An artist who explores space

In the early 1980s, figurative painting made a palpable comeback in the visual arts field and the art market. Largely the outgrowth of a reaction to the predominance of conceptual art and minimalism, the resurgence of painting and the neo-expressionist style that was particularly popular at the time replaced pure intellect with color and feeling. It also looked back to the history of art and mixed different styles with a postmodern, playful sense of freedom. Greek artist Nicos Baikas, who roughly at the same period had returned from Italy, did not choose to follow that route. The reputation that he would later gain as a solitary, striving artist had shown the first signs: Baikas would follow his own path and would pose a whole set of distinct questions on art to which he would commit himself in an almost obsessive manner. Starting out with performance art and photography, Baikas soon developed a strong interest in analytical philosophy and turned to language and script. With pencil and paper as his tools, he developed a distinctive kind of painting, intellectual and hard to decode, introspective to the point of austerity. Devoid of color and based on the sparest means and a minimalist style, his «paintings» were an attempt at addressing complex issues concerning representation and the image as language. Baikas used a conceptual approach to painting. A typical specimen of the unusual work of this artist is presented at the «Zacharias Portalakis collection,» a privately owned exhibition hall that presents exhibits by drawing on one of the most important modern and contemporary art collections in Greece. Some of the works in the exhibition were presented four years ago in an unusual and atmospheric exhibition at the Basilica of Saint Mark in Iraklion, Crete, the birthplace of the collector. Seen in comparison, the ambience of the current exhibition is perhaps more austere but, strangely, more introspective and even more calming. The works date from the mid-1980s to the present. Although they span almost two decades, they are all based on the same unusual technique and painstaking, time-consuming process of «painting» the entire surface with dense pencil lines. The act of painting seems to be as important as the final image; both combine to provide an unusual effect. Indeed, the pressure with which Baikas applies the pencil in multiple layers on the surface of the paper gives the latter a relief-like surface and a shimmering quality, making it seem more like metal than paper. It is almost as if Baikas would like to draw the viewer’s attention to the material aspect of painting, to its tactile and not just visual aspect. But what is probably more typical of his works is the puzzling enigma they pose to the viewer. Most of the images he paints seem like geometric or mathematical equations transformed into a visual language. Although spare, simple and very clear in terms of composition, Baikas’s paintings are intellectually perplexing. What exactly is taking place is lucid in terms of form but unclear in content. A tree with two hands shown embracing it, a net that holds pouches in between two lit candles, a man hanging on a rope upside down with his head in the water yet his hands holding the rope in total control, or the juxtaposition of two equal sides that recur in his paintings: What could it all mean? In a past interview, Baikas said that he is «concerned with the elaboration of relationships and not the elaboration of form.» The bizarre relationships between the figures and objects depicted in his paintings seem to be taken out of a dream; they are irrational and sometimes haunting. Baikas is also concerned with how to depict space and how to make the viewer perceive space in new ways. He experiments with perspective and the vanishing point and rejects the Renaissance concept of a painting as a «window onto the world» by bringing his main subject into the foreground of the painting. In his interviews Baikas often refers to concepts such as gravity, lightness, suspension, darkness and the void. Refering to a painting that shows a flock of sheep moving under a ray of light, he said that he would like «light to obey the law of gravity.» In Baikas’s paintings, light does not emanate from color but from the contrast of the black background and the white outlines of the figures drawn upon it. This spare, black and white aspect of the works make them appear even more austere and self-contained. After all, what Baikas is mostly interested in are questions of analytical philosophy, issues related to space, optics and visual perception. Even though the world he paints is hard to decode, his paintings are imbued with a tension and strong sense of focus that is hard to miss. Works by Nicos Baikas at the Zacharias Portalakis collection exhibition hall (8 Pesmazoglou) through October 10.