Baikas’s visual puns and the art of paradox

If Nicos Baikas were a writer he would most likely compose riddles and if he were a geometrician he would construct inconsistent equations. But because he is a painter, his complex thoughts surface in images and come through visual paradox, even though the exclusive use of pencil and the persistent depiction of geometric forms suggest an artist flirting with both script and geometry. Many of his works from the Zacharias Portalakis private art collection presently on view at Iraklion’s St. Mark’s Basilica, are like visual puns teasing the viewer to find some logical solution. Rendered in minimal, stark and beautifully balanced compositions, they make the viewer want to look closely at them, to almost scrutinize them, as they challenge one’s perception and also force one into intellectual exercise. A man hanging upside down from a rope with his head immersed in water, his hand holding the rope, images depicting the frozen moment of a tightrope act, or hands coming from some unknown place turn jars upside down: These are some of the images that consistently come up in the work of Baikas. Narrative is often lost in favor of an unusual and perfectly rendered abstract form. Nevertheless, his pictures comprise a rather gloomy, pessimistic world with their black and white composition and their almost exclusively dark gray background adding to the somber tone. One can perhaps detect a streak of existential angst but the overall approach is cool and detached, more cerebral than emotional. It is this emphasis on the intellect – among other things, Baikas is caught up in analytic philosophy – that have earned Baikas a reputation as an abstruse and withdrawn artist. His complicated essays, coupled with the fact that he seldom exhibits his works (this exhibit comes as an unexpected exception), attest to his being an artist straining with his medium. It is perhaps for this reason that Baikas is one of the most respected Greek artists. His works belong to some of the most important art collections and he was also shown in the renowned Kassel Documenta in 1992. What also makes Baikas’s work so compelling is the artist’s distinctive method. Although one cannot tell by the dense surface of his works and the almost metal-like texture, all of his compositions are on layers of paper painstakingly drawn with pencil. By drawing on layers, the use of the pencil eventually creates subtle concaves and convexes on the paper’s surface, giving it the appearance of tin and bringing about subtle gradations of light and shadow. The current exhibit of Baikas’s artistry at St. Mark’s Basilica in Iraklion, Crete is perhaps one of the best, with the commanding architectural setting enhancing the imposing quality of his works. Arranged along the church’s side aisles, the works do not interfere with the basilica’s architecture but draw from it to create a most engaging exhibition. St. Mark’s Venetian basilica Just off Fountain Square in the heart of the city of Iraklion, the Basilica of St. Mark stands out as just one of the city’s architectural landmarks and Crete’s oldest Venetian church. Along with the massive fortification walls, the vestiges of the arsenal and the Venetian loggia (which is actually just steps away from the basilica), the building is evocative of Iraklion’s – known as Candia until the 17th century – history, its long occupation by the Venetians and its subsequent invasion by the Turks. Construction of the basilica began in 1239, less than three decades after the Venetians conquered Crete. Independent of the Latin archdiocese, it was under sovereignty of the duke who was then governor of Crete. It was here that the duke and high-ranking officials attended Mass and it was also here that aristocrats of Venetian and Cretan nobility were buried – two tombs are still evident. The structure suffered major damage after a series of earthquakes in the 14th and 16th centuries and it was severely sacked during the Turkish occupation. Religious icons and relics, as well as one of the church bells, were removed. A minaret was built in place of the campanile and the basilica was converted to a mosque. Thanks to a major restoration project which began in the mid-1950s, many of the building’s original architectural elements have been restored. An impressive wooden ceiling, modeled after the original, was rebuilt and the building was donated to the city of Iraklion to be used to host cultural events.

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