For Greek American artists, as for most Americans, the experience of life is constructed out of an awareness of origins elsewhere-in this case, Greece-and a knowledge that one layer of identity is formed according to the many manifestations, conscious and otherwise, of a Greek heritage. Thirty-four artists are represented in Modern Odysseys: Greek American Artists of the 20th Century; their work, dating back to the 1920s and up to 1999, tells a piece of the story of twentieth-century American art. The exhibition explores how the odyssey of each artist takes on different shape and color according to the particulars of circumstance and psychological relation to both Greek and American culture. Cognizant of the weight of their cultural history but wary of the pitfalls of donning the mantle of a nationalistic identity --Greek, American, or otherwise-- Greek American artists have put their culture to work in the construction of their own visions of an evolving present.
The first significant wave of immigration from Greece to the United States in the twentieth century occurred in the period just before and after World War I, and the Greek American artists of this first modernist generation were immigrants. For them, nostalgia for Greece was inversely related to the need to assimilate into the culture of modern America. For example, the sleek machine-age abstractions of Jean Xceron's non-objective paintings of the 1930s and 1940s tell one side of a story that is also told by the pastoral Hellenic landscapes of Aristodimos Kaldis of those same years. Now, in the last year of the century, Greece still looms large in the consciousness of the younger, contemporary artists in the exhibition, most of them second- or third-generation Americans. In Philip Tsiaras's Family Album Photographs (1980-90), Greek culture (in the form of kitsch sculpture and decor) plays a crucial role in the bizarre and sexually charged relations between members of a middle-class immigrant household in New Hampshire. And for Andrea Spiros, the mythological figures of Eros and Thanatos in her polyptych "The Offspring of Eros and Thanatos" (1998) are fictive characters who serve to illuminate a tortured legacy of love inherited from her parents.
Tsiaras, Spiros, and the other artists whose works are shown here have drawn inspiration from Greek art and mythology, the classical principles of ancient architecture, and the great dramatic works of ancient Greece, as Western artists have done for centuries, beginning with the ancient Romans and continuing through the French Surrealists and beyond. More and more since the 1960s, however, ethnicity has been regarded in the United States as a source of personal strength that reinforces. Individuality in an age of increasing systemization, digitalization, and homogeneity of mass culture. During these last decades of the twentieth century, personal history in terms of an "otherness" (a sense of heritage that goes against the grain of supposed normative cultural standards) has become a foundation for a strong sense of self and of disassimilation from the corporate terrain of contemporary American life. The "Greek" aspect of the work of Greek American artists since the 1960s is the subject of this essay, but it must be noted that throughout this century, Greek American artists have drawn strength from their heritage-a distinctive focus reflected in the titles of many works in the exhibition, including Theodoros Stamos's Byzantium II (1958).
Nassos Daphnis's Icarus (1948), Jim Morphesis's Prometheus Bound (1996), Lynda Benglis's Medusa (1999), Eleni Mylonas's Amphora (1984), and Cristos Gianakos's Styx (1987). Some artists go even further. Theodora Skipitares --a performance artist and puppeteer- has worked with Greek subjects; her gigantic Medusa (1994) comes to mind. However, the scope of mythologies that interest her is broad, and her performance pieces revolve around historical figures (or fictional characters) who, like the gods and goddesses of mythology, are larger than life: the Salem "witches," New York City master builder Robert Moses, and the female superheroes of modern-day comics, among others.
To be of a culture is to experience the world through it, and the Greek American experience and its art are characterized by myth in its most elastic, sweeping sense, more so than by the gritty realism of the everyday world or the politics of modernity. In fact, the exhibition as a whole lacks works of art that are directly political, and this might seem surprising given modern Greece's tumultuous history of oppressions, dictatorship, and liberation. The response of art to politics in this case is a retreat to myth, or rather a lifting of art to a more abstract plane in which politics is dissolved into larger constructs of narrative and meaning. In no other body of work is this clearer than in the photography of Constantine Manos, a photojournalist. The only Greek American among the ranks of Magnum photographers, Manos elevates his subjects to an iconic status of symbolic dimension, be they marchers in civil-rights actions in Washington, D.C., skateboarders in California, drag queens in New Orleans, or women crying at a graveside in Greece. This is not to suggest that he evacuates his content of texture or substance. Instead, the drama of his work depends on the interplay between metaphorical resonance and the realism of the photographed images.
There are distinct cases such as the work of Lekakis, whose sculptures in wood, apart from their occasional titles, do not seem to be looking toward Greece. In the context of this exhibition, however, one realizes that his work is based on the principle of tension/release that the ancient Greek sculptors used when carving marble. It would be equally difficult to associate exclusively with Greece the work of the Magnum photographer Constantine Manos, but Ι eagerly await seeing how his work is positioned within the constructs of the exhibition.
Greek myth, moreover, provides a repertoire of heroic and resonant subjects that remain valid tools for interpreting the world. Morphesis's Prometheus Bound (1996) is a homoerotic icon of the era of AIDS, but the general structure of the original myth is maintained. Bound to a rock as punishment for his actions, Prometheus awaits rescue by Hercules, but meanwhile his body writhes with the agony of internal destruction. In the myth, an eagle picks away at his liver. Greek myth and culture also resonate according to more abstract models. The repeated circular element in Zoe Keramea`s The Circle (1991) refers in both its concept and its form to the eternal cycle of creation and destruction the earth itself personified by the mythical serpent Orobouros, who devours his own tail. Mylonas's Amphora (1984), a monumental, voluptuous female nude seen from the rear with arms akimbo, asserts the ancient prototype of the vessel as model of the abstract beauty of the human form.
As critics, curators, and art historians, do we too frequently apply "Greek" readings to the work of Greek American artists? Although we must sometimes hesitate to propose such an analogy because it might seem facile, this reading is often the most effective one. A "Greek" image that helps convey a sense of the visual kinetics of Electrus' Polykinetos (1997), for example, is the Minotaur's labyrinth, not only because the paths of electronic motion resemble a maze. The continuous circuitry of high-tech illogic and dysfunctionality-blinking lights, purposeless L.E.D. counters, and other sequences of "polykinetic" motion-at first seems like a playful game of electronic activity but then reveals itself as serious commentary on the many false promises of science.
On another front, Greek American artists are not without irreverence. From the distance of the United States, Greek culture can be critiqued. Steve Gianakos' s Greek Mythology #1: Two Greek Boys Museum Piece (1983) typifies that artist's "bad boy" stance. In this Pop-style, black-and-white painting, two ancient Kouroi enjoy a discreet sexual encounter within the museum vitrine that encases them, and of course they wear the traditional Greek tunic. An artist chosen for Modern Odysseys because of his outright refusal of mythology is Costa Vavagiakis, who paints superrealist nude portraits. Vavagiakis's project is a scientific analysis of the physical beauty of individualized people that grows from a rejection of all the narrative baggage-clothing, context, decoration-that serves to mythologize the human subject.
The modernist notion of Byzantinism-abstraction or overall decoration as a field of dematerialised form that dissolves the experience of the work of art's corporeality (associated, for example, with works by Gustav Klimt) plays a significant role in Modern Odysseys. Mary Grigoriadis's pattern paintings of the 1970s and '80s assert color and shape as forces unto themselves; the formality and bold geometry of these works deny a narrative reading and affirm the power of decorative pattern. By the same token, the intensity of decorative energy in Samaras's work and Antonakos's use of light and reflective gold surfaces to dissolve solid forms have been described as Byzantine. A contemporary twist on Byzantinism is offered by Jenny Marketou's installation SMELL.BYTES TM, first constructed for the 1998 Sao Paulo Bienal (Marketou represented the nation of Greece there), which addresses the theme of the dissolution of the individual in our current "cyberage." The central focus of all of Marketou's work is the loss of the individual sense of self in the larger society and its complex social and technological systems. In SMELL BYTES TM, the individual is "virtually" commodified through a website game (a character named Chris captures a person's body odor and packages it as a commercial fragrance-the equivalent of Elizabeth Taylor's "Passion" or Calvin Klein's "Obsession'); the images of individual players are projected large-scale in shimmering digitized color onto the circular walls of the installation space.
The ancient dramatic texts of Greece and the Greek dramatic tradition are present throughout Modern Odysseys. Lucas Samaras's Chair with Four Figures (1983) is a bronze chair, the seat of which serves as a stage for four ghostly bronze figures performing a strange theatrical scene. Mark Hadjipateras's gloriously funny Queens Assembly (1999), featuring five characters from Aristophanes's Ecclesiazusae, asserts that the ancient texts remain a relevant vehicle for a critique of contemporary society. Other artists are concerned with structures of the narrative process. Athena Tacha understands the ancient texts as models for the theatrical unfolding through which her public installations of architectural sculpture reveal themselves to viewers. A similar process is set into motion by the abstract paintings of George Negroponte, whose Circling (1994) demands of the viewer enough time to let himself or herself enter into a veritable cave of layered gestural strokes that are as spontaneous as they are orchestrated according to a dramatic structure.
Many Greek American artists use the architecture of Greece as inspiration. Cristos Gianakos's Minimalist paintings and sculpture exploit architectural form as a metaphor of the mind's ability to impose order on nature. His most monumental outdoor construction, Styx (1987) --built (appropriately) for Socrates Park in Queens, New York-- was a huge, double-sided ramp, an open form made of wood. Like a giant stage for a theater of Titans, Styx overlooked New York's East River, positioning the city across the river (Manhattan) as the underworld-the most thrilling and terrible place imaginable, which one could only reach by crossing the River Styx (the East River). Stephen Antonakos is inspired by the humble church architecture of modern Greece remembered from childhood. Whereas Antonakos remembers a "wall of flame" in the red glass forms of illuminated votive candles, he translates these spiritual lights into a field of red light bulbs in his site-specific installation Meditation Chapel of the Martyrs (1999), which he has created for Modern Odysseys. The idea that architecture embodies the aspirations and contradictions of a civilization is the subject of Cascade/Vertical Landscapes (1986), a six-minute video produced by MICA-TV (the team of Carole Ann Klonarides and Michael Owen). This "expressionist landscape" (to use a term prominent in the video) of contemporary American life appears to be a continuous vertical sequence of images of Manhattan skyscrapers, rural towns, Shea Stadium, Radio City Music Hall, suburban shopping malls, golf courses, and hotel lobbies overlaid with images of rapidly falling objects such as cigarettes, a spilled can of Coca-Cola, and a tumbling package of McDonald's fries. Cascade finishes with a fast descent through a hellish series of the basements and subbasements (illuminated with eerie red light) of a nondescript corporate building.
"Grecianicity;" to invent a term, is a varied terrain, but Greek Americans are united by an awareness that their culture, for many centuries, has been mythologized as the foundation of Western culture. This is a big responsibility, especially in the United States, whose culture dominates Western society today. Even when Greek American artists are not using mythological subjects, their work projects a grandeur and sense of mythical importance. When Tsiaras photographs his mother and aunts playing badminton on the Iawn of the family home in one of his Family Album Photographs (1980-90), they appear as secular goddesses, lunging for the shuttlecock with graceful, balletic movements. The house, a Greek-Revival farmhouse complete with grapevines, is their temple. Just as heavily imbued with Greek referents is Morfy Gikas's transformation of the human form into a bronze vessel, Lytrosis (1995), an empty shell with a dark interior void. The work's rich patina-layered, punched, caressed, broken, mended carries in its surface the aspirations and emotions of humankind across history.
A work that exemplifies the sweep and bravura of the exhibition is Lynda Benglis's early masterpiece Contraband (1969). In this gigantic, nine-yard long floor painting, created by hurling latex paint onto the floor, the intermixing of color creates a splendid river of visual intensity and overripe sensuality. The form is a huge tongue, and it seems to carry within itself the forces of language, love, history, violence, and destruction. Contraband is a work to get lost in as the eye follows the swirling trickles and streaming torrents of color. Outside the context of Modern Odysseys, Benglis's work may seem to have little to do with her Greek heritage. A primary function of the exhibition is to create a space in which its monumentality resonates with a powerful sense of existence in history that Greek Americans share.
The relationship of an artist to the many cultural experiences that enter into play in the production of works of art is complex and multidimensional. In Chryssa's drawing for "The Gates to Times Square" (1983), the idea of the architectural fragment-specifically, the Greek ruin --is employed as a signifier of civilization at large, and of New York City in particular. In this monumental drawing, the signage of Times Square that dazzled the artist when she arrived in New York in 195q is pared down to a series of abstract shapes. Designed to be executed in neon in the finished sculpture, they might be characters or parts of an unknown alphabet: fragments that represent an entire language of forms in the urban landscape, the great neon letters of Times Square. They speak of the metropolis as a place where language is exchanged as visual signs in bits and pieces that are not fully decipherable to all viewers.
Long before it was fashionable, Chryssa realised that the city was a multicultural landscape of visual information; her Chinese Cityscape (1983), for example, is a complex structure consisting of numerous honeycombed aluminum elements cut into forms derived from Chinese characters. For Chryssa (who came to New York as an outsider, by way of California), the visual sign is delivered in a barrage of layered information, as in Chinese Cityscape, but appears incomplete when isolated, as in her Drawing for "The Gates to Times Square." However, all her works have a heraldic presence, and they represent New York City in a particular historical moment that is "lowtech" from the vantage point of today's Times Square, which is now digitized, "Disneyfied," and filled with moving video images. In the same way, the fragments of ancient monuments that dot the landscape of Greece represent the whole of entire cultures that are lost to history and myth, and they are bathed in romance. Chryssa will have no romanticism; her drawing style is cool and declarative, and her sculpture is metallic and imposing. She reminds us that not only language, but the temporally defined visual sign is itself a basic building block of what we conceive to be civilization. The unfolding of Chryssa's work is very much a narrative that concerns both Greece and America.
Queens Museum of Art
© ART TOPOS, 1998
WIth the kind permission and support of
The J.F. Costopoulos Foundation