"The Trouble with Flowers" Text By Danna Lorch, Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University. Minas Halaj creates what he can't have. In this case, that is pure green space. His brush would inevitably veer towards gritty cityscapes if he returned to his native country of Armenia with its cerulean skies, twisting rivers, and rugged mountain ranges. He works from a studio that straddles the border between Los Angeles and Hollywood. Dusty palm trees line an industrial block of warehouses. Pollution hovers over the Hollywood skyline, adding a dreamy haziness to the concrete jungle that mimics the opening scene from a classic film. The portraits comprising Halaj's ongoing Floral Minds series examine the inherent human longing to live in harmony with nature despite the competing pull of the modern, plugged-in world. From political personalities to dewy fashion models, these people stop to snap the selfie that pops up on their social media feed as they relax on their living room couch. These are the glamorous, self-titled "public figures" who materialize larger than life on all your devices and can also vanish in the blink of an eye with just one boring thumb scroll.
Halaj is propelled by the belief that "There is a unique flower inside each of us that grows and changes form and color. The flowers are in our veins and part of our anatomy. We are innately connected to nature, but there is a conflict within that pulls us towards the more complicated wider world." Even though ornate bouquets of wildflowers camouflage the details of their faces, the subjects here are still relatable. In a sense, each distinctive choice of flowers conveys a more intimate and vulnerable reading of a person than a conventional glimpse of the visage could offer. The majority of the Floral Minds works are numbered rather than titled. #1 is Halaj's wife.
Despite their obscured faces, several subjects are easily recognizable to those who keep up with American pop culture. #10 is President Trump's open mouth, spouting blossoms rather than angry rhetoric. The Bluebird (which does not have a corresponding number) is a vanitas, riffing off Medieval funerary art in which a skull and fresh flowers pointed to the inevitability of life ending in death and decay. The Bluebird perched on the fresh-faced subject's forearm is so realistic it seems possible to glimpse its heart thundering through its shiny plumage.
And yet, Halaj seems to be saying even these young things are destined to age. What matters most is the present moment. Buddhist teachings often speak of the lotus flower, a resilient pink bloom that grows in even the thickest mud. The lotus symbolizes an aspiration to reach spiritual purity despite earthly troubles. Halaj agrees with a sigh. "The flowers are a hint of paradise. As humans, we live in modern society but don't realize that paradise is right here." Disturbingly, Floral Minds #39 depicts an infamous mass shooter. How can a face often associated with evil be obscured in exquisite flowers?
Halaj painted the portrait as a therapeutic action to try to make sense of the deadliest shooting in United States history. He says, "As a result of the gun regulations in the US, innocent children and adults are getting killed. The flowers are squeezing the shooter's neck. They cover parts of his personality he doesn't want the world to see." This alludes to the restrained violence beneath the surface of Floral Minds.
Halaj uses his hands to apply wet cement and viscid street tar to his canvases, background textures that are hard to appreciate on Instagram fully. Perpetually influenced by fashion's great ateliers and their fabled or fraught relationships with Hollywood celebrities, he trawls estate sales for valuable Victorian wedding gowns, which he then nonchalantly shreds for collaging. There is an unresolved tension here between natural and manufactured forms of beauty, between a commitment to traditional portraiture and medium-bending defiance, and even between irrepressible evil and naive goodness.
Halaj grew up with an artist for a father, the painter Samuel Hallaj. He wasn't allowed to touch anything in the generator-powered studio but often loitered in the shadows, stretching to follow the unspoken conversation his father's paintbrush held with each canvas. Despite his father's discouragement to take on an artist's unpredictable lifestyle, Halaj started to create his art, first selling work on paper to a visiting European Union diplomat. He then attended the State Academy of Fine Arts in Yerevan to study classical portraiture but soon left for the United States with just a little cash and a desire to break out on his own. With a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and a suitcase filled with paintbrushes, he moved to Los Angeles. He quickly became part of the city's experimental art scene with shows coinciding with Art Basel Miami three years running and work from Floral Minds included in Faces in the Crowd, a 2016 group exhibition at Art Share L.A. Standing at his easel in Los Angeles Halaj admits, "It took many years to forget what I'd learned in classical painting and do things with my hands that broke all the rules." However conceptual his practice might evolve, Halaj's work will always betray hints of that journey.
I think we are all floral minds! Selections from the Floral Minds Collection, artist Minas Halaj also creates his mixed-media assemblage artworks with an unusual assortment of materials. Painting his subjects with oil, his complex work often includes tar, fabric, wood, elaborate appliqués, recycled paper, or odd buttons. Seemingly random, his compositions are anything but, as the classically rendered subjects reminiscent of Old World Masters look solemnly back at you, adorned with elaborate cornucopias of flowers and fanciful fabrics. In many instances, his precision in creating graceful classic beauties is juxtaposed against a grainy highly-textural sculpted tar background that is painstakingly embossed and minutely decorated. Son of the accomplished Armenian painter Samuel Hallaj, Minas has received multiple degrees in art from his native Yerevan and has continued his formal art training at several California schools since he arrived in the US in 2002. His beautifully intricate art has been featured in nearly 50 contemporary art exhibits worldwide, with many pieces now residing in high-profile international collections.