04 Mar 2021

Athens & the Contemporary Art World

Unframe London

Athens & the Contemporary Art World

We look at the exciting contemporary art scene in Athens. Exploring the work of those who represent the country’s distinctive culture.

Ancient Greece is known as being the bedrock to ancient civilisation. Eventually, these foundations paved the way for Greek contemporary art. It is historically acknowledged for it’s innovative art, philosophy and literature. As a country, Greece has an artistic legacy embedded in the foundations it sits on. However, recently this legacy has been awakened by an ever-growing and progressive contemporary art world. Simultaneously, the city of Athens has become a haven of art fairs, festivals and art events in the last few years. This is undoubtedly due to it’s growing economy within it’s capital.

In Athens, there is fresh energy in amongst both established and upcoming artists in the art scene there. For the younger generations, there is a focus on urban living in the city and Athens is an energetic and ideal environment for this. The in-flux of new energy highlights the traditional artistic impulses already ingrained in the bones of the city, which are not forgotten but embraced.

In our exploration of contemporary Greek art, will look at the work of Greek artists. In particular, we’ll look at their poignantly depicted representations of the country’s distinctive climate, style and social history. We at Unframe have carefully selected Greek artists we think represent the plethora of intriguing artists linked to Athens. We’ll delve into the work of Nikolas Ventourakis, Miltos Manetas and Angelo Plessas, to name a few…

Miltos Manetas
‘VIDEOGAMES’, 1996. Miltos Manetas. Courtesy of the artist.

Athens

Prior to the pandemic hitting the world, contemporary art in Athens was becoming commercially successful. In many ways, the city’s creatively collaborative qualities lead this journey. Due to this constant increase in interest in the Greek art world, many Greek artists have begun to return home from their artistic careers elsewhere. In particular, Greek art embodies a sense of identity within it’s artist community, showing references to the unmistakable Greek culture.

As a city, Athens has been subject to rapid regeneration. Eventually this applied to the Greek contemporary art world too. As gentrification of downtown Athens has sky rocketed, modern hotels and galleries have appeared in areas once unnoticed. It is quickly becoming a city abundant with alluring contemporary art, spanning across all media. The key difference between now and a few years ago is that Athens readily champions local artists. Crucially, local artists are in dialogue with foreign practitioners, therefore the attention moves away from representations and portrayals of Greek life, but of differing themes. Athenian artists often generate a dystopian quality in their work, often responding to the political and social unrest in the city. Contemporary art borne from the city depicts dynamism, a trait undoubtedly essential to the city.

Giving back to the arts

Furthermore, Greece is home to a number of foundations, residencies and exhibition spaces dedicated to supporting the arts. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation is one of Greece’s leading private organisations, giving grants to areas of arts and and culture, education, alongside health and social welfare. As well as this, there is an abundance of private art collections over the country aiding artists in exhibiting.

In particular, the island Hydra which houses The Hydra School Projects, an exhibition space as well as a hub for artist residencies. Also, within Hydra there is DESTE Project Space Slaughterhouse, which has shown in the past, artists such as Kara Walker and David Shrigley. Until recently, the country’s art heyday was considered to be cemented in it’s ancient past. However, Hydra is now abundant with collectors leading art spaces and supporting artists. Major collectors supporting the art scene include, Dakis Joannou the Greek-Cypriot collector who owns Deste Project Space. Equally important, curator and artist Dimitrios Antonitsis who runs The Hydra School Projects. And finally, English collector Pauline Karpidas, who breathed new life into the island with The Hydra Workshop Contemporary Arts Exhibition.

Kounellis Contemporary Greek Art
‘Untitled’, 1967. Jannis Kounellis. Courtesy of Another

Jannis Kounellis

Radical Greek artist Jannis Kounellis‘ success derives from his work in the late 1960s. He is seen was one of the key artists to have come out of Greece and has had an profound influence on both Greek and all contemporary artists. Widely known as being a godfather of Greek experimental art, he is most well known as being a leading figure in the Arte Povera movement. The group consisted of a number of artists involved in exploring unconventional processes within their work and above all, using everyday material. During this time, Kounellis abandoned the medium of painting and entwined himself with everyday materials such as wool, iron, stone, cacti, wood and live animals.

Kounellis Greek Art
‘Jannis Kounellis at Galleria L’Attico’, date unknown. Jannis Kounellis. Courtesy of Another

Kounellis is one of the most prominent Greek artists of the 20th century. His experimental use of material contributes to his challenging and political works. Some critics have thought Kounellis’ chosen media of everyday materials relates to ancient mythology, as well as ancient Greek narratives and references. Materials used such as fire, wood, coal and horses were important resources of the Middle Ages. Within his varied works, Kounellis shows an interest in ancient civilisation and generally links to Greek culture and historic national ethos.

“I consider myself a silent poet, a blind painter, and a deaf musician” Jannis Kounellis

Jannis Varelas
‘Mother of Fools’, 2019. Jannis Varelas. Courtesy of Artforum

Jannis Varelas

Greek artist Jannis Varelas reveals vibrant and comical elements of the mundane. In his paintings he currently makes, he tends to focus on the banal, often he includes everyday objects in amongst abstracted, colourful brush strokes. In a contrasting mixture of realism and his work’s painterly quality, Varelas presents viewers with conflicting ideals. Primarily, he playfully joins the abstract with realistic portrayals. His energetic paintings explore domestic settings through a collage-like painting style. The reality in his work is constructed from fragmented imagery, lived moments are presented to the viewer in a somewhat random composition. Yet, Varelas intends these configurations to act like archeological excavations, in form of a textural painting.

Varelas Greek Art
‘Untitled’, 2020. Jannis Varelas. Courtesy of Galerie Forsblom

When seen from a different perspective, his use of insignificant objects and remnants of things suggests an entirely different reality. This is much alike to a new dimension. Varelas includes many signs and symbols within his painting, often resembling the art of ‘automatic painting’ or a child-like style. His painting technique is expressive and physically challenging. Varelas’ work mostly reflects on social issues and humanity. He is an Athenian painter and truly represents the advances recently made amongst contemporary artists in the city.

Miltos Manetas
‘Christine With PlayStation’, 1997. Miltos Manetas. Courtesy of Game Scenes

Miltos Manetas

Greek born painter Miltos Manetas is a conceptual artist. He often addresses representations of information and technology, specifically their aesthetics. In his body of work, he often creates painting, photography and video work. His focus on the digital age is contrastingly different to a traditional approach to painting, much alike to Varelas. Within his vast body of digital paintings, Manetas takes recognisable imagery of gaming consoles, electric wires and tapes but re-frames them in an artistic setting. In a similar way to Varelas, he paints with a painterly and textural quality. During recent times, Varelas still focuses on the medium of painting in his practice. His most recent exhibition ‘ASSANGE SITUATION – EMERGENCY’ took place at the Ikob Museum in Province of Liège, Belgium.

Manetas Contemporary Art
‘POINT OF VIEW (Playstation controller)’, 1997. Miltos Manetas. Courtesy of the artist

His chosen subject for his paintings are far removed from stereotypical forms of archetypal Greek art. In his work we see a world behind closed doors, usually concealed. Yet, we as the viewer can relate to his imagery. He consciously refers to symbolism, using electrical wires to attach beauty and charm to otherwise mundane objects. Through his paintings, he separates the real with the probable, giving them real resonance as artworks.

Plessas Greek Contemporary Art
‘The Breeder’, 2019. Angelo Plessas. Courtesy of Art Basel

Angelo Plessas

Athenian artist Angelo Plessas creates work addressing the digital age and the internet. He highlights the ambiguity when spirituality and technology combine in his body of work. In turn, opening up conversation on social relationships, identity and free speech. He often creates performances, along with publications, textile work and interactive websites. His mixed media work often focuses on ideas on emotion within digital media and our human responses to the internet. Plessas mostly creates simplistic animated drawings that only exist on the internet, delving into the hyperactivity of today’s internet world.

Angelo Plessas
‘Experimental Education Protocol, Delphi’, 2017. Angelo Plessas. Courtesy of Documenta 14

Plessas lives and works in Athens today, exclusively focusing on and around the internet. He involves himself in character creation, regularly creating domain names as worlds for his fictional characters to inhabit. As an artist, Plessas makes his work inspired by online community culture, from this he stages gathering ahead of exhibiting installations. In particular, he uses documentation from online gatherings to create these installations.

His installations are often made up of documentation in video form, often alongside youtube links and computerised voices. Some of these voices narrate texts such as this, “ancient mythologies can network our contemporary condition, the Internet should not be misguided as a tool but more as a structure against hierarchies and social conventions, we become slaves to our clicks and likes”. In a similar vein to the work of Kounellis, Plessas references ancient mythologies and stories in his work.

The Green Room II

Nikolas Ventourakis

The Green Room II

C-type print, 2016

100 x 80 cm

Nikolas Ventourakis

Photographer Nikolas Ventourakis often addresses themes of conclusion and resolution in his vast body of photographic work. Primarily, he creates works that challenge viewer’s assumptions of art and of a narrative. Instead, Ventourakis invites the viewers to experience abstract portrayals of spaces and situations. Most often he captures details of architectural spaces, interiors and objects, we as the viewer then decide what is recognisable and familiar. As an artist, he is hugely fascinated with stories and narration, and the human need for a story to be conclusive. Undoubtedly he revels in suppressed information within his photography, his pictures simply cannot and do not explain the situation.

Untitled (Luggage Rack)

Nikolas Ventourakis

Untitled (Luggage Rack)

Fibre Based B&W Print, 2021

20.32 x 25.04cm

Within his ‘Motel’ series, Ventourakis chooses rooms in LA Motels as the subject of his monochrome and colour urban photographs. In particular, Ventourakis took these photographs whilst in Los Angeles for his Fulbright Scholarship in 2014, and this series relates to his time in the US. Within these works, Ventourakis portrays domestic interiors steeped in photographic history. In this case, the details he captures come together as a reassembled room. Without the bigger picture, we as the viewer see a curated and emotive depiction from the artist.

Kampanis Contemporary Greek Art
‘Rene Magritte on Maria Kontoglou’, 2019. Iasonas Kampanis. Courtesy of Stone Soup

Iasonas Kampanis

Artist Iasonas Kampanis focuses his art practice on the effects of abstracts visual experiences. He examines the atmosphere of imagery situated above any narrative level. Above all, he experiments with contemporary ideas, ultimately, with a traditional mindset which harks back to his Greek heritage. Within is practice, Kampanis encompasses a variety of influences, from the ancient to the modern period and from organic folk art patterns to certain visual stimuli, typical of conceptual art. As an artist, he maintains ideas of expressive power, possibly due to his self-taught background.

America

Iasonas Kampanis

America

Photography – Heavyweight archival cotton rag paper , 2013

100 x 100 cm

In particular, he makes up his series ‘Brave New World’  out of ‘photographic performances’. For his 2013 piece ‘America’, crucially his surreal photography depicts thoughts based on cultural and physical elements. In short, he incorporates influences of the transformative power of the digital age. Simultaneously, ‘Snapshots’ from the journey to a digital world can easily be considered surreal. Above all, Kampanis delves into issues of publicity, sexual objectification, stereotypes and social isolation in his work.

Through delving into the work of the artists discussed, there is a clear image of how dynamic and forward-looking the contemporary greek art scene is. In short, the Greek art scene is one to look out for, and Greece has rapidly become an unmissable art destination.