery exhibited a hanging sculptural piece called The Bird Becomes the Cage, created with black goose feathers, zip ties, and wire.

For Yaghmourian, that piece addresses expectations people place on themselves and others, and the gradual loss of self. “The world we’ve created is so regimented,” she says.

The artist spent about a year creating work for “Objects of Memory,” including the 120-object installation made with acrylic paint and twine.

The objects include a doll head, wrench, long bone, gun, wooden mannequin, golf clubs, handcuffs, and more.

“As I kept dipping, it became a collaboration with the objects,” she recalls. “Being alone in the studio with these things, it really felt like they were alive to me and we were having a conversation.”

Some belonged to Yaghmourian before she started the project. Others were gifts from friends, or finds at local thrift stores. “I love seeing all the things that people throw away,” she says.

click to enlarge See "Denise Yaghmourian: Objects of Memory" at Bentley Gallery through July 14. - BENTLEY GALLERY
See "Denise Yaghmourian: Objects of Memory" at Bentley Gallery through July 14.
Bentley Gallery
She’s not one to collect objects, but Yaghmourian appreciates the meanings objects sometimes hold. Adding the black paint was a way of equalizing the items, while heightening both their individual and collective power.

“I’m not a person that saves a lot of things because when I look at an object from the past, I go back to the past,” Yaghmourian says. “I try to listen to my intuitive self, and live in the present moment.”

The exhibition also includes a set of 11 items used to transform these objects, an installation comprising five distinct chairs paired with five wall clocks, and a video featuring the artist talking about her work.

click to enlarge Five Clocks and Five Chairs (2018) by Denise Yaghmourian. - JOHN DOWD/CLUTCH PHOTOS
Five Clocks and Five Chairs (2018) by Denise Yaghmourian.
John Dowd/Clutch Photos
“Objects of Memory” also includes several paintings created using drips from objects suspended over canvas, including a knife, gourd, bow, string ball, funnel, wig, and more. Other paintings feature black silhouettes of various objects, such as a high heel, rollerblade, and gas mask. 

Yaghmourian conceived the show after conversations with Jake Friedman, a local creative who helped found Phoenix-based Four Chambers Press. They'd been talking about their families, and Yaghmourian's mind went to objects. "I had saved my brother's first animal from when he was a baby, and it was sitting on my desk looking at me."

The creatives were paired for a collaborative project called "In Sight II," which culminated in a January 2018 exhibition at New City Studio. For that show, Yaghmourian hung three objects dipped in black paint over white paper marked by their drippings.

click to enlarge Denise Yaghmourian's Waste for "In Sight II." - LYNN TRIMBLE
Denise Yaghmourian's Waste for "In Sight II."
Lynn Trimble
Using the same dipping process, she created about 150 to 160 objects, including the 120 installed together at Bentley Gallery. “I tried to begin with objects I had some connection to as a kid, which triggered memories of certain times,” she says.

As pieces were completed, Yaghmourian stored them inside clear plastic crates at her studio, located in the La Melgosa building on Grand Avenue. Later she made five or so car trips to the gallery, taking care to keep the objects from breaking. “I have an ostrich egg in the show, and that survived.”

She spent three days installing the exhibition, along with gallery director Craig Randich. “I suspended objects at different heights according to what looked good aesthetically,” Yaghmourian says.

click to enlarge Looking through the "Objects of Memory" installation at Bentley Gallery. - JOHN DOWD/CLUTCH PHOTOS
Looking through the "Objects of Memory" installation at Bentley Gallery.
John Dowd/Clutch Photos
But there was another consideration, too.

“I wanted it to be interactive, so people could walk through and touch objects, and they would spin,” she recalls. “I wanted them to see things they recognized and things they don’t see anymore.”

Bentley Gallery added another twist during the opening reception on First Friday, June 1, when choreographer and dancer Nicole Olson performed a site-specific piece.

As Olson moved through the hanging objects, a black tree branch fell to the ground. Viewers gathered for the performance let out a hushed gasp. But Yaghmourian was enchanted. “I loved it when the branch fell,” she says.

click to enlarge Installation view of the "Objects of Memory" exhibition. - JOHN DOWD/CLUTCH PHOTOS
Installation view of the "Objects of Memory" exhibition.
John Dowd/Clutch Photos
Looking at the “Objects of Memory” installation now, Yaghmourian sees the culmination of all her memories. And she hopes it will conjure memories in others as well.

“I hope someone sees an object that they gravitate towards that makes them feel something, and takes them to a memory of a place in their life that was cherished,” she says.

It’s too soon to know what fate awaits these objects down the road.

“After the show, who knows what will become of the objects,” Yaghmourian says. "They’ll probably go back into their bins and talk to each other.”

The free “Objects of Memory” exhibition continues through Saturday, July 14, at Bentley Gallery. Learn more on the Bentley Gallery website.
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble