“Dear Stefanos, It’s 4 in the morning and I can’t sleep and all the images in your paintings are churning around in my head. It was extraordinary to stand in the studio and see the paintings for real – the grandeur of them, with all their congested details and terrifying blank spaces. I feel connected to the essence of them. I feel they are very close to the way I write lyrics – intense bursts of memory, ecstatic detail, sudden erotics, esoteric imagery; the forging of frozen narratives that hover about like dreams, haunted and strange and life-affirming.”
This letter leaves little doubt of the profound impact on Nick Cave of Greek artist Stefanos Rokos’s collection inspired by the Australian singer-songwriter’s 2001 album “No More Shall We Part.” These paintings are currently on display at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos Street annex in Athens in a show titled “Stefanos Rokos: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ No More Shall We Part – 14 Paintings 17 Years Later,” which allows the public to explore the relationship between visual arts and music, and the channels of communication between the two forms.
The show’s title speaks of 17 years, yet the Greek painter’s acquaintance with the iconic rocker – and love for his music – dates back even further. It was 1991 when a 13-year-old Rokos first heard Cave in the title song of the soundtrack for the film “Until the End of the World” by Wim Wenders. “It had an instantaneous and irreversible effect on me. I started tracking down other albums of his. The second song I heard was ‘The Mercy Seat,’ a hard piece, a seven-minute monotone. It was a sound I had never heard before and I was hooked!” the artist remembers.
Rokos met Cave in person six years later in London. “I had planted myself outside the Royal Albert Hall waiting for him to come out from a concert promoting ‘The Boatman’s Call.’ And then he did. I was walking toward him at a loss for what to say when he turned around and spoke to me first: ‘Can I tell you a joke? A guy stops at a gas station with a truck full of penguins. The attendant sees them and asks, “What are you planning to do with those penguins?” “I have no idea,” says the guy. “You should take them to the zoo,” the attendant said. The next day, the same guy rolls up to the gas station again, but this time the penguins are wearing sunglasses and hats. “Didn’t I tell you to take them to the zoo?” says the attendant. “I did,” says the guy, “and today I’m taking them to the beach.”’ That was our first conversation,” Rokos reminisces.
‘Era of maturity’
“No More Shall We Part” was released in 2001. “It was clear that this album marked Nick Cave’s passage into an era of maturity. Its subjects – mostly God and love – touched me enormously and in his lyrics I found answers to many of my own existential and metaphysical questions. That was when I had the idea of a visual dialogue with his songs. In 2015, when I was myself more mature as an artist, I decided that the time had come to realize this idea, to attempt an approach to this particular album by creating 14 paintings inspired by its 12 tracks and the two B-sides from the limited-edition release,” says Rokos.
In the meantime, the Greek artist had met and become friends with Bad Seeds drummer Jim Sclavunos and shortly after with Cave, who immediately embraced Rokos’s project idea. He even visited the painter’s studio during a trip to Athens about a year ago. “You know what?” He said as he walked toward the painting “Grief Game Riding” to take a closer look. “I had the exact same image as this painting, the same colors and atmosphere, when I was writing the song. I felt the same emotions,” the musician told Rokos.
Sclavunos is equally enchanted by the collection. “I really appreciate the quiet determination and strict discipline that Stefanos shows as an artist. Coupled with his technical abilities, these are virtues that have made me watch him and his work, his evolution, with great interest. As a friend, I really enjoy his sense of humor,” the American drummer told Kathimerini.
What he can’t say is whether he has a favorite among the paintings in the Benaki exhibition. “I would have said ‘Gates to the Garden’ if you’d asked me when I first saw them. Now I don’t know. I’m so deeply involved in this project that I see all of the pieces as a single experience,” said Sclavunos.
What we do know is which one Nick Cave chose to put on display in his house. “After a good deal of thought, he settled on ‘Darker with the Day,’ a piece with lot of flowers and a snake lurking among them,” Rokos reveals. “Maybe because there is no good without evil, because the two are everywhere and in everything, bringing balance to the universe. And that is something Cave knows very well.”
The show at the Benaki Museum (138 Pireos & Andronikou, tel 210.345.3111, www.benaki.gr) runs through May 19. Opening hours are Thursdays & Sundays 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Fridays & Saturdays 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. Admission costs 6 euros.