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Monday, July 07, 2003


A Unity of Conflicts

City Dwellers & Recent Work, Mark Hadjipateras, Denise Bibro Fine Art, May 15 -July 3, New York City

Greek American artist Mark Hadjipateras moved to New York in 1982; he has been part of its artworld ever since. Thriving in the international ways of the city’s art scene, Hadjipateras was one part of a two-person show at Denise Bibro Fine Art recently (the other artist was Lisa Dinhofer). Additionally, last year, he finished an installation in the 28th Street BMT subway station in New York; called City Dwellers (for Costas), the 34 cartoonish figures are laid out across 1,000 feet of the station’s walls. The mosaic figures’ broad humor conceals topical allusions to the area’s activities: the colored clothing refers to the Fashion Institute of Technology; the printing presses to the now mostly defunct printing industry; and the flowers to the area’s flower district, which is currently active (and was once a hub, not only of Greek American activity, but of Greek American artists’ studios — including, most recently, Hadjipateras’s). The vocabulary of machine parts, common objects, and seemingly useful utensils is childlike in manner, suggestive of the deliberate banality of pop art and the unconscious primitivism of dada.

Hadjipateras’s funky figurative style seems a bit of a throwback, a personal reading of the neo-expressionism of the 1980s. There is a universal appeal to his art, which communicates a good sense of humor and an irreverent spirit in the face of the fineness of fine art. In other ways, though, he is very much of our time — in the way his art slips between categories and presuppositions about art in particular. While his forms and shapes do suggest actual objects, the viewer is not always clear as to what these objects are, consequently blurring the distinction between abstraction and figuration. Additionally, the patternmaking that often results from Hadjipateras’s consistent and crowded implementation of similar shapes, across the expanse of the composition, also pushes his art in the direction of nonobjective form. There are precedents to his style: his anthropomorphic forms owe as much to the lyrically abstract organic paintings of his Greek American forebears, Theodore Stamos and William Baziotes, as they do to the more recent, more expressionist, outbursts of contemporary artists. Even so, the language of Hadjipateras’s art is deliberately crude — a roughening of the vocabulary that favors the raw language of New York streets.

It is interesting to speculate for a moment on the effect of the New York metropolis on art in general and Hadjipateras’s art in particular. Abstract expressionism, the great American moment in painting, is now at least two generations old. As I mentioned in my last column, Edward Lucie-Smith, the British critic, has suggested that the moment was more important for the culture as a whole than it was as an art movement, spanning as it did America’s historical period of triumph, and imperial domination, after the Second World War. But whatever the actual merit of the art, it has happened that ever since its initial appearance, New York has been a major center, if not the center, of contemporary art worldwide. Part of the city’s attraction seems to come from its open embrace of all kinds of people, regardless of background; the internationalism here only underscores the essentially international character of contemporary art generally. So Hadjipateras, whose earlier work referenced minimalism, can now turn to what looks like a cartoon-inspired realism with abstract suggestions without explaining his decisions to change style. He belongs to a new cadre of artists, who come from all over the world and who unapologetically key into the international methods of what used to be called the avant-garde, a word that has lost its edge given the often immediate acceptance now of new art, no matter how high-tech or provocative it might be.

Hadjipateras’s imagery suggests that there is really no style dominant in contemporary art, that he is fully within his rights as an artist when he decides to work within a visual language whose elements might have originated in America but are now widely accepted, across times and cultures. The critic Arthur C. Danto has posited the end of the history of art, which, however, is not the same as the end of image-making; he believes that as art became more philosophical about what constituted an art object, it also became more self-conscious and self-referential. In other words, the focus in art more and more became art itself, resulting in the culmination and dead-end of both minimalism, which pushed the limits of what might be formally acceptable in art, and conceptualism, which addressed the idea behind art to the near exclusion of form. Given the necessarily limited language of these movements, which came into being in the mid-1960s, it was inevitable that the boundaries of art would be fairly quickly negotiated, resulting in genuine limitations of expression. But because artmaking fills a profound need in people, artists, of course, continued to make work that sought out the spaces between styles and beliefs, so that the desire to make things new now had to take on the burden of the inherently limited language of an artworld that had already seen the successful self-consumption of its own concerns.

As paint became more and more about paint and less and less about perspective, it also became heavily involved with the elucidation of its own materials. But then pop art entered the picture, and art about actual things became popular again. Hadjipateras is part of this change; his paintings are imagistic free-for-alls that are close to overwhelming in their vigor and energy. Big Blue (2000), a moderately sized acrylic on canvas, consists of a blue vortex spiraling up and away from a series of orange-red cone shapes. In the vortex and floating in the sky around it are objects outlined in white and black: what look to be rolls of paper, a figure like a snake, bent columns. The brown ground surrounding the pool of orange cones also has several objects, outlined in white. The paintings’ objects, most of them unrecognizable, give the image both its clutter and its sense of energy. In the smaller acrylic Blue Zap (2000), the compositional field is crowded with crudely drawn forms, mostly organically shaped, with a figure in the middle. The figure’s bulbous head, its arm ending in a blue bubble, and its three legs make it seem as though we are viewing some sort of robot from the 1950s, while the title only whets our appetite for recognition: what is a blue zap, anyway? The point of the two paintings is that they appear to be about understandable objects, but in fact nothing is real, a truth that emphasizes the essentially imagined nature of Hadjipateras’s art.

The tension between real and unreal continues throughout the exhibition. In Aerodrome (2002), two submarinelike images seem to hover in the air, one of them throwing light down, into the blue-black darkness, from two sources of illumination protruding from the oddly shaped vehicle’s belly. On the left is a reddish figure with a spigot for a head; clothes are suggested by a series of crossed blue stripes running down the front of the figure’s torso. The image creates a strange, but believable, landscape. In Dove-Love (2001-02), the organic imagery, also suggestive of a landscape, with its two curving trees painted in red and brown and outlined in gray, and its squashed yellow sun on the upper right of the composition, looks like a cartoonish nod to the abstract language of Arthur Dove, the distinguished painter of the twentieth century. It is useful to note that while Hadjipateras comes close to caricature in the funkiness of his imagery, he is also always in control of that imagery, so that he never loses his sense of purpose.

The work is always energetic, even at its most conventional. I Was a Monkey (2001) looks like a fan with a couple of blades missing; the painting clearly references an object sitting on a checkerboard table, with the words of the title inscribed on the upper left of the painting. Another work, Amadeus (2000), consists of an orange, jarlike object covered with spikes, sitting on a black circle covered with small circles in orange. The ground behind it is patterned, with more orange-outlined circles on a blue ground, above which are repetitions of the word “Amadeus” on a tannish-brown background. Additionally, Hadjipateras’s surrealist sense of form really comes into play in his sculptures, several of which were on exhibit. In Tower Tall (2002), a work 40 inches in height, a dark bulbous form rises up from a white tower with a window on each side and decorated with repetitive small forms: cones, rectangles, and spheres. It is an odd but compelling piece. Lady Ka (2001-02) is a mythic figure, with a brown hoop skirt and a metal-and-wicker torso. Her hair is real, framing her simply drawn face — another idiosyncratic but memorable image. Hadjipateras’s art is humorous in its awkwardness, but also aware of its relation to precedents that give it dignity by placing it within a recognizable context. This is an art whose childlike forms are capable of reaching, indeed of moving, an audience, by virtue of their immediacy and sense of reality as funky but complex emanations of mind. Hadjipateras might exist between categories, but he makes a unity of his conflicts define his status and so offers us strong art.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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