The Art of Wall Gazing (from exhibition book)
Essay by Christine Boyanoski
Wall Gazing represents the emergence of a new form of expression in Dimitri Papatheodorou’s artwork, which has evolved gradually out of his architectural paintings, hand-built sculpture and personal narrative. The large painted structures bring together his numerous creative activities as architect, painter and sculptor. (He is also a singer-songwriter and teacher.) The artist describes the process in the Notes which follow this essay.
This exhibition demonstrates the interrelatedness of Papatheodorou’s work across different media, with architecture as the point of reference. Dimitri chose architecture as a profession, but he has been painting ever since graduating from architecture school in the 1980s. His approach to architecture has been described as pictorial rather than structural by Luigi Ferrara, Director of the Institute without Boundaries at George Brown College, and a friend and former colleague of the artist. Papatheodorou’s is an alternative approach, in which he first imagines places in his mind as if they were paintings, draws or paints them, and only then, translates them into plans and sections. The result of this approach, writes Ferrara, are spaces that are memorable, sensorial and archetypal.*
The paintings which encircle the gallery clearly reference architecture, but these are imaginary spaces whose only partial illumination heightens their enigmatic quality. These pictures are about light. After all, it is light that gives definition to architecture, and here it is provided only in measured quantities. What, we might ask, is our relationship to the space? What kind of space is this—thick-walled and pitch-dark except for shafts of dazzling light streaming through small apertures? These pictures convey a strong sense of confinement—the windows are impassable or well beyond our reach—like the interior of a medieval tower.
Equally enigmatic are the two large paintings which anticipate Wall Gazing in scale and formal content. In these illusory spaces, solid forms are blurred by the light, an effect achieved by the many layers of thin, semi-transparent oil glazes that the artist has patiently applied. Papatheodorou upholds the Renaissance concept of illusionism, in which the picture plane is a window through which to see another reality. (The picture is constructed on the basis of the individual viewer’s fixed position directly in front of it. ) He plays with this reality, leading viewers to question it. He also invokes Plato’s Allegory of the Cavewhich probes the nature of reality. This parable teaches that what most of us comprehend about the material world are merely shadows of the Truth. The artist explains that we can’t know the truth, just as we cannot stare directly at the sun. We need the Cave (architecture, walls) for protection against the Truth which can also be threatening. Light can be taken in only as shadows, or, in terms of his paintings, as shafts or portions of light.
The small painted sculptures capture the spirit of the paintings: they are arrangements of flat and slightly curved planes which set up interesting plays of light and shadow. Light passes through narrow slits and openings. Many resemble imaginary buildings; those with stacked chambers recall architect Moshe Safdie’s Habitat, erected for Expo 67 in Montreal. Small and brightly coloured, many of these sculptures have a playful quality that is absent from the paintings. Their warm matte finish and hand-crafted quality invite our touch.
In the process of expansion from small maquette to the full-blown forms of Wall Gazing, the project underwent a conceptual transformation, opening it up to a number of interpretations. The analogues provided by the artist give us some insight into his thought processes. Seen from the side, the single form takes on more human proportions, and has multiplied to form a row of slightly differentiated units. These could be human surrogates, relating to each other in different ways (face to face, back to front). I am reminded of Antony Gormley’s work, Allotment II, 1996, an installation of three hundred life-size elements made of reinforced concrete. Their dimensions were derived from those of the local inhabitants of Malmö, Sweden (aged 1.5 to 80 years). The visitor moves among the vaguely humanoid forms, relating more to some than to others.
Wall Gazingcomprises five imposing structures each seven feet high, with either U- or L-shaped footprints measuring two feet by four feet. At first, they confront visitors, dominating the space and requiring a physical response. We are forced to go between or around them to explore more of the gallery space. Through this interaction, the visitor comes to appreciate their sculptural properties, akin to the reduced and repetitive forms of Minimalist sculpture of the 1960s. However, Papatheodorou’s forms have richly textured, hand-painted surfaces, unlike the sleek industrialized objects of Donald Judd and his contemporaries, which rejected signs of human agency. We need to move through and around them in order to understand the piece, which cannot be fully comprehended from one single vantage point.
The painted surfaces become walls that symbolically carry their history on their faces through the layers of shapes and colours that the artist has painted over, then selectively sanded to hint at what lies beneath. The Roman walls that Papatheodorou admired as a student were witnesses to both beauty and atrocity. The now familiar apertures punched here and there through solid walls allow light to enter the spaces in between, while offering glimpses of what lies beyond. Each unit is a temporary sheltering place through or around which the world can be partially seen, and we can move freely in and out of these symbolic caves. For Papatheodorou, Wall Gazingis a permeable wall in which we can see more or less, depending on where we are at any given time.
Papatheodorou gives careful consideration to the viewers who experience his work: how we understand the world through our physical being—sight, touch, and movement. In this exhibition, the artist provides a space for visitors to contemplate their individual realities and to invoke personal memories as they perform the passage through Wall Gazing.
* Luigi Ferrara, “Inside the Painting,” in Dimitri Papatheodorou: Painting, Architecture & Song, (Toronto, Institute without Boundaries, 2010), p.81.
Mercurial Presence in the Paintings of Dimitri Papatheodorou
By Mimi Gellman
“The world is large, but in us it is deep as the sea” Rilke
Within these modest-sized portals, the paintings of Dimitri Papatheodorou live out a life where space, time and history overlap. They are interior spiritual spaces, perceptual thresholds made material in painting that invite the viewer to enter and experience transcendence. These rooms that are not rooms, are reminiscent of the luminescent paintings of Caravaggio and Hugo van der Goes, whose use of chiaroscuro and fine layers of glaze achieved an otherworldly quality of light and emanation.
Evoking monastic enclosures, turrets, and Corbusier’s “Chapel of Nôtre Dame du Haut,” these intimately enclosed spaces paradoxically also function as pure unfolding space, as plays of light and shadow. The power of these works arises from their existence as phenomenological chambers, at once architectural and elemental, whose location fluctuates somewhere between the realm of the built, the realm of the body and the dreamtime.
One enters the paintings from afar with curiosity, a faint glow apparent in a field of darkness. Time begins to slow down as the fine particulate nature of the light reveals itself to the eye. As one “walks” through these paintings one gets inexplicably lost within the fabric of their interiors. A sensation of suspension is created within the paintings as it is within ourselves and that is the moment of transcendence, when our interiors combine and we become the shadow and the “poussière ensoleillèe”, the sun-shot dust that Georges Bataille referred to in his 1930 journal, Documents. In Poussiere/peinture/ Bataille on Painting, Lacanian writer Briony Fer describes a brief essay of Bataille’s that describes this quality of light:
“Bataille wrote a short commentary on the paintings by Miró recently shown at the Galerie Pierre. He described how, in Miró’s work, reality disintegrated into dust, a sun-shot dust (poussière ensoleillée). For Bataille, a metonymic chain, where one term migrates into another, is triggered by the metaphor of dust. It is as if a mass of grains or specks occupies the field of vision and forms a veil against the light. Vision is obscured, and yet the sight is ravishing. Forms are dissolved, almost like a modern form of chiaroscuro. Under these conditions, the pleasures of not seeing, or at least of not seeing clearly, are intense.” (155)
Papatheodorou’s paintings deliver this experience of amplified seeing, a synesthetic phenomena implicating other faculties: taste, touch, sound and intuition. As the paintings’ surfaces reveal themselves, the sensation of embodiment is heightened. Their subtle particulation is felt by the body, as a faint buzzing within, a physical manifestation mirroring the visual evanescence of the paintings’ surfaces. These paintings embody Bataille’s notion of alteration: “a partial decomposition analogous with that of corpses and at the same time the transition (passage) to a perfectly heterogeneous state corresponding to the sacred, found for example in the ghost.’
This duality of being at once material and immaterial, secular and sacred is personified in Papatheodorou’s paintings. They point to our sense of interiority and convey a profound dreamlike depth, signaling what the philosopher Gaston Bachelard referred to as “intimate immensity.” With this term, Bachelard is describing a state that reflects a contemplative daydream, where the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity. In his seminal text, The Poetics of Space, Bachelard wrote:
“Immensity is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being that curbs and cautions arrests, but which starts again when we are alone. As soon as we become motionless, we are elsewhere: we are dreaming in a world that is immense […] However paradoxical this may seem, it is often this inner immensity that gives their real meaning to certain expressions concerning the visible world.”
In describing Papatheodorou’s work as phenomenological art, I invoke the work of American installation artists Robert Irwin and James Turrell whose conceptual installations use light as their primary form and material. Like Irwin and Turrell, Papatheodorou has a keen understanding of, and interest in exploring creative directions that merge the themes of architecture, duration, space and light. In Being and Circumstance: Notes toward a Conditional Art, Irwin clarifies this paradigm shift.
“What appeared to be a question of object/non object has turned out to be a question of seeing and non- seeing, of how it is we actually perceive or fail to perceive “things” in their real contexts. Now we are presented and challenged with the infinite, everyday richness of “phenomenal” perception and the potential for a corresponding “phenomenal art.”
The paintings of Dimitri Paptheodorou exist in an interstitial zone where the confluence of image, emanation and the body become one. An ongoing conversation with these paintings continues to reveal new associations and relationships to the phenomenology of perception. Within these deep strange apertures, the works persist in orienting and disorienting us spatially and conceptually, their mercurial presence challenging us to question the true reality of our insubstantial natures.