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Tuesday, April 26, 2005


Yiannes: Ceramic Sculpture

The question, “How Greek is it?,” lingers in the mind of most viewers who have confronted the energetic, bold, ceramic sculpture of Athens-born artist Yiannes, whose work I saw this past winter at the Queens College Art Center in an exhibition co-sponsored by the Foundation for Hellenic Culture. This question, asked increasingly not only of artists of Greek descent, but also of almost any emigrant or first-generation artist who does well in the hip, insider-oriented mainstream of the New York art world, intimates more than a little audience anxiety about the attributes one is supposed to display in so self-aware a culture as ours. Having written on the classical implications of Asian art, most specifically Chinese, I see a parallel, not so much in style but in the respective positions of the Greek and Chinese artist, both of whom have a formidable esthetic history they can choose to use or deny. For better or worse, contemporary art has chosen an international idiom in which the past is exchanged for a mostly political reading of the present and future. As a result, classicisms of any order are displaced by a political sublime (Arthur C. Danto’s term) that tends to deal with contemporary social issues in an abstract or distanced manner.

Still, fending off identification with one’s originating culture is a major decision, and a number of artists, some of them avant-garde, have created work that distantly includes the past, in part because the past has so much to offer, being rich in that history or myth that can intensify one’s experience, both as artist and viewer, of the work at hand. Sometimes, as happens in the case of a well-known artist such as Picasso—as well as with Yiannes—the medium itself carries historical ties: ceramic sculpture’s heritage, so great in Greece, enables an artist the freedom to indirectly suggest classical influences quite easily. In an art culture such as that of New York, in which artists from all over the world clamor for our attention, the hearkening back to ancient times stabilizes our perception of the creative instinct, whose current work is read against the achievements of time. So if we say that the art of Yiannes, who has made his life in New York City for many years now, reflects his childhood origins, we are praising his work as that of someone who has successfully faced the problem of influence, in the sense that his art becomes richer by means of its ties to the past.

Naturally, it is conceivable that the reverse would happen—namely, that the results of history would drown the contemporary effectiveness of the artwork we see. The real work facing the artist who is searching for a way to ground his esthetic in classical terms is the proper use of material from so long ago. It seems to me that the reference can’t be too literal; it must somehow be changed into an expression that addresses contemporary ideas and mores even as it suggests images or narratives of long ago. Picasso developed his virtuosity and distinctive style alongside his recognition of the forms of antiquity in ceramic art; his easy technical mastery allowed him essentially to play with what preceded him. In the hands of Yiannes, sometimes the classical allusions are unmistakable, as in the case of the ceramic piece, Classical Revival (1971-1976), which features a drawing of a dancing satyr, complete with a laurel of leaves on his head and an erect phallus, and, beneath him, a naked woman wearing a bonnet and standing, legs spread over a large vase. The line drawings of the two figures are stunningly done, although one is a bit bemused to see the images, grounded in black, on a facsimile of toilet paper, with a third top image partially hidden by the roll itself. The Greeks were not averse to broad humor, and that may well be the goal of Yiannes’s gifted, funny quotation; in other similar examples, such as The Great Fakir (1971-1976), the intention of the yellow sheets presenting rows of actual nails seems to be a humorous treatment of surrealism as well as a nod to Indian culture. So Yiannes moves from one kind of history to another in pieces done during exactly the same period.

In contradistinction to the often rigid, soullessly correct politics of much of contemporary art, the classical humanism Yiannes joyously recalls is not without its political implications; according to Manos Stefanidis, curator of modern art at the National Gallery of Greece, the artist has recently (since 2000) been “compiling the work Defense, a work in progress that includes video-collage Tai Chi, and objects created in the various parts of the world where he has traveled and from which he takes inspiration and ideas.” Yiannes gives to the audience for his newer work a text which reads, among other things, “Defense against the norms of society….Defense against [a] global economy and ecology of this kind.” While the earlier work described above is not inherently political in nature, its implications in intimating the robustness of Greek culture allows Yiannes to develop beyond a mere historicity, toward a “real democracy,” as he says, which has “human direction.” There is a beautiful earlier work, entitled Still Life with Amphora and Fish (1987-1989), which is a collection of objects inlaid with blue ceramic mosaic, including a fish lying on a table, which also supports an amphora, a pencil-like instrument, and a spiraling coil. This tabletop sculpture is marvelously classical, in expression and inspiration, but it is at the same time a free interpretation of history. It is the same freedom that allows Yiannes to say to his audience, “I practice my defense to overcome these unhuman scale economics.” What Yiannes has done is to interpret the Greek tradition as a basis for individuality and dissent, in the face of not so obliquely powerful forces demanding that we acquiesce meekly in our fate.

The outrage is just as visible in the earlier work, as in Le Repas (1971), which offers a dish of ceramic hand grenades and airplanes as part of a meal set upon a mirrored table. Given the year the work was made, the reference to the Vietnam War and its atrocities is manifest. Part of Yiannes’s achievement is thus a continual capacity for political outrage, which began when he was a young artist, more than 30 years ago. Although most of the work on view at the Queens College Art Center did not address political issues, one can only say that the best of the artist’s work conveys an integrity and freedom that encompasses the issues of the day. Humor is part of that freedom: Yiannes’s ceramic, mixed-media sculpture, You Just Dirtied My Freshly Painted Coffee Table (1976), consists of a table with red and blue stripes that has been covered with coffee from an overturned mug with a phallus for a handle. The pooling coffee covers three-fourths of the table, surrounding a spoon and jar of instant coffee. It is a whimsical piece, whose humor depends upon the sheer oddity of the overturned coffee and the mug’s phallic handle. Another eccentric work, Mess Tray II (1976), consists of a cafeteria tray whose compartments are filled with parts of the human body: an ear, fingers, and two phalluses, one black and one white. There is a black humor to the idea of body parts filling a mess tray, but it is a comic stance that has a certain humanity to it as well, in the sense that the work makes one think about mortality.

As Ronald Kuchta, editor of American Ceramics magazine, pointed out in a brief catalogue essay accompanying the Queens College show, this humor recalls the work of “West Coast clay artists such as Robert Arneson, Howard Kottler, or Erick Gronberg.” Their work engaged American reality with a funky, pop surrealism—an attitude that would describe Yiannes’s sensibility as well. Like the translator of modern Greek poetry, Edmund Keeley, who wrote that Yiannes’s early works displayed “a modernized classical humanity,” Kuchta speaks of the artist as someone “who employs metaphors consistent with humanistic concerns and indispensable cultural heritage.” Yiannes, who has never stopped spending considerable amounts of time in Greece, has never forgotten his legacy. He celebrates the joys of living in such works as Still Life with Mat Knife (1978-1980), which ties together in one composition two pears, a trowel, a movie reel, a book, an open square, a pair of lips, and a mat knife, all of which, when composed together, signify a readiness to meet nature and culture on its own terms. The lips, isolated as fragments, recall ancient Greek statuary, while the mat knife might well signify the violence of the present; it is part of Yiannes’s charm as a sculptor to make work that fits many interpretations: these objects are meaningful both individually and as complementary tools pointing out some of the symbolic intricacies of our daily life.

Because of Yiannes’s ties to the old as well as the new, it proves hard to categorize him. What does come through, more than anything else, however, is the belief in art’s ability to redeem time. While his sculpture may well be situated, in a metaphorical sense, in classical Greece, he is too principled an artist merely to repeat the past. His classicism proves to be a profound opening that has given him the gift of speaking beyond the mere materials and forms of his esthetic. His sculpture, then, is satisfyingly humanist even when it is provocative; it suggests a world we all may belong to because we, like the artist, are part of its processes and procedures. Perhaps the question to be asked of this work is, therefore, not “How Greek is it?” but, rather, “How humane is it?” For Yiannes’s art presupposes a human knowing that involves life’s complexities and hidden ways. As Kuchta comments, his use of “metaphors” tells us what is possible in an age overly hindered by diminished expectations and a strangely literal use of the imagination; it appears to be Yiannes’s conviction that we are meant to explore, as deeply as possible, the infinite depth of the human condition, its byways as well as mainstream expressions.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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