Art that captures the intangible

At a time when artistic creativity has become quantifiable in terms of the number of works an artist puts out and the exhibitions he participates in, those artists that avoid too much exposure and the forced pace of the art market seem all the more exceptional. To be counted among them is Yiannis Bouteas, a quiet but weighty presence in the Greek contemporary art scene. One of the most respected and well-spoken-of artists – his modesty is one of the most frequently heard comments about him – Bouteas works each idea scrupulously and for long periods of time, contemplating it and working it out in series and variations that seem to grow from one another. He often returns to former pieces to rework them and will not hesitate to defer the sale of a work if he feels that it needs a change, however small. The process involved in the making of art is, in a way, as important as the end-result. Time and process are key elements in Bouteas’s art and are both contained in the works that he creates. Some works, for instance, gradually change in shape as they age while others are closely associated with the process of their making and are imbued with the energy of the action. Yiannis Bouteas thinks of an artwork as something that evolves through time, that is constantly growing and changing and that contains intangible and immaterial qualities such as time, energy and light. «States in Flux,» a large, retrospective-like exhibition of Yiannis Bouteas’s work held at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, captures, by its very title, this relationship of his art with the intangible. The exhibition is a rare chance to view the large installations that typify the art of Yiannis Bouteas all together. Though it stretches from the early 1970s to the present, it only includes a selection of his works. Rather than cram in a large number of installations, the exhibition has created breathing space that allows each installation to be viewed in isolation. Hardly a typical retrospective exhibition, it is not structured chronologically but flows in a non-linear fashion, thus underlining the idea of flux and constant transformation rather than the concept of art as something rigid and self-contained, the very traits that also run through Bouteas’s art. It is an engaging exhibition, filled with moments of tranquillity, contemplation and intellectual challenge. The work of Yiannis Bouteas is hard to classify. Drawing from different media, his installations stretch the notion of sculpture and its relationship to space. The works are made up by rods of neon lights, metallic, industrial-like tubes, carpentry vises, chunks of asphalt, pieces of mirror, large stones and ropes – all sorts of materials that Bouteas collects and combines in imaginative ways. These combinations often lead to a logical impasse. In the «Development» series from the early 1980s, for example, neon light rods are caught between the two ends of a carpentry vise. By having something as hard as metal capturing the ethereal quality of light, the work plays on tension and lightness and shows the beauty that emanates out of something apparently surreal. Bouteas experiments with polarities: he juxtaposes order and disorder, the ethereal and materiality, energy and structure, line with volume and mass. His work for the 1990 Venice Biennale, where Bouteas represented Greece together with Giorgos Lappas, shows Bouteas’s skill in bringing together such extremities. Neon light rods are a recurring motif in the art of Bouteas, regarded as one of the pioneers of luminal art (a synonym for light art) in Greece. An expression of the artist’s interest in capturing energy and the idea of boundlessness (a line that extends into infinity), neon light rods appear in his early compositions – a combination of plexiglass and engravings – of the early 1970s and in «Transformations,» mostly floor installations in which neon rods are tied together by thick ropes, of a few years later. Bouteas represented Greece at the Sao Paolo Biennale with a work from this series. Bouteas spent the 1970s and early ’80s in Paris and before that had studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts (it is likely that just like his contemporary Dimitris Alithinos, he was at first influenced by the Supports-Surfaces movement that deconstructed the constituent elements of painting and reacted against the notion of the artist as an image-maker). Before his days in Paris, Bouteas had trained at the engraving workshop of the Athens School of Fine Arts. His background in engraving shaped Bouteas’s interest in the concept of imprinting. He began to think of art as something that bore imprints – of craftsmanship, of time, change, collective memories and of the energy that years of use leave on objects. Alluding to this interest is the recurring use of metal cylinders that refer to a printing press, as well as his latest «Energy Cylinders,» where neon-lit plastic tubes contain what looks like rolled paper on which the raster is visible. Another example of Bouteas’s interest in traces and imprints is his series of drawings with plasticine and pencil from the mid-1980s. The plasticine in the center of the composition bears the finger marks of the artist and the plasticine itself has left marks on the paper on which it is pasted. With the years, these imprints have changed and the paper around the plasticined area has turned browner. The element of time again comes into play. Indeed, the works of Bouteas are always engaged with some aspect of time. The works of the «Layerings» series, for example, are strangely evocative of how time leaves its mark on materials. Like most of the artist’s works, «Layerings» have a structural discipline about them. Based on geometrical shapes, they emit a certain spare, almost zen-like quality. There is a clear intellectual content, but instead of appearing removed and distant, they engage instantly on an emotional level. The work of Bouteas has an inner, continuing logic that stems from systematic research. This is perhaps why his art is hard, perhaps too philosophical to describe. It has an aura about it and auras are too intangible to put into words. That his large installations have a calming effect would be one, simple way of putting it. His art has a strange way of growing on the viewer, of enveloping him in an atmosphere and of moving him both intellectually and emotionally – an all-embracing effect that is amplified by the careful arrangement of his works at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art. «States in Flux, 1974-2004» is supplemented by a catalog on the artist’s work published by Futura. The fully illustrated catalog contains essays and selected reviews on the artist’s work. The exhibition at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art (154 Egnatias, tel 2310.240.002) will run through April 18.

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