A playful side to contemporary art

At a time when art, its institutions, exhibitions and market are greatly expanding, one thing to ask is whether quality is being compromised for quanity. The positive side is that art has become more accessible and present in our lives. Somehow, we have grown more familiar with art, perhaps as a result of how the aesthetics of the mass culture, fashion and design that make up our daily lives are becoming akin to the aesthetics of art. It is not unusual, for example, for the window display of a retail shop to look much like an art installation or for a work of art to resemble an advertisement billboard. It is a fine balance: Art – at least a part of it – has become more relaxed, open and playful than how it was traditionally conceived but is it more challenging and as lasting in its effect? Where does one draw the line? And should there be a «line» anyway? These are some of the questions that «Becoming,» a group, contemporary art exhibition on display at the First Public School of Hydra, raises to the viewer. Artist Dimitris Antonitsis, who is curator of the exhibition, has long been interested in the boundaries between art and mass culture, in the hybrids they produce (images that are part art, part advertisement) and also in the ambiguity and double meaning of images and reality. In his work, high art flirts with kitsch, elegance contains ostentation and serious social issues are examined within the aesthetics of popular culture. This is the fourth consecutive year that Antonitsis (with the collaboration of Dimie Athanasopoulou and the support of the island’s municipal authorities) has organized a contemporary art show on Hydra. As in the past, the show includes trendy names from the international contemporary art scene. It is hip and, as is usually the case with things that are hip, it is also controversial. «Becoming» can be taken both seriously and lightly. The ambiguity is probably intentional and is also echoed in the title: «Becoming» is used both as a verb and an adjective. It suggests that which is appropriate to contemporary art but also means that which is the process of being created; something open-ended and fluid rather than determined and stable. Playing with double meanings, the exhibition intends to overthrow set values and high-minded expectations of art and to show that just like reality, art is a mixture of different elements and subject to constant change. The link between art, mass culture and the mundane is an underlying theme. Again, the crossover between aesthetic media suggests that meaning is contingent rather than fixed. The exhibition’s catalogue is in the style of a school notebook; on its opening page, one finds a reprint of a note written in the late 1960s by the legendary director of American Vogue, Diane Vreeland, and addressed toward the staff of the magazine. The note mentions trendsetting guidelines. «Becoming» also suggests that, like fashion, art is flexible and playful. In fact, several of the works on view play with advertisement aesthetics, graphics and illustration. The photographs by the Dutch artist duo Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinnodh Matadin (who have worked for Vogue and Visionaire) are manipulated by M/M Paris (a joint collaboration between Micahel Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak). They show the faces of young women with graphics superimposed and were used for Balanciaga’s collection of 2002. The work of Daisy de Villeneuve flirts with illustration. It consists of a number of notebook pages on which the artist has drawn colorful images of young girls and boys and their telephone conversations. The fine balance between high and low art and illustration is prevalent throughout the exhibition, but is not always as direct. A number of works appropriate images of high art or works of 20th century art and manipulates them to produce new meaning. In his video «Last Supper,» Nikos Kanarelis turns the structure of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting into an image which shows 12 art restorateurs «dissecting» the body of art. American artist Rachel Lachowicz appropriates the styles of Warhol and Christopher Wool. Both works are made of eye shadow cases but one would not notice unless told. Hidden meanings and unexpected, barely discernible twists are to be found in all of the exhibition’s displays. William Wood’s paintings, for example, look like photo-shop images but are in fact entirely hand-painted in fine brushstrokes. The reverse is true of Peter Zimmermann’s works; they resemble paintings in style but are photo-shop processed. A similar twist is present in Steven Aalders’s paintings: Behind the orderly, minimalist style which suggests objectivity and modularity, lie 16 layers of paint. Other artists also play with ambiguity, reversal and unusual associations. Dimitris Antonitsis depicts blown-up images of crowns (from the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) in a glossy, rather kitsch aesthetic, as if to highlight the tawdry side of power and the establishment. His intention seems akin to that of Candida Höfer’s images of the Real Palace in Madrid or the Medici Villa in Rome. Both demystify power and trivialize glamour. As does Leonid Sokov in his installation «Stalin Pissing with a Bear.» Christos Papoulias’s chalk drawings on one of the classroom’s blackboards occupy a separate place in the exhibition. Papoulias is an architect and his drawings are part of a work in process which concerns the imaginary transformation of the courtyard of his house in Hydra into a summer house dwelling. «Becoming» is, after all, about process, things that are mutable and open. It suggests that art can be serious but playful at the same time, that it can contain elements of popular culture and still share the challenge of art. There is a place for everything in contemporary art. Arguably, this is both positive and problematic. «Becoming» is effective in raising the question. «Becoming,» at the First Public School of Hydra to September 1.

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