Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Interview with artist Peter Gerakaris

"Aquarium I" by Peter Gerakaris

I recently met up with Peter Gerakaris at a group show he's in: "Hello World!" at Milavec Hakimi Gallery to discuss his work.

JH: How do you start a painting?
PG: It’s a convoluted cocktail in which raw impulse comingles with self-critique. New ideas often grow organically out of previous works and I ask myself, “what could I do better this time?” I will also get a strong impulse or vision and ask, “what am I really attempting to convey?” To prevent these impulses from becoming overwrought, I try to get the mental image down on paper as quickly as possible – to try to make some tangible sense of it. Sometimes I let ideas flow straight out through my hand onto long, non-linear accordion books. Or, if I have a vivid image(s) in mind, I work it out through a series of little works on paper in gouache, pen, ink, etc. The accordion books and works on paper often serve the dual purpose of being autonomous artworks that simultaneously percolate into larger oil paintings. For instance, I’ll sort through many small works on paper to select a composition to scale-up as the matrix for a new painting. It’s like conceiving of a mini-mural, yet its outcome ends up being far less predetermined than meets the eye. Details from the accordion books, like a honeycomb or “energy field” pattern, might also find their way into the large amalgams that are my paintings. The initial “studies” have to captivate or inebriate me enough to warrant a larger version. So the formative part of a painting is kind of like visual mixology.

JH: What are your inspirations for your work?
Maybe too much fresh air as a kid up in the woods? Well, I think the inspirations are myriad. The longer I’ve been making work, the more I feel I’m just channeling the world around me, whether emotional, intellectual, conscious or subconscious. Maybe a Gary Burton recording I listen to in the studio one day happens to co-mingle with imagery from a Scandinavian Film I watch later that night, or an agitating piece I’ve read on Colony Collapse Disorder creeps into the mix. Sometimes “it” comes in dream form, like this elusive muse figure that kept appearing at dusk in an uncannily familiar, ultramarine-blue environment. Then there’s the clich├ęd channeling of emotion that can drive a work – but there’s some merit to that too. I also recently tried scuba diving in the Caribbean. That aroused vivid dreams of being a bell diver in a quinacridone-violet sea – I was so driven to get those images down on paper, it consumed an entire intaglio / printmaking project last summer and has now morphed into a whole series of aquatic-themed works.

I used to be more concerned with having a singular thematic impetus when beginning a work or series. For instance, I was fixated on making abstractions of poisonous plants for a couple years as an exploration of beauty’s coexistence with toxicity in Nature. I called it “Toxiganic.” By now the influences have mushroomed into something far more plural and layered. But I feel all of these previous explorations, including the “Toxiganic” phase, function as at least one constituent amidst the totality of a work. It’s a continuum. Inspirations and imagery often come to me by meditating on specific issues – maybe even dreaming about them — such as how my rural “back to the land” upbringing contrasts so sharply with contemporary urban life. So this feeling of having a Nature Deficit Disorder probably drives me to add sinuous organic forms to nearly everything I make – the botanical forms are probably an attempt to fill that void. The scuba and aquatic works undoubtedly carry over into that desire to engage with a vastly unknown natural environment. And then there’s the notion of Nature as propaganda: for instance, to ensure its own existence the Iris evolved into a multitude of colors specifically designed to attract to pollinating bees – what is the purpose of color in Nature and how does that relate to survival? If that and peacock feathers are not forms of advertising, I don’t know what is. Furthermore, I’m interested in the connection between these natural phenomena and contemporary graphic propaganda used to seduce consumers. The industrial food companies have to package meat and vegetables in all sorts of bizarre ways to help make it palatable to humans. Putting a logo on a head of lettuce is kind of bizarre. Think about it. So I am also intrigued by how surreal it can be to look at a botanical or natural form when mediated through a pop-culture lens. I try to get at that in my paintings.

I’ve also become increasingly fascinated with the notion of “manufactured nostalgia” and how it might be examined in art. You hear it constantly in music right now. For instance, many current indie artists recycle, if not outright sample, 80s music. Meanwhile, their respective youth audiences probably did not even grow up in the 80s, let alone having firsthand recollections of that time. I am curious what this, or any artificial nostalgia we respond to, says about us. In general, I’ve been increasingly interested in how images can be used to manufacture, even manipulate, a sense of place, environment and mood. I had a studio visitor last year who saw my first “MoonGate” painting (it depicts a transparent woman under a Chinese bridge), and she was convinced she had visited the actual bridge in the painting – maybe she had, I certainly hadn’t. So that’s an example of the “painting as a construction,” like a cinematic montage or physical stage set. This has driven me to fabricate imagery that juxtaposes or superimposes seemingly disparate elements – ie. flora, fauna and human characters – within stage-like environments, such as hallucinatory Asian gardens, artificial forests, galaxies, terrariums, and aquatic environs. One friend pointed out that a common thread among these might be a sense of transport, which I like.

This is just a small cross section of all the messy stuff that gets filtered into a personal cosmology we end up calling “artwork.” Whether or not the viewer cares about that is another question.

JH: Why do you include people in your work?
We surround ourselves with humans, yet still cannot seem to get enough of them in art. That makes the figure infinitely fascinating and challenging. The fact that figures are probably the most recurring theme in the history of art, that art has never entirely been able to rid itself of the depiction of humans, speaks to this need. When I watch films, I often pause a scene mentally, reducing its characters to a static, “mental painting.” I know this is the inverse of how many film directors operate — but welcome to the backward-mind of a painter. This is probably once reason the figures in my paintings seem as if they were clipped from a film, transported to another dimension, and indelibly frozen in a painted world. Consequently, these figures transform into something that’s related more to the iconic, and not the literal – it’s a symbol signifying another symbol. To reinforce the interplay and slippage between figure and iconography, attainment and evasion, I might make a character simultaneously opaque and transparent. An example would be the post-modern-umbrella-girl-muse in the “MoonGate Tondos,” or the Fellini-esque man in “Giant Steps.” Sometimes the “negative space” around the figure becomes so visually implicated in the figure, they’re essentially inseparable, so the “background” becomes a surrogate figure too. I guess I’m intrigued by figures that are at once present and absent.

JH: Is spray paint one of your mediums?
PG: No. Everything is painted by hand – it’s all oil on canvas with a brush. How I get those effects, however, is my secret. I do love how a medium as old as oil paint can trump its own obsolescence by quoting and absorbing a modern medium like spray paint – ie. paint as an illusion for other paint, as you point out. Call me a postmodern romantic Luddite (I do not belong to Facebook), but handmade paintings captivate me all the more in the digital age where everything seems to have built-in obsolescence. That’s why it’s so compelling that oil paint can still riff on, or even simulate a digital aesthetic, and then ultimately eclipse it. The conflation of the appearance of different painting modes within one medium speaks to oil paint’s seemingly infinite malleability. Maybe I channeled some of the graffiti in the Lower East Side where I once lived, or the neon signs by Times Square through which I had to walk by to get to my old studio.

JH: When do you know when a painting is finished?
It’s like walking a tightrope. Additionally, I feel that a dialogue with a painting should never end, despite its appearance as a “finished” object. As I’ve built up a body of work, each painting has come to represent a sort of time capsule or slice of life at any given moment. Regarding the actual process, I have a hard time knowing when to stop — you can probably tell from these longwinded responses. There is a “homestretch phase” for me in each painting when I feel the work has taken on a life of its own. There is also an ongoing dialogue with the work, where I’m questioning or perhaps arguing, “Damn you painting, tell me what else you want?!” And then I often cross that threshold of overworking a picture – it becomes evident when I suddenly feel the need to reduce various elements. This happens frequently, but oil painting is probably the most forgiving and plastic of mediums – it can be as subtractive as it is additive, and thus the love-hate relationship perpetuates.

JH: Some of your works look like they would lend nicely to sculpture. Do you ever create sculptures? PG: Thanks. However, that also sounds like a mixed-blessing. I have not really pursued sculpture seriously, but maybe that will happen sooner or later. My father is a sculptor and often remarks how he’d love to get into painting. He says he wouldn’t wish being a sculptor on me, but meanwhile, I would never wish being a painter on him, so where does that leave us? I did grow up with sculptural inclinations. Apparently, when I was a kid playing outside my father’s metalsmithing forge, I once grabbed a hot ember and was promptly burned. He dunked me in his giant slack tub and that immediately quelled my enthusiasm for metalwork. Later, during college, I made a promising plasticine bust of a friend for a sculpture class, only to have it “accidentally” discarded by a sour graduate TA. Finally, in grad school, I took a riveting sculpture seminar with Robert Morris. After submitting to him an entire semester of research and notebooks, as per his request, they too vanished. Despite all these obstacles, I do have a number of burning sculptural ideas, so I might try to confront this demon again – get back to me in another 10 years.

JH: What do you plan to do next?
I want to continue exploring some current strands of work, such as the “MoonGate” and “Terrarium” series. The former places elusive, ethereal figures within circular environments, while the latter distorts botanic imagery in industrial-chrome reflections, as if the tondos were telescopic or microscopic apertures to another dimension. Having made a lot of really large paintings the last few years, I’m also interested in tackling some at a medium scale – such as 3 ft tondos or hexagons. For me it’s an extra challenge to achieve the impact I want at a scale that’s neither micro nor macro. Simultaneously, I’ve started to work on hexagonal compositions on paper and hexagonally shaped canvases. It’s a direction that seems to have endless permutations. Some are singular hexagons, while others lock into honeycomb-like configurations that I could see eventually multiplying into larger, tile-like installations. The hexagonally shaped canvas grew out of my fascination with apiary and honeycomb motifs – I had been utilizing apiary-inspired hexagonal patterns as detail elements in the paintings for several years, but suddenly wanted to turn the honeycomb inside out. As I mentioned earlier, the imagery within the framework is shifting toward aquatic, even scuba related themes, so I’m calling these pictures the “Aquarium Series” – there’s an “Aquarium Cinema,” “Aquarium Inferno,” etc. Internal details become the exterior framework, and vice versa. I’m also beginning a hexagonal diptych commission for a collector that will attempt to deconstruct my current painting language within the honeycomb by using a sparer, more monochrome approach. Going more in the monochrome direction means challenging myself with restraint. I sometimes work monochromatically to provide a kind of temporary tonic. Plus, monochrome can just be really sexy if done properly. Other recent preparatory works on paper, which might eventually become paintings, deploy a CMYK hexagonal quadrant structure, containing spinning limbs that evoke mini-kaleidoscopes. The CMYK structure alludes to the chromatic foundation of most graphic print media: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. Expanding upon the “umbrella girl” character, I’ve begun infusing the CMYK works with abstracted “bicycle girls”. I’m still developing this series, but I think the entanglement of limbs within a mechanical apparatus and visually extravagant context starts to evoke notions of utilitarianism vs. leisure, necessity vs. luxury. This has made me ponder our contemporary notions of luxury in relation to the material vs. natural worlds, and how I might one day examine this more deeply in my work. With the fall of utopianism and the rise of cool sarcasm, are people now spellbound by haute couture to such a degree that it has usurped our sense of awe in primeval beauty, or even blinded us to it? Or does our umbilical attachment to cities imply the inverse — that the minority who can afford a comfortable coexistence with Nature, by simultaneously enjoying the modern amenities alongside primeval splendors, enjoy the most profound luxury of all?

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