A Rainbow Coloured Place of Dark Light
Before sculpture is drawing. Drawing prepares the way for stone, clay, or other resilient materials to be transformed into a solid shape possessed with a vitality and life that paradoxically melts the stoic medium into imaginary movement. Which, in turn, bewitches the viewer into suspending their impression of hardness to consider softness – marble to musculature, stone to sinew, stillness to vivacity.
So was the aim of the ancient Greek sculptor Polykleitos, who elevated the human form to deity – to create proportion, poise and idealized perfection. But it is through drawing that Polykleito’s symmetry was first modeled; it was in the drawn line that a contrapposto curve was defined and the natural proportion practiced, then to be translated to the chisel craft and the properties of stone. Polykleitos believed that the proportion and harmonious balance that transformed the human form into imaginary god-like perfection was created ‘little by little (para mikron) through many numbers’. The application of and attention to para mikron – a devotion to assembling the many micro numbers, painstakingly brought together, manifest an equation of magic that could be made into flawless form.
Knowing this, it comes as no surprise to learn that Greek artist Angelika Vaxevanidou first studied sculptural practice. While her current work is predominantly drawing and watercolour, the sculptor is still present in her technique, philosophy and approach. From miniscule mark making – a gossamer of thin webbed lines and scraffito – Vaxevanidou brings forms to life in arresting portraits and figure studies that seem convincingly sculpturally solid, yet precarious: apt to blow away as they appear to be held together with breath and air rather than material.
I am inclined to nominate these figure studies as ‘metaphysical portraits’ because even while Vaxevanidou’s brilliant technique achieves an astonishing realism – an undoubted similitude with regard to her sitters – it is the risky, at any moment evaporated, sense of her work that delivers the being, knowing, identity, time, and space that characterizes metaphysical enquiry. It is as if Vaxevanidou is seeing beyond and through her subjects and allowing the trace of time and space to define them in their paradoxical stasis and movement through life.
The half-length portrait of her son, Joseph, for example, a beautiful work concocted of infinitesimal drawn lines, unadorned by accruements and props – simple, floating – manifests as a modern Kouros. This metaphysical Joseph is a contemporary boy woven from the traditions and tragedies of his ancient home – in his figure, as created by Vaxevanidou, we can trace the ancient mythology of heroism, the adulated beauty of male youth, the vulnerability of spirit and the tenuous yet proud defiance of the contemporary self pitched against tradition. It is a portrait full of knowing and searching identity levitating in space and time. There are many such examples of Vaxevanidou’s capacity to see into and through her subjects in this metaphysical quest.
Of late Vaxevanidou has embarked on another type of series with a different lens and observation. In her newest works on paper she explores a kind of existential narrative. One characterized by the terror of euphoria. These painting drawings; highly colourful in registers of pink, green and yellow; conjure a theatre of rooms in which Vaxevanidou has situated deliberately naïve, child-like drawings of people. These stick figures, so at variance with her classically perfected weavings of real sitters, come from a psychological place – a memory palace of hauntings and trauma. The exuberant colours – almost hysterically happy – contrast, calculatingly, with the sketchy angry figure scribbles that are gendered and redacted in violent acts of artistic mutilation.
These bright rooms of giddy, kiddy play are deceptively dark places of disturbing, dystopian joylessness. Vaxevanidou’s figures slump in depleted crumples, devoid of the life and substance she bestows upon her more technically precise figure works. Instead these figures, based on the quintessence of the young person’s first attempts at portraits – most generally of the family and its primary members – seem to have regressed behind the Lacanian mirror of imaginary order into a place of disorder and self destruction. A symbolic and uncanny return to the loci of pseudo-catharsis, as is the state of the induced euphoria of stimulants.
Vaxevanidou’s newest works live within the canon of the drunk Bacchanalia, which over time has become less idealized and more visceral, less comedic and more tragic in works such as Gillian Wearing’s compelling film, Drunk, or Richard Billingham’s ‘Ray’ series. Vaxevanidou twists the concept once more to use the deception of childishness to deliver a refracted prism. A rainbow colored place of dark light.
Juliana Engberg is a curator and writer. She was most recently the Programme Director of the European Capital of Culture Aarhus 2017. Before taking on this commission she was the Artistic Director of the 19th Biennale of Sydney: You Imagine What You Desire and Artistic Director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. She is currently the curator for the Australian Pavilion presentation of Angelica Mesiti at the Venice Biennale 2019