Chris Arabadjis: Notations from the Underground

Like so many of us today, Chris Arabadjis (pronounced: Air-uh-bad-jiss) experiences a very long commute to work. And like so many New Yorkers, he spends a lot of that time on the subway. But rather than endure all those hours staring blankly into space (or almost as blankly into an electronic device), Arabadjis has managed to convert those clattering cars into his movable studio. Equipped with mere paper and ball point pens, he has produced an extraordinary number of drawings, many of which were recently on view at the Nancy Ross Project Space at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I was lucky enough to walk through this exhibition with the artist himself.

Chris Arabadjis |  Untitled (2018-08-001)  | 12 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches | Credit: courtesy of the artist

Chris Arabadjis | Untitled (2018-08-001) | 12 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches | Credit: courtesy of the artist

Chris Arabadjis |  Untitled (2018-03-001)  | 12 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches | Credit: courtesy of the artist

Chris Arabadjis | Untitled (2018-03-001) | 12 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches | Credit: courtesy of the artist

I was drawn to Arabadjis’ artwork long before I ever met him and before I was aware of his background in physics. I was immediately enamored with the sheer visual beauty and invention of his drawings. But what intrigued me just as much was how the simplicity of his means belied the vast complexity and range of his output. Even without knowing about his background, I sensed an affinity of his drawings with a broad range of diagrammatic practices deployed by physicists and chemists. As I was in the early stages of my research into conventional diagrammatic practices, I was and continue to be attracted to those very qualities of his drawings that seem to mirror several key features of diagrams, while at the same time clearly presenting as open-ended, imaginative artworks—a perfect case study of what I am exploring in the Expanded Diagram project.

Chris Arabadjis |  Untitled (2018-09-003)  | 12 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches | Credit: courtesy of the artist

Chris Arabadjis | Untitled (2018-09-003) | 12 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches | Credit: courtesy of the artist

Singling out just one of his many drawings—Untitled (2018-09-003)—I immediately notice the prominence of “white space” (discussed at some length at https://www.stevenbaris.com/about-diagrams) within which the distributions of similar and dissimilar visual elements are arranged with exceptionally complex interrelations. Throughout the drawing the lozenge-like blue “primitives” operate in radically different ways. Dominating the central area of the drawing, these blue forms seem to self-organize into a grid-like structure, achieving in spots sufficient density to suggest even a fractal-based organization. Branching out from the central area these same blue forms assume a radically changed role as lines, having apparently decided to “take a walk” (Klee). Unlike the spatial stasis of the grid, the line is strongly suggestive of movement, and here we see it move in and around a bewildering variety of forms that happen to share the color red. Some of these reds appear as round dots, randomly distributed and floating off by themselves, whereas others succumb to the gravitational pull of the central grids almost like some chemical/molecular bonding of atoms. Similar to the blue forms, the reds also reorganize themselves into lines, but lines serving entirely different functions—a full-on container (circumscribing an “area”) in the upper left, a squiggly half container in the upper right, and a simple interlace in the lower right. With the possible exception of the free-floating dots, the “reds” are directly engaged in explicit relationships with the “blues,” either bonding to the grids, or in other places, contained or penetrated by the blue lines.

I could go on, but honestly; it’s enough to make my head spin. At this point I find myself thoroughly confused and thoroughly fascinated. So what’s going on here?

I certainly do not sense this drawing to be “picturing” anything [that is, prompting me to imagine a particular person, object, or scene assumed to exist either in the world or in the mind’s eye of the artist]. Although not as clear-cut, I do not feel this drawing is technically “re-presenting” anything outside itself in particular (which is not to suggest that it doesn’t point to ideas extrinsic to the image). But, most crucially, I sense that this drawing is on some level “explaining” something to me, the nature of which I will never fully grasp, and that’s okay. Encountering this drawing is not so different from viewing pretty much any diagrammatical exposition of quantum mechanics; in both instances I have little to no understanding of what it’s referring to, but unquestionably, Arabadjis’ drawing packs significantly more aesthetic punch (than, let’s say, a Feynman diagram). Even as I’m captured by its aesthetic and formal beauty, I am all but implored to make sense of it by approaching the drawing as a “working object,” by actively cross-referencing and correlating its broad array of similar and dissimilar components. Put simply, my claim here is that the artist’s intention and the viewer’s (at least my own) response to this image is primarily diagrammatic in nature. This is much different than how I might respond to, let’s say, a Poussin or a Rothko painting. Staring at Untitled (2018-09-003), I am summoned to make sense of it through a process of playful deduction, of mentally experimenting with this image so as to discover overlooked and hidden relations among its parts.

Chris Arabadjis |  Untitled (2019-01-002)  | 12 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches | Credit: courtesy of the artist

Chris Arabadjis | Untitled (2019-01-002) | 12 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches | Credit: courtesy of the artist

As if this weren’t enough to digest, there is yet another critical feature of this and almost all of his drawings that mirrors so many conventional diagrammatic practices—specifically those involving some kind of transfer of temporal processes and sequences onto a spatial display. I will conclude here with the artist’s own description of his process. “I start every small drawing the same way, with a mark and a rule for how to repeat it. A rule usually describes how different the next mark can be from the previous one. I try to rigorously adhere to the rules. Once this process is set in motion, I let go and see where it takes me. I think of these drawings as mini physics calculations or simulations, like trying to build my own universe from scratch, or as we say in physics from “first principles." The development of each drawing mimics the process of growth with a built-in mechanism for mutation.” (italics mine)

Chris Arabadjis |  Untitled (2017-10-002)  | 12 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches | Credit: courtesy of the artist

Chris Arabadjis | Untitled (2017-10-002) | 12 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches | Credit: courtesy of the artist

Chris Arabadjis |  Untitled (2017-10-001)  | 12 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches | Credit: courtesy of the artist

Chris Arabadjis | Untitled (2017-10-001) | 12 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches | Credit: courtesy of the artist

Chris Arabadjis |  Untitled (2017-01-002)  | 12 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches | Credit: courtesy of the artist

Chris Arabadjis | Untitled (2017-01-002) | 12 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches | Credit: courtesy of the artist

I urge anyone to “play” with Arabadjis’ other drawings at https://www.chrisarabadjis.com/

Upcoming exhibitions of Arabadjis’ work:

Making Time: Index Art Center, Newark, NJ, May 18 - June 13, 2019

Indra’s Net: Kathryn Markel Gallery, Chelsea, NYC, January - February 2020