Light, color, geometry calming the senses

In the late 1980s, artist Stephen Antonakos came up with an idea that soon developed into one of the most enduring and significant aspects of his art. It was on the occasion of a group exhibition held in Japan on the theme of «Art and Technology» that Antonakos thought of constructing a secluded space for calm and mental relaxation, the precedent for his now-famous «meditation rooms» or chapels which Antonakos has been commissioned to make all over the world. The meditation rooms seemed to bring together all the major concepts in Antonakos’s art: his interest in space, architecture and public art, his exhaustive and unexpected use of neon light, the time element’s importance in the making and experiencing of art as well as the potential of geometry and light, shape and color in effecting a feeling of spirituality. Early next month, yet another of his meditation rooms will be inaugurated at the premises of the Onassis Foundation in New York, the city where Antonakos settled when he left Greece in his early childhood. The project is only one of the various works which Antonakos, an admirably active and creative artist, is working on this year. Following New York there is a project (another meditation room) for the University of North Carolina, then a commission from Prodromos Emfietzoglou for working on a public building in Odessa, Ukraine, and after that a project for Japan where Antonakos has repeatedly worked. Preceding this schedule was his project for the new building of the National Bank in Athens (the one that Mario Botta designed) that Antonakos just completed, having first worked on the display of «Journey: A Drawing in 72 Units,» an exhibition on his work which opened recently at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki (the exhibition will be on until November 15). Although rendered in a completely different scale and medium, both the Athens project – a large public sculpture – and the Thessaloniki exhibition – a collection of drawings – express similar concerns and share a common vocabulary: the geometrical shapes of squares and circles and the interest in color and light. Even the immediate reaction to them both is similar. The feeling of calm and the gently riveting effect that the two works evoke tie into Antonakos’s meditation rooms and capture the capacity of his art in suggesting spirituality through stark shapes and neon. Although Antonakos has been using neon since the ’60s, he says that he is still amazed with its potential. Through his work he has managed to remove neon’s connotations for commercial signage, and rather than focus on its sensational, high-tech aspect, he has revealed its almost mystical visual effect. In «Ascension,» which is the installation for the National Bank in Athens, neon colors emanating behind white-colored, large circles and lines help put across a pleasantly relaxing effect. The installation expands across a large wall that is left unattached to the building’s various stories, thus creating a high, interior facade skylight from above. One has the feeling that without Antonakos’s installation, the expansive wall would have looked too austere and fortress-like. Antonakos has softened this huge interior facade while also underlining the monumentality of the interior architecture. He has also breathed life into it, particularly as the intensity of the neon changes with the day and the light streaming from the skylight. Energy is perhaps a word for describing his work. Interestingly, energy is there even when neon is missing. The drawings at the Thessaloniki exhibition for example, while strangely calming, are also filled with movement. Meant to be exhibited as a series, these same-sized drawings are variations of how circles and squares are combined in a palette of chiefly green, purple and white. They were made several years ago and completed on the artist’s 72nd birthday. The last of the series is a void, white image, symbolic of an open future. Although Antonakos did not initially intend for those drawings to follow from one another, their arrangement suggests flow and continuity. The artist thinks of these drawings as notes in a musical composition. Indeed, rhythm, movement, control and energy are all captured in this small and sophisticated exhibition. Perhaps in a different way, this arrangement of 72 drawings is as engaging and calming as the larger works of this renowned artist.