Artist searching for visual purity

To most people, the building of the American Embassy in Athens is an example of the International Style as articulated by one of its pioneers, the German-born architect Walter Gropius, who also happened to be the founder of the Bauhaus school. In the minds of the Greek public of the late 1950s, which is when construction began, it is highly probable that this piece of public architecture also captured the spirit of rapid urbanization and fervid construction that was spreading across Greece at the time. But it was not long before the building, as a sign both of modernism and development, became tainted by bitterness at the turn of events. From a symbol of progress, the American Embassy turned into the hostile emblem of superpower imperialism. At least it did for a fraction of left-wing intellectuals, whose idealistic aims have in many ways been watered down into a vapid rhetoric. All the same, this is a past that, combined with contemporary reality, colors the way in which we perceive the American Embassy building. Considering the building’s symbolic weight, how close to an unprejudiced, fresh viewing of its immanent qualities can Greeks come to? This is the question that Vangelis Vlachos raises through his latest work, on display at the Els Hanappe jointly with the work of Scottish artist Alan Michael. To attempt this, Vlachos prepares as neutral and objective a ground as possible. Using photographs printed at the press, he sketches architectural drawings of the building on rice paper then displays them in close proximity to stress the idea of seriality and repetition as if they were part of an architectural study. This is only an impression of course, since the images lack the details typical of architectural drawings. In fact, if it were not for the photograph printed on the exhibition’s invitation card, one could not immediately identify the portrayed building. Vlachos is intentionally reticent and spare in his depictions, for he is not interested in the political associations and factual information of an image but in its aesthetic qualities. He therefore stresses its pictorial style and chooses a strong black-and-white aesthetic that is evocative of 1970s graphics. The approach is a formalist one, although Vlachos is only a step away from betraying the identity of the building. Bitter lyrics by the Smashing Pumpkins rock group, printed and mounted on the wall like posters, although remote from the pristine architectural-like drawings of the American Embassy, makes the viewer suspect the content of the images. The juxtaposition suggests that maintaining this precarious balance between disclosing and concealing content is part of the work. Essentially, Vlachos’s work tests the mechanism of perception. It explores a contemporary issue in art, which is how we bestow meaning on images, and asks whether it is possible to appreciate art in purely visual terms. Does stripping an image of its historical context enhance understanding or does it undermine it? The same question could also apply to our understanding of the modern style and this is probably why Vlachos chooses a building that is emblematic of modernism. In designing the American Embassy, Gropius followed the principles of clarity, universality and autonomy of form that were so central to modernism but were oversimplified in postmodern times. Can these qualities be seen in purely visual terms, outside a historical context? Vlachos challenges us for a response, and for as pure a vision as possible.

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