A Greek painter in Istanbul

Konstantinos Kerestetzis has his own way of scanning you, from head to toe. «If you don’t experience something, you can’t see it,» he said. The Greek artist recently exhibited his own version of Istanbul at the Tuyap Istanbul Art and Book Fair, on the outskirts of the city, as a guest of the Turkish organizers. As thousands of visitors flocked to the large-scale fair, which this year turned 20 years old, Kerestetzis happened to be the only Greek artist exhibiting his works in an area set up by the Gavras Gallery, which has supported the artist in his creative activities in Turkey. At the fair, a number of art-loving and obviously well-off visitors paused in front of the Greek artist’s works. They asked for the catalog and, as they left, one got the feeling that they wanted to take their time and go through the works at their leisure. The paintings, after all, revealed secret passages through the city’s side streets, away from its tourist facade. Kerestetzis is something of a fortune hunter – in the positive sense of the word. He arrived in Istanbul some months ago, left, returned and constantly prolonged his stay until the day he settled in the city with his companion, Niki. No one knows how long they plan to stay but, for the time being, they seem to be enjoying themselves to the hilt. They are experiencing the heartbeat, laughter and bustle of the streets in the Fener district (Fanari in Greek), one of its oldest neighborhoods, where a bunch of kids surround the Greek artist, the «Yunan» – the Turkish word for «Greek» – when he goes out on the street with his easel. Before Istanbul, Kerestetzis had spent a long time in Spain, studying the Spanish masters at the Prado Museum in Madrid and learning the local language. Now, residing on the other side of the Mediterranean, he has a lot to say about the innocence and childlike directness of the Turks he comes across on the street. The works the artist has created in Istanbul over the last few months – which were on display at the art fair until November 7 – appeared to spring out of deep recesses. It seems that the neighborhood’s people – the cobbler, the baker, the children and other residents, those who applauded when a painting was completed – are the inhabitants that lie behind this rich crop of works. A number of these faces were turned into a series of portraits. Clean-cut, solid and genuine, Kerestetzis was born in Adriani, Drama, in 1969. He grew up in Kavala after his parents left for Germany. As a child, he was able to roam the neighborhood streets freely, a feeling he is now reliving in Fener, far from Istanbul’s cosmopolitan crowns strolling up and down Istiklal Avenue in the neighborhood of Pera, let alone the city’s major tourist attractions. If there is a belief about painting that Kerestetzis adheres to, it is the notion of experiencing things for oneself. Standing in the noisy premises of the art fair, he was perfectly capable of isolating his thoughts as he talked about the unique experience of in situ painting. While at first sight the works that Kerestetzis has produced in Istanbul are easily understood by all, a second reading reveals his firsthand knowledge. It is this look, coupled with the uniqueness of that particular moment in time, that turn the works into personal narration. The overall feeling is that these works, born on the streets of Fener in the space of a few sunny days in 2010, against the shadows of old residences and side streets, are a confirmation of the current need for a kind of painting that is more cerebral and suggestive. Istanbul appears beautiful through the honest eyes of Konstantinos Kerestetzis.