CULTURE

An artist paints New York City

Manhattan is a city that throws you off balance. The sheer energy of it, the scale of the buildings and the diverse, often contradictory experiences that it provides makes this a place that evokes strong emotions Seen through the eyes of an artist, New York City’s surreal quality, its richness, harshness and warmth – all at once – must seem like a stimulating world waiting to be explored. It seemed that way to artist Sophia Portalaki, who was so overwhelmed by what she saw on her visit several years ago that she structured an entire series of work on her visual memory of the place. Thirty-five large canvasses (2 meters x 1.40) and numerous drawings were what she produced from her Manhattan experience. The works are displayed in Portalaki’s impressive, solo exhibition «Manhattan 1997-2002» which is curated by Takis Mavrotas and forwarded by Georges Armaos and is on view at the Pierides Municipality Gallery until the end of the week. Geometric shapes rendered in strong colors against a dark background are the artist’s abstract vision of Manhattan. Like the rest of her work, the paintings are an imaginative variation on geometric abstraction, the style that Portalaki has been practicing for years. Color is combined with geometric shapes to create a subtle play of receding and protruding planes and textures, while each shade is unique, as it is prepared by the artist via a mixture of different colors. For the Manhattan series, Portalaki tried various combinations but was only satisfied with the result when she tried painting on black, handmade paper from Nepal that she discovered in Paris. The drawings on the black paper then became the prelude for the large canvasses that she starts working on after first painting them black. If black is the binding theme in the Manhattans series, this is because it is at night that New York City made the greatest impression on Portalaki. «From where I was staying, I could see the Manhattan skyline. I realized that Manhattan by night looks like sculpture, a wonderful composition created by the tightness of the skyscrapers and the light coming out of them. It is from these hundreds of small lights that the squares in my paintings come. They represent the lives of the people who are so different from one another but all coexist in this city with their differences,» says Portalaki. It is this sense of openness toward difference that struck Portalaki the most about Manhattan. Raised in Crete in an environment that was very traditional but, strangely, was also heavily influenced by American popular culture, Portalaki then studied at the Athens School of Fine Arts and subsequently trained in Paris. After visiting Manhattan, Portalaki compared the constrictions she felt in a European culture with the freedom that she sensed in New York, while also realizing how Manhattan made her feel more aware of her own Cretan tradition. «I was first taken to Soho. My first impression was that I was born there, and this was a feeling that I have never had before. I felt a foreigner among foreigners and a part of the States at the same time,» says Portalaki. «I understood why this is country that many people have left for and not returned. In Germany or France or other European countries, a foreigner is always a foreigner. This probably explains why all artists who went to Europe came back; of all of them only Kounellis managed to make a career in Europe… In Manhattan, I felt proud of and more rooted in my own culture, but, at the same time, a citizen of the world.» Contrary to what one might think, Portalaki traces the strong colors and geometric patterns that typify her work not to modern art or formalism (Mondrian and post painterly abstraction spring to mind) but to the patterns in Cretan woven textiles. Portalaki, who grew up among them, explains how the use of strong colors was a way of counteracting Crete’s strong daylight. She also views abstraction as a visual language that transcends civilizations and expresses spirituality, but not in a religious sense. However, rather than theorize about art, Portalaki remains grounded in her views, expressing everything in a straightforward, often confrontational way, especially when it comes to the Greek art scene and market. Guided by instinct but also her need for expression, she is unswayed by the dictates of the art market, and will not exhibit her work unless she thinks she has something substantial to say. In fact, it has been seven years since her last exhibition. Some years before that, it was the abstract expressionist Theodoros Stamos who prompted her to show her work to the public, advising her that doing so would help her continue with her work. Somehow, one senses that it is out of disappointment with the artistic environment that Portalaki abstains from showing her work more frequently. «There is a lot of confusion in the contemporary Greek art scene. There is also much pretension and lying; none of this is persuasive,» says Portalaki, who cites a lack of museums for contemporary art, the ignorance of art critics and the obsession with foreign art and passing trends that is spreading among Greek art collectors, as well as the low level of training at the school of fine arts, as signs of a poor art scene in this country. This was not always so. Portalaki remembers back to the flourishing art scene of the 1970s when, as a young graduate in her 20s, she had just returned from Paris. She remembers seeing innovative art through the exhibitions that Iolas and other gallerists organized. The work of the sculptor Giorgos Zongolopoulos is one of those that have most remained in her memory. Despite the difficulties she cites, Portalaki has somehow found her way past them. In the loft-like house that she shares with her husband, the sculptor Markos Armaos, she spends hours working on her large canvasses. It is also there that she produces reproductions of Byzantine icons, a subsidiary vocation that Portalaki began 30 years ago as a source of extra income. She has worked for the Byzantine and Christian Museum and other major museums and commercial outlets in Greece. But she has also used her knowledge and experience in Byzantine icon-making to her benefit as an artist. «The discipline required in drawing with such precision and detail on a small scale, the physical fatigue, the fact that you have to focus for long on a single spot, the type of disciplined breathing you have to practice, all these have helped me enormously in my work as an artist,» says Portalaki. Knowledge of using a drawing rod (part of the traditional technique in Byzantine artistry) has also turned out to be extremely beneficial in painting large geometric shapes with precision. While Portalaki will keep painting icons, she will abstain from painting for the next year. «Every time a cycle of work comes to an end, I feel the need to detoxify myself, to keep a distance from painting.» But she has more ambitious plans for the future: a trip to China and a new series of paintings, this time using white, a color that Portalaki has never used before.