CULTURE

Bright swirls of color at Athens exhibition

Images bursting with color, circuses, boats, butterflies and happy motifs that evoke a child’s imagination, paintings that resonate with a sense of carefree innocence yet contain a melancholy undertone: The art of Alexis Akrithakis is simultaneously lively and joyful, yet introspective and musing. In many ways, this is a reflection of the artist’s life, a life on the edge, filled with adolescent adventures and, toward the end, wrecked by an addiction to alcohol and drugs that led to Akrithakis’s premature death. His life and talent have merged to create something of a myth, which, though not unsubstantiated, has obscured the true scope of his art by focusing more on the artist’s personality. Although accepted as one of the most prominent and distinctive Greek artists of the second part of the 20th century, Alexis Akrithakis remains an artist whose work has not been fully analyzed. Following the large retrospective on the artist held at Berlin last year and, before that, a retrospective at the National Gallery (1997), the current exhibition, which draws on the private collection of Zacharias Portalakis, helps, like other large shows on Akrithakis, to draw attention to the work of this exceptional Greek artist. The exhibition, which is held at the collector’s exhibition hall, includes works from the artist’s various periods and for that reason can be considered a kind of a mini-retrospective. The scion of a well-known Athenian family, Alexis Akrithakis was a largely self-taught artist, whose only official art training was a brief stint in Paris and later, in Berlin. The Greek intellectual Giorgos Makris was one of the artist’s mentors, the man who back in the mid-1950s saw Akrithakis’s talent and urged him to become a painter. Another important influence was the author Costas Tachtsis, with whom Akrithakis shared an apartment in the mid-1960s upon the end of his military service. Akrithakis’s acquaintanceship with Athenian literary circles – many of whose members met at the Byzantium cafe in Kolonaki – reflects his interest in literature; interestingly, this interest is reflected in the recurring use of script, in the form of abstract letters, which is encountered in the artist’s paintings and drawings. Alexis Akrithakis lived the most prolific part of his life in Berlin. He first moved there in the late ’60s when, at the age of 28, he received a scholarship (this was a chance to leave the artistically infertile mood that settled on Greece with the advent of the junta regime) and permanently returned to Athens in the mid-1980s. His early works are mostly ink drawings that are composed of an uninterrupted swirl of lines, something like a dense, labyrinthine, spiraling design (in a manner similar to continuous cursive script) that expands throughout the painting. Akrithakis had a particular name for this kind of drawing (the term ‘tsiki-tsiki’ referred to how his drawings grew from a single dot) and wrote about how it emerged almost automatically as if on impulse, stressing in this way the value of artistic process. Although the art of Akrithakis is filled with colorful images, it is largely based on writing, words and texts. «In painting, words are redundant; in poetry drawings are redundant. Yet you design a poem, you write a painting,» the artist says in his notes, which constitute one of the most valuable sources of information on his work. Akrithakis creates a visual dictionary, in which images and words define one another. His drawings and diary notes especially are filled with combinations of images and words: In the picture of a kite around a suitcase, for example, one also reads the words «kite, suitcase.» In the works that follow, the spiraling designs of his early drawings are combined with the abstract depiction of some of Akrithakis’s favorite motifs: suitcases, butterflies, kites, arrows, a tree or a house painted in strong colors and bold outlines. In later works, the motifs become larger and both the colors and outlines become even bolder. This style is what has led some to simplistically describe the art of Akrithakis as «pop.» Although these paintings may, on the surface, recall a pop art aesthetic, they share nothing of pop art’s irony and engagement with popular culture. Besides paintings, Akrithakis also made a series of assemblages, mostly of wood and iron. His wooden constructions of suitcases – the exhibition includes one of them – are the most typical of this series, which betray a neo-Dadaist influence and contain a play on reality and its representation, on objects and artworks. In later works, his assemblages become entire environments that express even more fully the artist’s concern with the fusion between art and life. An example is «Bar» from the early ’80s, a work that transformed an art gallery into an actual bar. The creative period of the ’80s was succeeded by Akrithakis’s descent into alcoholism and gradual psychological decline in the early ’90s. Akrithakis continued to paint. Interestingly, two of the most engaging works at the current exhibition were made when Akrithakis was hospitalized. The drawings are a sad and powerful epilogue to the art of one of the most gifted and moving Greek artists of the second part of the 20th century. The exhibition on Alexis Akrithakis will run until September at the Zacharias Portalakis collection exhibition venue (8 Pesmazoglou, tel 210.331.8933 or visit www.portalakiscollection.gr). An essay by Alexandra Koroxenidis appears in the exhibition’s catalog.