Room with a view
Human existence, human anxiety, the void, fear, the rejection of existence itself. Nikos Vlachos does not break new ground by going into this subject in his new work; but he does present constructively his personal existential angst, and extends creatively his artistic research while also studying the literary products of existentialism. His systematic delving into some recent existentialist literature and his return with a deeper look into a book that marked him in his youth, Sartre’s Nausea, do not just coincide in time with his recent artistic production; this is a stochastic interaction which acquaints us with elements of his philosophical roots and ideological concerns, although the painter is not interested in illustrating texts or in finding literary parallels to his work.
In the Room with a view series Vlachos works in an even more expressionistic way than before, using a thick off-white paste which he then scores violently to draw the outlines of people, buildings or objects. Moreover, most of his paintings contain words and phrases which either reinforce or subvert the apparent subject of each work. At first glance the viewer gets a feeling of monochrome, with no colour save for a few browns, greys and reds, mainly along the outlines. This limited colouring is a differentiating element of this new series, where the upgraded role of lines and carvings as part of the painting act makes a reference –through its gestural aspect– to the artist’s earlier woodcuts. Here, however, the line serves to reveal the artist’s intentions: as he points out himself, the line denudes and reveals.
The depicted figures, present in all works in the series save for the last one, are not given in physiognomical detail. The human outlines dominate the painted surface, but they are outlines of non-dominant figures. These people seem to collapse, either literally or existentially, next to swimming pools, large houses or museums – things that are generally seen as symbols of happiness and, by some, as tokens of affluence. The realisation of the absurdity of existence, which in Antoine Roquentin, the anti-hero in Sartre’s Nausea, is physically manifested as queasiness, can be seen in the protagonists of Vlachos’s works who seem detached and apathetic, weak and timid. Indeed, in this respect the title of the series, Room with a view, emerges as bitterly sarcastic as its heroes are living a life without prospect in unfamiliar, unreal spaces.
Another telling feature is the fragmented nature of the narrative. None of the works completes a story; rather, each picture looks like a scene, a single frame from, say, a comic strip or other illustrated story and leaves us waiting for the next frame. This fragmented character is corroborated by the written comments: in one of the paintings, for instance, we read “Casa d’Emilio Phase 1”. All this helps us to realise that the works in this series constitute in fact an indivisible whole. It is not because each work leads to the next and thus promotes the narrative: on the contrary, when we look as them as a whole we realise that they each depict a set condition which does not evolve. The situations will not change, so they do not seem to matter. The only certainty that remains is the painful fact of existence.
The other elements in the works such as houses, pools and museums, also rendered abstract and schematic like the human figures, reinforce the existential fear/crisis of the people; a fear exacerbated because there is nothing about these structures which suggests that they reflect the notion of a home or an art space, nor do they substantiate a concrete quality of life. Instead, they point to a contemporary, often vacant lifestyle. The ambiguous phrases/comments that come with the paintings work towards the same end. In the one marked ‘The Pool’, the man who is lying by the steps of the pool is not enjoying anything. He is sprawled there, passive, detached, perhaps dead. It is indicative of the skilful painterly and conceptual handling of the ambivalent aspect of things that the works of Vlachos are not overtly sinister, but they are not blissful snapshots of contemporary life, either. Fear and loneliness underlie even the most harmless scenes. Take the work with the phrases ‘House with Pool’, ‘Three Dimensional Plan’, for instance: nothing frightful is happening to the woman in the pool, yet she is unable to enjoy what many others see as the signs of a good life, such as a beautiful house with a pool. These people are prisoners, but also accomplices, of deceptive places and meaningless lives.
The absence of a credible setting and the lack of perspective generate a feeling of alienation and cenophobia. Through an exclusively painterly treatment of a large part of each work and using abundant self-referential pastes, the artist attempts to create another space, a non-space, a void. It is as if he is depicting a condition beyond time, and exploring fear, anxiety and a void. A void which engulfs these people and shows them up as empty themselves, as trapped and isolated from other people and from collective processes. “They did not want to exist, only they could not help it”, is how Sartre describes a similar situation in Nausea. These lonely, scared, dejected people in Vlachos’s works hint also at the two meanings of the Greek word idiotis: the private individual, the ordinary man-in-the-street, but also the mentally retarded, the sufferer from idiocy or, in everyday language, the stupid person (idiot). In his works the people are not part of a whole, do not take part in social issues; they do not clash or make friends, they have no relations or feelings. They are without identity, history or a past, and it is debatable whether they have a future; the only certain thing is that they exist in the present, for no reason at all.
Several of these painting, and mostly the drawings in the series, contain also a comment, an introspective and somewhat self-sarcastic look into the role of the artist, his utopias and his relation to the institutions which promote art. Thus the man in the painting with the phrase ‘The Great Idea’ appears troubled and apprehensive as he looks at the sketch of a small house and waits for the major idea which will make his name for him (?); in another work, a building deliberately designated ‘Museo’ hovers above an inclined head. On the whole, in the drawings of the series the elements that cause fear or even a denial of life are more clearly and strongly depicted. In these, fear is not underlying or lurking; it is threateningly present and oppressing human existence. Without resorting to a denunciatory or didactic tone, the artist our personal and collective anxieties, our personal or collective illusions, and creatively measures himself against painting’s potential as a technique and as an interpretation of man and the world.
The Room with a view series ends with a work devoid of human presence. Three flowers and the words ‘Joie de Vivre’ over the typical off-white background restore the ambiguous aspect of things. Upon a first reading this work –especially in comparison with the rest of the series– shows some optimism or even a message of salvation. However, the flowers are formed by thick, savage pastes and made to look like cancerous growths that jut ominously out of the painting; there is no sense of space or perspective, and the question remains:
Is human existence really futile, or could the conscience of death ultimately eliminate the fear of life?
Dr. Eugenia Alexaki