Art that exposes the reality of life

Among the various icons left behind by 20th century modernism, Vincent van Gogh is one of the most powerful. In so many ways, he is the epitome of the tormented artist; of genius having suffered poverty and a spiritual crisis that led him by his own will to an asylum, yet also enraptured in a frenzied artistic inspiration and a humanitarian mission throughout his life. For the surrealist writer Antonin Artaud, van Gogh was the «Man Suicided by Society» (the title of a text that Artaud wrote in the mid-1940s), the artist who dared to utter truths contrary to societal rules. His vision was captured in paintings filled with turbulent shapes and forceful colors which, like his personality, captured the imagination of some of the greatest thinkers, among them Heidegger, whose essay on one of van Gogh’s famous paintings of shoes prompted a critical reaction by Meyer Schapiro and one in response to that by Derrida. Van Gogh lived with the same pathos and by the same rules that he applied in his paintings and his life as an artist. In a sense he proved art and life to be one inseparable whole, equally divided between a dedication to one’s art and using art as a means of bringing consolation to humanity. It is probably because of these social ideals that contemporary Greek artist Yiannis Psychopedis, himself a very socially minded artist, became so enthralled with van Gogh as to turn the artist into a recurring theme for his paintings. For years now Psychopedis has been reproducing images of van Gogh, his famous portraits and images of shoes (according to Shapiro these are held as self-portraits as well) and giving them a central place in his extensive visual repertory. A square image of van Gogh’s «Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear» (van Gogh painted the portrait after having cut off his left ear) lies at the center of the «The Large Crossword,» a composition made out of an accumulation of small square paintings which is currently on view at the Zoumboulakis Gallery, where Psychopedis is showing his recent work in three distinct but somehow related parts. Psychopedis, one of the country’s most established artists, has often been said to paint as a writer would, probably because his works can develop into dense accounts about contemporary reality, particularly social issues, politics and the role of art amidst it. In «The Large Crossword,» the narrative encompasses the entirety of the 20th century, with each small panel showing some of the century’s greatest protagonists or alluding to events that marked its history. It is a work so laden with dense symbolism as to create a powerful, almost astounding effect. «The Large Crossword» is conceived as an open-ended work, ever expanding like history itself and ready to add to its corpus a new image from another historical period. In its superabundance of seemingly disconnected images and constantly evolving associations (images can be paired in multiple ways to produce meaning), this is a work that has a vaguely postmodern feeling about it. But this is only a superficial reading because, unlike a typical postmodern work, this vast grouping of images is not about the loss of meaning, or the dissolution of coherence, depth and originality. Despite the visual diversity and fragmentation, the work is not rooted in a poststructuralist perspective; it is not about finding the «meaning of meaning» but is instead founded upon a clear-cut social interpretation of reality. Anybody familiar with the work of Psychopedis is well aware of the artist’s social and political orientation. Already back in the ’70s Psychopedis was, as a young artist, part of the politically oriented group of New Greek Realists; since then political and social content has always been present in his work and even in his series of domestic interiors, Psychopedis somehow managed to fit in a suggestion of the social environment, therefore intimating that one’s individual identity is partly shaped out of social conditions. The social and political environment is also what shapes cultural norms. This is what Psychopedis seems to be saying in «English Breakfast,» a series of paintings that make up the second part of the exhibit. The paintings are largely an exposure of bourgeois norms, and quite appropriately the series pays homage to the 18th-century painter and engraver William Hogarth, who was known for producing insightful images of satire directed against bourgeois immorality, affectation and pedantry. Just as in the case of van Gogh, Psychopedis is again referring to an artist with a daring perspective on society. Like in «The Large Crossword,» the «English Breakfast» series brings together some of the continual motifs in the work of Psychopedis. Floral motifs reminiscent of floral tapestries, still lifes and the occasional image of a painting’s empty frame are possible symbols of the bourgeois domestic environment in all its conservatism, coziness and rather superficial tranquility. If this is a world of protection and innocence there is also another side to it, ruled by the same people that inhabit it. It is the public realm of decision- making depicted in fragmentary images showing politicians delivering speeches, men in suits carrying briefcases and tight fists. The portraits of these men are the predominant theme in the «Magic Painter,» the last series of the exhibit which again juxtaposes a seemingly private world of innocence with politics and the public arena. In a way, Psychopedis helps unravel the truth behind appearances. He exposes the economic and social basis of reality and culture, not with accusatory intent but rather with a sense of caring and well-grounded engagement. And perhaps more importantly, he does so through his vocation as an artist. The various measurement tools that are another constant theme in his work could be seen as suggesting that art, through its specific qualities of color, line and composition, can offer an anatomy of reality. Even if this is not always the case, for Psychopedis it seems to be a prerogative.

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