CULTURE

When form defeats abstraction

Innovation has long been a prerequisite for contemporary art, at least what is supposed to be interesting and eye-catching contemporary art. But like every rule, such an assumption may foster conformity and therefore turn what is originally intended as a quest for experimentation into a norm, both for the creation and appraisal of art. This explains why Elias Dekoulakos, an artist who throughout his career resisted passing trends, decided in the late 1980s to turn his back on «innovation» and work in the more traditional medium of landscape painting. At a time when an artistic fad in Greece proclaimed the end of painting and leapt with unfounded eagerness for more conceptual, installation-based art, Dekoulakos reverted to painting, making clear his long-time belief that good art cannot fit into ephemeral and simplistic classifications. Dekoulakos painted landscapes for almost a decade, until his untimely death in the late 1990s. He drew large, embracing and powerful images, mostly of Mani, his place of origin; the paintings were so distinctive as to be recognized since then as an artist’s style. The artist also painted a series of Athens urban landscapes. Athens, and Mani with its rugged, harsh land, were the regions that most attracted him, and which he had emotional ties with. Because it was customary for him to paint in small scale before opting for the large canvas, he first made a series of small paintings, most of them showing views of the Acropolis and Lycabettus. Skillfully executed, in his typical heavy impasto and agitated brushstrokes which he applied with the fullest drama on the larger surfaces, these paintings were the subject of a recent exhibition at the Nees Morfes Gallery. The paintings are documented in the supplementing catalog, which also includes excerpts from Dekoulakos’s writings on art. (Since many of the works were bought by museums in Athens, they will probably show up in their permanent collections.) Dekoulakos used to say that Greece, with its harsh light, helped bring out the shape of the surroundings and for that reason lent itself better to sculptors than to painters. But he also found the variations of color in the Greek landscape, particularly in the region of Attica, to be of an incredible range, and it is this subtlety that he sought to capture in his paintings. He observed nature closely and painstakingly sought to record the view that he was looking for by taking long walks and scrutinizing his subject-matter (the Acropolis for example) from different angles. Throughout this process, Dekoulakos was motivated by the urge to document the Greek landscape before its complete destruction. He had lived to see the gradual ruin of Athens, the city’s old buildings being pulled down and the random development and feared that the worst was to still to come. In choosing the subject-matter of the Athens monuments and landscape, Dekoulakos felt he had to conform to certain rules: Although he was one of the pioneers of abstraction in Greece, he believed that abstraction was not the appropriate style for painting them. «Monuments like the Acropolis of Athens or the architecture of Mani – created by refined taste and popular instinct respectively – constitute an extension of natural beauty. So when they become the subject of another work of art, in the interests of expression, I cannot accept the idea of their forms being distorted… in the name of some modernizing notion of abstraction or avant-garde approach,» he wrote. Judging both abstraction and naturalism as unfitting to the subject of the Athens monuments and Mani, Dekoulakos was, in essence, expressing his aversion to any set style and stereotypical notion of art. By taking up the exhausted genre of landscape and monument painting, Dekoulakos risked being labeled a conservative; the risk was a flout to artistic conformity. Indeed, Dekoulakos had clear and adamant views on art and was wary of distinguishing modern art and innovation from its vapid imitations and false recycling. «Modern Art was a revolution. It overthrew the fake values… Modernism was developed almost in parallel with Modern Art and I would describe it as its ‘aesthetic bureaucracy’ with the attendant ‘nomenclature’ of artists and theoreticians. And this is how it nurtured and assimilated many frauds, cunningly promoted and obscure in the ‘metropolises of art’, yet blatantly obvious in the ‘peripheries,’» he wrote. Just as with the series of landscapes, Dekoulakos maintained in every stage of his career an anti-establishment, progressive stance (both artistically and politically) but never for its own sake. His political convictions belonged to the left (he actually spent some time in exile on Makronissos); they are powerfully expressed in the series of politically oriented works from the late ’60s and early ’70s. An outcry against the junta, the works are a strange mix of glossy, photo-style and realistic images – mostly of blown-up parts of the human body – and convey an eerie, lifeless mood that refers to the shackling of freedom and the constraints on individuality. Strangely enticing and shocking at the same time, the images were part of an exhibition at the Athens Hilton Hotel that was prohibited from opening to the public but soon thereafter was hosted at the Nees Morfes Gallery. There followed a series in which fruit set against an industrial-like setting is a recurring motif. In it, Dekoulakos explored the precarious balance between nature and technological advances, between nature and its exploitation by the political or social establishment. Another quite unusual specimen of his work was shown at the Ora cultural center in the mid-1980s. It was an installation, an interactive piece which considered a set of complex issues related to art, its theory and history as well as the role of the intermediaries (art critics, theorists, galleries and art collectors) between the artist and the public in the production and appraisal of art. But perhaps Dekoulakos’s most radical expression of non-conformity and strong sense of responsibility, was expressed in his painful decision to resign from his post as professor at the School of Fine Arts in the late ’80s. Through his six-year tenure, Dekoulakos had made a series of suggestions in the hope of modernizing the school’s curriculum. Among other ideas, he had wanted an autonomous department of theoretical studies and another on applied arts to become part of the Athens School of Fine Arts. (It took years before a version of what he had said was implemented). His ideas rebuffed, Dekoulakos, one of the most popular professors known for the individual care he showed for his students, left the academic field. But painting was always there as perhaps life’s most vital solace and fulfillment. It is through art that he channeled his well-argued, clear thoughts but also his playful spirit: «I have found painting as the best way to keep playing all my life. Play is man’s most serious occupation… Through painting I resist any established standards with which I disagree. If I could not exercise resistance while playing at the same time, I would not paint,» Dekoulakos also wrote in his notes. His landscapes are a powerful reminder of this resistance.