A visit to Uruguay in the early ‘90s brought me to a small dark gallery in Montevideo. Upstairs, in dim light, I caught sight of a painting that instantly captivated me: a moonlit landscape with a weary Quixote-like traveler on horseback riding uphill toward a small open-air hut in which a few women stood as if preparing a meal. The horse’s skin-stripped skull was turned back toward the viewer like an equine death-head. The effect gripped me with a spooky sense of foreboding.
When I met the artist that weekend – Jorge Damiani, Uruguay’s leading painter – he concluded a long appreciative conversation by saying, “I put an image out into the world and it brought you to me.”
I felt a similar sensation when I visited Diana Ghoukassian’s art gallery at the Atrium office building in Irvine. I’d walked over as a gesture of politeness toward John Ghoukassian, Diana’s 82-year-old husband, who owns the nearby upscale Bistango restaurant, and whose harrowing escape from Iran (a $20,000 payment to a coyote and a 450-mile ride on the back of a motorbike through the steep mountains of Pakistan to Karachi) was the subject of a story I was writing at the time. It was after 5 p.m. The gallery was closed. John had the key; when he opened the door and turned on the lights, I thought I’d just spend a few obligatory moments and be on my way.
The place was cluttered with the usual gallery stuff, including Helmut Newton blow-ups and other stylized, generically attractive pieces expensively framed. On the way out I was stopped by the sight of one of Diana’s photos hanging on a wall. It was so radically treated by her transformative coloring process that I couldn’t tell what the original object of the camera’s lens had been. It could have been a sand dune, or a reclining woman’s breast, except that the lines of the gradual triangle were too straight, and the small rectangular shape at its apex unidentifiable. The lower half of the composition was colored a vibrant orange, the upper a crepuscular purple. The pure simplicity of the composition, contrasted with the energy of the colors, suggested a restful mix of the enigmatic and the austere. I was hooked.
There were only a few of Diana Ghoukassian’s other works on display, some representational, some chromatically color-washed, but they all reflected a restless intelligence, a curious outward-looking eye, and a blend of I’ll-see-what-this-is-later caprice and hunger for the world, even if the object of attention is a road sign. As it turns out, this widely varied breadth of subjects, exponentially expanded in her Instagram postings, is a reflection of her experience as a woman who’s lived on the fly, never fully settling anywhere. Even her demeanor, impulsive and somewhat scattershot when calm, tic-ridden when agitated, as though invisible bees are flying perilously close to her face, seems to ricochet her fragmented experiences.
A PRIVILEGED BUT LONELY CHILDHOOD
“I’m an only child,” she says, “born in Tehran, Iran, of Armenian parents. My father was a businessman with clients in Austria and Germany. He was educated in Europe, so it was natural for me to get a French education, but before I went to a French school I went to an English school. I was five years old.”
Ghoukassian shuttled among French, Iranian and English educational institutions for virtually her entire academic career, at one point landing at one of the world’s most exclusive finishing schools, the Club of the Three Wise Monkeys, where a classmate, distantly related to Queen Elizabeth, regularly invited her for sleepovers in the Kensington palace bedroom of the Duke of Athlon, which was permissible as he had recently died.
She left that school at 17 and spent a year in Vienna to study to be an international interpreter (she knows eight languages), but at that point her academic career was virtually over.
“I couldn’t fit into any category,” she says. “I wanted to go to university, but I didn’t want to do mathematics, I didn’t want to learn science. I’ve had a mind of my own all my life. I didn’t want a degree, I wanted knowledge. I don’t think people with degrees are always what I’d call educated. I wanted to know what I wanted to know, but I didn’t want to waste time on what I didn’t want to know.”
Ghoukassian traveled to New York and San Francisco, and through Europe as an employee of KLM, and also worked at the U.S. and Australian embassies. She designed children’s clothes for the family of the Shah of Iran before he was deposed and exiled. She met her future husband through family. In a dating environment characterized by social correctness, she was taken with his free-spiritedness.
“He had been in Munich studying aviation engineering and came back on holiday. He didn’t like engineering. He’s very artistic too. He was part of my rebellion. The thing that attracted me was that he was out of the box. He never said, ‘This is not done.’ The other boys were always worried about what other people think.”
They were married in 1971 and had two children, Marc and Karyn. They bought a house in the South of France for summer getaways.
“I went there with the children for school vacation in ’78. John called one day and said, ‘I don’t want you to come back. Find a school and stay there. It’s not looking good here. Start all over again.’”
The mulllahs had staged the Iranian Revolution and immediately established an Islamic theocracy. John was briefly jailed as a warning to shut down his nightclub and restaurant in the hip section of Tehran. Then he escaped the country, rejoined his family in Cannes for a few months, and went to America to establish Bistango, first in Beverly Hills, and then in its current site. Diana and the children arrived in 1989.
ORANGE COUNTY’S LIVELY ART MARKET
Museums and art galleries have been the one constant in Diana’s life and travels. For decades she never left home without a camera, making art without being self-conscious about it.
“In 2008 I decided to enter one picture in the Orange County Fairgrounds exhibit and got accepted. That made me think, ‘Hey, if I got accepted, maybe I’m not that bad.’ I still don’t have any confidence in what I’m doing.”
Running a gallery that buys and sells other people’s art has taken precedence over her own, even as she laments the cluelessness of many of her clients.
“There’s no tradition. Most people in Orange County want art as decoration. When you have trendy new furniture, you want trendy new art. They go together.”
“There are people who buy art that will look good over their sofas,” says Jeannie Denholm, who owns the Scape Gallery, which opened in Corona del Mar in 2002. “And once their wall space is filled up, they stop buying. But there are others a great deal more sophisticated, who buy in L.A. and New York. There’s been a lot of ebb and flow in the Orange County art market. The financial crash of ’08 was a miserable year, but there are savvy buyers out there. The shift has moved away from Tuscan landscapes to contemporary styles, which include architecture. The gallery scene in Laguna and Santa Ana, the establishment of the Orange County Art Museum and the Hilbert Museum in Chapman College, plus the rich tradition established by UC Irvine, have all led to greater conversation and exposure, which you need.”
“There’s something definitely brewing,” says Mary Platt, director at the Hilbert, which opened in 2016. She reminds us that in the Depression-era 1930s, the second-greatest national employer of artists, after the WPA, was the Hollywood film industry, with its need for animators, set and poster designers, and designers for musicals.
“L.A. is the hottest market in the country in music and fine art. Traditionally that’s spilled into Orange County. I also think that young people crave community, to get out of the cocooning era. There’s an atavistic need for stories, the urge for authentic experience. I see that here. The Orange Curtain has dissolved.”
The Newport Library is currently showing 18 Diana Ghoukassian pieces, but with her endless doubt and self-questioning, her business and collection demands and reluctance to travel far on her own, whether she achieves a wider reputation remains to be seen. You can theorize that, if a definition of home is the place where you feel free to let go, layers of uprootedness have given Ghoukassian an avid eye for capturing everything she sees and processing it in her own way to make it her own. But she isn’t one for theories. She just makes art.
Lawrence Christon is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.