Looking in or out: a play on shifting perspectives

Around the early 1990s, a number of Greek artists made their own distinct mark on the Greek art scene of the time. Although not a group, most of them had studied painting in the mid-1980s in the atelier of Leonardo Cremonini at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and they all had in common a figurative, realistic style of painting. Their commitment to it is what set them apart as the so-called «new figurative Greek artists.» Irini Iliopoulou is one of those artists who emerged at the time and has since then worked in a more or less similar style, with a method based on working from a real model. Her solo show – on view at the Athens Gallery (the first in the past four years) – resonates with pleasant colors and vibrant reds, unusually framed compositions and an Edward Hopper-like enigmatic melancholy, all typical of Iliopoulou’s work. The exhibition is divided into large and small works: The first are all oil paintings on wood, which were originally intended as preparatory works for the larger paintings but developed into a separate series in the process. They are imaginatively displayed in an almost filmic way that builds associations both visually and in terms of content. The small works (most of them 20×25 cm) are like the stills of a broader story filled with significant details. The larger works (some verging on 2 meters) are bolder and in some cases sparer, but also more engulfing due to their size. Iliopoulou usually works along themes and stories. Her current work is about coffee shops and is mostly inspired by the cafes in Paris, the city where Iliopoulou lived for almost 15 years. Unlike her previous work, which showed two characters, each in a different rural environment, and before that her work on closed-in gardens, her current work returns to urban spaces set aside for recreation and respite. The subject has changed, but the mood of a latent mystery that is so typical of her images has not. Her paintings impart the sense of stories half-told and prompt the viewer to complete the picture by guessing at what is alluded to. In subtle and uncanny ways, Iliopoulou’s paintings manage to involve the viewer emotionally and to challenge his visual concepts. One of the ways in which they do so is by playing with interiors and exteriors. A coffee shop, for example, is sometimes portrayed through the storefront while a view of the outside is sometimes shown from an interior. The angle changes and so do the viewers’ positions with respect to the image they are looking at: They either stand outside the painting, looking at it as an object, or find themselves inside the painting, looking out from it at another view. Iliopoulou creates these effects through a systematic observation of reality. She also paints through observation, often setting her model (branches, chairs, textiles or whatever other object she may be painting) in the studio and painting it from real life – a traditional mode of painting that Iliopoulou feels is under threat of extinction. She also says the artists that are involved in pure painting are lessening in numbers. A likely reason is that they feel discouraged by the emphasis that art critics place on what they believe are trendier forms of contemporary art, such as photography or video. But while innovation is always significant in art, the way that more traditional forms of art persist in our days is also important. Just like the trendier names in contemporary art, the «new figurative Greek artists» have a definite presence and a distinctive style. They are an active and clearly defined part of Greek contemporary art and should be acknowledged as such by being included in large-scale, international exhibitions (Outlook or ARCO that just opened in Spain with a separate large section on Greek contemporary art) and by making their work a subject of critical analysis. Works by Irini Iliopoulou at the Athens Gallery (4 Glykonos, Dexameni Square, Kolonaki, 210.721.3938) through March 6.