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REMEMBERING ZORBACCUS

LA WEEKLY, JAN 23-29, 2004

The naked girl leaned back in her chair and scoped out the crowd. Some of the people surrounding her returned her look and then turned away, others stopped to chat, but it was obvious that she wasn't the main attraction: We were all looking at paintings of naked women - wild paintings leaning against any stationary object on the patio, some of the images abstracted into bizarre zaftig contortions, others beautifully rendered and enticing with their lusty femininity. These were some of the works of Jirayr Zorthian, a man who loved the female form, both in the flesh and on the canvas.

The occasion was the "Celebration of Life" thrown by Zorthian's family a week after his passing at the age of 92. The place was Zorthian's Altadena ranch, a mix of art junkyard, early-California Spanish architecture and collapsing hippie monuments. On the fringes of the property sit dead vehicles from all decades surrounded by active beehives; at the center is a large corral holding several horses, and next to that, the main house and art studio. Some of the buildings are constructed of telephone poles, and the beams inside sport glass insulators hanging upside down.

On the winding road up to the ranch, a finely dressed group on horseback passed a shuttle van delivering a number of men wearing red shirts emblazoned with E Clampus Vitis, members of a vaguely secret society dedicated to cards, liquor and occasional philanthropy. They blended into the eclectic mix of artists, fans and relatives heading to the patio for a presentation of personal tributes, music and loose performance art. Nearby, musicians played Armenian folk tunes in honor of the man born in Turkey in 1911.

The first person to speak was a distinguished gentleman who told a story about how a disgruntled artist once dissed Zorthian by pointing out that he could hardly be called a "contemporary artist." Zorthian had replied, "I don't want to be contemporary, I want to be timeless." The crowd cheered; a caged goose honked.

"My husband had many admirers," Dabney Zorthian told me later. "But there were a lot of people that resented him." It's easy to understand why, since Zorthian threw more than one Bacchanalian binge where he was fed grapes by naked girls. But such moments of licentiousness were earned: His artistic output was tremendous. In one of his studios, I came across a panel that had been removed from one of his WPA murals from the '30s; hanging next to it was an energetic nude from the '90s. The difference in years and style just amplified his considerable artistic gift, and that may be what those lesser talents resented most of all.

 

 

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