Art which reappraises society

A1939 Hollywood melodramatic movie, «Dark Victory,» starring Bette Davis, follows the gradual transformations in the character of a glamorous, socialite-heiress who learns that she has a terminal illness. At the end of the film, the heroine dies, but in the painful course if her illness she gains the love and redemption that her former, frivolous life lacked. Her sight becomes blurred, as a symptom of the illness which deprives the heroine of every sense of security and certainty. Ironically, that same symptom makes her more aware and appreciative of everything around her. The film implies that times of crisis and uncertainty can liberate people – perhaps even societies or a social class – from stifling conventions, also rendering them more humane. Disaster brings victory, a «dark victory» that gives a sad but hopeful end to the story. In the view of artist Dimitris Antonitsis, the film’s connotations can also be applied on a societal level. The heroine represents the norms of the American haute bourgeoisie which the impending crisis calls into question. Using the film as a reference, Antonitsis has created a curatorial project that looks for an analogy of a «redemptive, dark victory» in contemporary American society as well as the art establishment. In «Dark Victory,» a curatorial taking place at the Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center, he has invited eight contemporary, mostly New York-based artists whose work he considers to be subversive of ensconced values and – in some cases – critical of issues of American politics, society or art. Antonitsis, who closely follows the New York art scene (he has shown his own work internationally, including in New York), has included some of these artists in his annual curatorial projects held on the island of Hydra. For the current exhibition, he worked closely with the artists, discussing the works and the project’s concept. The exhibition’s catalog, beautifully designed to echo the concept of the exhibition and its references to the film, reflects the creative process leading up to the exhibition and underlines the idea of a dialogue, a concept which also prevails in the show. The actual display is spare and elegant with the works of each artist occupying the outer sides of each wall, as if to suggest that their work supports issues that are on the margins, outside convention. On the whole, the exhibition shows the dark side of a contemporary, mostly American reality. The works of Scott Campbell speak of a deceitful superficiality. A sought-after tattoo artist, Campbell has designed (using a laser technique) tattoo motifs against the surface of leather-bound books which are arranged together in different shapes. These are the sort of books that people buy by the pound to decorate their bookcases. The work of Campbell suggests that beauty and ornament can be deceiving, mere luster without depth or content. The analogy is made with social role-playing (as in pretending to be an intellectual) and conventions. Marco Brambilla’s video makes a more direct attack, this time on US political hegemony. Based on footage showing the first American satellite on the moon, his video «Sea of Tranquillity» makes the satellite and American flag slowly dissolve. The work is a melancholy take on the vain ambition for power. In a drawing and painting installation by Wes Lang, Abraham Lincoln is repeatedly portrayed as a black of the American south. Other works in the installation make references to the Ku Klux Klan, which, according to the artist’s research, had funded the making of a major statue of Lincoln. In a bust, a tear is shown falling down Lincoln’s cheek. By suggesting a link between Lincoln and the Ku Klux Klan, Lang’s work targets what is presented as a dark moment in American history. Nearby, a collection of drawings, silkscreens and photo-based paintings by Nate Lowman, recycles images, mostly related to mass culture, that appear in the American press. Lowman uses the images in a way that hides their original content. His work suggests that the media indoctrinates people, manipulates information and constructs news. It also suggests an underlying violence in American media and mass culture. A series of mixed-technique works by Michael Bevilacqua are among the exhibition’s most aesthetically pleasing works. Pencil drawings combined with collages are built layer upon layer and constitute a palimpsest of imagery drawn from pop culture, art, animation, fashion, anything that forms part of contemporary, visual culture. Bevilacqua’s work feels both aggressive and tender. It paints the image of a dizzying reality that is comprised of a bombardment of disconnected imagery but also captures the familiarity that many of those images bring to mind. Bevilacqua suggests that visual stimuli can be deconstructed and recombined in new, personal ways. Not far from Bevilacqua’s drawings, a headpiece that looks more like a piece of sculpture hangs from the ceiling and above a round pedestal. The piece is by Three as Four, a New York fashion collective which participates in the exhibition with their latest creations made especially for the show. Experimental and subversive of mainstream fashion, their work has been included in the show to indicate yet another expression of a questioning culture. The inclusion of fashion in the curatorial project is also a way of suggesting the openness and flexibility of American culture and society. On the gallery’s ground floor – at the exhibition’s start – a huge wall-painting by Aaron Young alludes to the powerful imprint that belief systems make on our minds. By focusing on the center of the image long enough and then closing one’s eyes, the image of Christ appears on the retina. This optical trick is a reference to the dimmed sight of the heroine in «Dark Victory.» However, unlike the film, Young’s work does not necessarily suggest that we see clearer in darkness but that those images that are embedded on our subconscious are often cultural constructs that have been imposed on us. Hannah Liden’s neo-goth pictures also bring to mind religion and belief systems. Interestingly, they are shot in the area of upstate New York where the protagonist Judith in «Dark Victory» retreats at the end of the film. The rather morbid atmosphere tin the pictures evokes the film’s sad ending. A disheartening, yet strangely encouraging, end that shows how life’s obstacles can often lead to self-fulfillment. In «Dark Victory,» Antonitsis transfers that message to a societal level. He considers art that takes a critical stance as a force of resistance in a society that breeds ignorance and manifests political arrogance. In many ways, the film’s heroine can be interpreted as the personification of American society: conceited and self-absorbed, yet also naive and protected. Perhaps, the contradiction would not withstand probing political analysis. After all, this is an art exhibition, not a presentation of a profound political statement. It is an exhibition that plays with our conceptions of American society but, more importantly, an exhibition that suggests that a man should reappraise the way he lives. Ileana Tounta, 48 Armatolon & Klefton, Athens, tel 210.643.9466. To June 30.