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Friday, May 18, 2007


Whispering Pines

Whispering Breeze among the Pines, Tenri Cultural Institute, New York, October 25-November 22, 2006

Tina Karageorgi is an artist based in Greece who makes installations and intricate paintings that often involve collaged materials. Her work in no way connotes an active sense of classically Greek materials or themes; instead, she is part of an international idiom that is more aware of formal and transcultural identifications than of the expression of culturally specific subject matter. It is easy enough to reconcile the specificities of one’s background with the need for a larger, more inclusive communication; however, the gap between the two grows wider as the pressure of a kind of conformity develops in the art world, the result of globetrotting and international awareness brought about by the media, ambitious shows of artists foreign to the venue in which they are exhibited, and an agreed-upon postmodernism that tends to be all-inclusive from a stylistic point of view.

As a result of this particular set of circumstances, the notion of art being Greek in a specific way is no longer a valid reason for its existence. There is something healthy about this new situation, in that the call of an essentialist nationalism carries with it the less attractive aspects of cultural awareness—as if there really were something that made one kind of art unique, and distinct from any and all other kinds. But the romantic notion of national identity can also be regarded as dying hard; indigenous characteristics of different peoples have a way of persisting, even if they are considered questionable by the intelligentsia who would use them. The real question facing artists, curators, and critics has more to do with whether such attributes can survive the international vernacular of installation, performance art, and conceptualism that currently dominates the market: it appears that there is greater meaningfulness in shared methodologies than in making boundaries, intellectual as well as geographic, beyond which the artist is unable to go. As it turns out, the art world has become so pluralistic that it proves almost impossible to tease from its productions an impression of genuine national difference, in the sense that such variation might be responsible for differing views and creations in art.

This is why Karageorgi’s art visits other cultures without succumbing to the domination of any particular outlook. Her technical skill in creating installations owes something to the idiom of environmental, site-specific works, developed for the most part in the 1990s: such art was often the currency of ambition for artists working at that time. Karageorgi’s art demonstrates a decided penchant for an existence on the cusp of painting and installation, a hybrid product that joins categories of conception, in ways that emphasize the integrity of the particular work being described. In Kimono (2006), for example, Karageorgi nods in the direction of Japan, her complex collage of different panels highlighted by freewheeling sketches of branches, with a center filled with blood-red blooms, in actuality, poppies. The arrangement of the panels echoes the structure of the kimono itself, such that we cannot choose between the idea of the clothing or its reality. The artist’s rejection of categories in favor of a holistic approach emphasizes the work as a gestalt, a work of art complete within itself. The rough impressionism with which Karageorgi has covered the work shows that there is a decorative cast to Kimono, which would make sense as it is an article of women’s clothing.

The lyricism taken up by Kimono repeats regularly in Karageorgi’s art, which appears to owe its poetry to Asian culture. Yet there is a starkness to much of her work as well, borne out by the sharp contrast of colors in the large (340 cm. x 323 cm.), painted construction entitled Section of Memory (2004), in which two columns divide a background into three equal parts. The columns are covered with images of modern houses painted black on clear plastic sheeting, while the background rises and ebbs with gatherings of bright red flowers, very much like the red poppies in Kimono. In her catalogue, essay curator Thalia Vrachopoulos sees the color as suggestive of blood and as an artifact from Japan: “in its shape it can be read as a Heian Period kimono that could have been illustrated in one of the ‘Tale of Genji’ scrolls.” As Vrachopoulos points out, the dramatic contrast of colors is reprised in the juxtaposition of hard buildings with the softness of flowers; here, artist Karageorgi appears to relish the sensory differences not only of materials but also of imageries put out for the viewer to see. The powerful drama generated by the use of opposing colors stays with us after we have seen the painting; for all its beauty, we also see a dramatic, potentially dangerous tableau, in which the red relates to blood as much as to flowers. Is it possible to link such a scenario to the stark dramas of Greek literature? It is hard to say. Even so, the very possibility of such a connection presupposes Karageorgi’s ties to her place and culture—even if those ties are tenuous and open to differing interpretations. There is an extravagance to Karageorgi’s work that might well affiliate, albeit in an abstract fashion, with the intensities of her background.

Sometimes the artist presents her concerns more straightforwardly. Forest (2006), of a medium size in its dimensions (150 cm. x 170 cm.), represents the poetic mystery of a stand of trees, the four major vertical trunks with short branches not so far from the inspired intricacies of a painting by Jackson Pollock. Against the gray background, the black trees and foliage at the bottom of the composition look enigmatic and portentous, as if containing a knowledge difficult to know and express. The ghostly imagery is lyrical in the extreme; throughout Karageorgi’s work there is a plan, a sense of purpose that intimates a higher order, in which the decorative becomes beautiful and the mysterious turns transcendent. What is most exciting, at least for this viewer, is the combined vernacular of figuration and abstraction, resulting in a seamless switch from one category of being to the other. While Karageorgi owes some of the effects of her lyricism to modernism, the gestural efforts of the abstract expressionists in particular, the conception behind her works is clearly her own.

Some of Karageorgi’s most compelling work can be found in her books: transparent pieces of glass painted over with abstract and figurative motifs, the individual panes layering together to culminate in both a sophisticated and complex imagistic collage. The blood-red poppies are again present; they serve as a symbol of both ephemeral beauty and the ubiquity of violence. As the viewer turns the pages of glass, held together by steel frames, there is a real sense of opening up to possibilities, both visual and thematic, that express what might well be called a tragic view of life. Karageorgi brings us to the center of an awareness influenced by certain kinds of fragility—is there anything more subtle or delicate than the blooms of a flower? Yet, at the same time, we can see in the force of her art a commitment to a truth intrinsically moral in its awareness and severity. There is a real task completed in her lyrical efforts: it is the labor of attaining a particular vision at a time when art can easily feel the same, no matter from where its origins derive. The lyrical moment is something that is hardly undertaken, let alone achieved, but it is clear that the artist wants us to undergo something of a conversion in the face of her exquisite imagery. Karageorgi’s world turns on the supposition that beauty and suffering are concomitant in the world, with the result that we are both charmed and warned by her art. This is neither popular nor easy to effect, but we are made richer by our participation in the subjective assertions and dilemmas of Karageorgi’s imagination.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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