Sculpture made of ramps

Most public and open-air sculpture derives a large part of its message from its surroundings. It is, therefore, meant to be seen in the location for which it was intended and loses some of its associations, both formal and conceptual, when removed from its original context. That the sculptures of the renowned Greek-American artist Cris Gianakos are confined within the space of a museum is, therefore, what makes the artist’s retrospective exhibition currently being held at the State Museum of Contemporary Art a slightly constricted representation of his work. There is not enough breathing space and the fact that the viewer cannot enjoy the works – mainly architectural constructions – in their original setting results in only a partial understanding of Gianakos’s more large-scale installations, something which is unfortunately unavoidable for exhibitions of this kind. Nevertheless, the various preparatory drawings and photographs showing the sculptures in their true setting make up for any other defects. Well displayed throughout the exhibition hall, they introduce the viewer to the artist’s thought process and systematic work method. Although not as impressive as the sculptures themselves, this material constitutes a valuable documentation of Gianakos’s work and helps to explain what is a complex and sophisticated body of work. The one aspect that ties this work together is the recurring use of a ramp. All the works are architectural constructions made of wood and bolts or steel and glass in which the shape of a diagonal ramp is prominent. The length of the ramp varies from 6 to 120 feet as does the ramp’s angle, height and supporting substructure (usually a lattice of vertical and diagonal lines). But the sense of movement that is simultaneously both upward and downward also remains a steady aspect of his work. Gianakos started making his ramp-shaped works in the mid-1970s. Before that, he had spent much time working as a graphic artist and had experimented with making assemblages that he began exhibiting in the mid-1960s when he was in his early 30s. The emphasis on form and the repeated use of a single element ties much of this work with minimalist art. While acknowledging this relationship, the exhibition’s curator, Thomas McEvilley, also ties the work of Gianakos to an expansive network of references. In the catalog’s introductory essay, McEvilley (an art critic and scholar of classical antiquities) finds strong connections with Russian constructivism, suprematism and neo-plasticism but also discusses the shape of the ramp in terms of ancient civilizations and as symbolic of a metaphysical view of the world. The fact that Gianakos has made ramp-shaped works for places as diverse as New York, Crete, Sweden and Massachusetts probably suggests that for the artist, the ramp retains some transcendent, if not necessarily metaphysical, meaning. Of the large works shown at the exhibition, two are recent donations by the artist to the State Museum of Contemporary Art. Besides the artist’s drawings, there is also a selection of photographs the artist has taken of steps and ramp-like shapes found in the streets and other places in Greece and New York. The retrospective on the work of Cris Gianakos is being held at Pier A – Warehouse B1 at the Thessaloniki Port Complex through November 5.