Wednesday, May 31 2023
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Calliope Pavlides, a very special Greek Los Angeles-based artist


Each of the drawings in Greek Los Angeles-based artist Calliope Pavlides’ new series, Generator — on view at Harkowik NYC through February 20th — features a genderless, silhouette-like figure leaning over an abstracted tabletop (a clin d’oeil to the still life tradition), playing puppeteer or scientist to an array of whimsical “experiments” that reference chain-reactions, electrical currents, and the closed systems that these phenomena imply.

The drawings themselves function as circuits — in Higher Powers, a spectral figure reaches their arms into a rectangular jellyfish tank that hovers over a glassy table, a jolt of electricity connecting their extended index fingers and completing an energetic loop that renders the bones in the figure’s neck and sternum momentarily visible, allowing us a brief glimpse below the surface. This drawing’s evocation of X-ray vision and its allusion to appearances and hidden layers recalls Electroshock, a painting from Pavlides’ previous body of work, Seasons of Unraveling, in which we see through a bust in an anatomically animated moment of electrocution. In another work, a tabletop “experiment” is actually a miniature replica of a large-scale violent event — what appears docile and innocuous in fact references the overwhelming and possibly disastrous.

In this drawing, titled Shock to the System, the omnipresent figure connects two ends of a wire, leading to an explosion on the tabletop below, whose source-imagery has its origins in the first hydrogen bomb test in the Marshall Islands. The approachable scale, childlike mark-making, and soothing color palettes of these drawings allow us to swallow or make sense of the unpredictable forces of complex natural and human-made systems and their interrelated parts, from lightning storms to the happenstance flow of traffic in Los Angeles.

The drawings embody systems reproduced in the controlled environment of a science lab, child’s bedroom, or puppet theater, microcosms in which the figure, otherwise vulnerable to the catastrophic events of our ecologically and ethically unstable planet, gets to play God, and once larger-than-life phenomena are transformed to harmless Calliope Pavlides Generator Jan 13- Feb 20 Harkawik NYC

VH I heard you got stung by a jellyfish this summer.

CP Yes, the sting was the cherry on top this summer. People who are close to me know that I am a magnet for spiraling disasters (or just tragicomic micro-dramas). Recent drama includes a Covid trainwreck of a Greek summer, with seven Angelenos falling like dominoes, one after the other, on a fairly remote island without enough resources, battling feelings around entrapment, panic, morality… and overcompensating with artificial comforts as a coping mechanism… all the good stuff. I was the only one who magically didn’t get the virus despite being caught between serial coughers. After the last domino piece that fell (ill) had recovered, the series of unfortunate events did not stop for me; uncontrollable fires close to my house in Athens, ash everywhere, a car breakdown on the boat, a lost wallet, a jellyfish sting (between the legs), a broken mirror, visa implications and a 7 Richter earthquake during take off later that summer in Mexico… I barely made it back to LA. It was so weird being in a place of sentimental value, wanting to share its beauty with friends and witnessing as it turned into a dystopian landscape minute by minute. At some point, it will seem funny, but there still is a bit of a bitter aftertaste.

VH The Gods have always had a dark sense of humor. I want to talk to you about your current body of work, Generator, up at Harkowik NYC in the Lower East Side, in relation to your last show, Seasons of Unravelling, which took place at Monte Vista Projects in LA in 2021. To me it seems like both bodies of work deal with natural phenomena ranging from the apocalyptic to the mundane — like lightning strikes, volcanic eruptions, weather patterns, the atmosphere, and relate them to something small and personal, like apocalypses on an individual level, or invisible happenings like chance, luck, and happenstance.

CP Generator feels like the evolution of my last series, Seasons of Unraveling. In Seasons of Unraveling, I introduced anthropomorphic natural disasters to my narratives as a visual allegory for a personal apocalypse. Despite working really emotively, I made a consistent choice to involve natural phenomena in my iconography, which brought up atmospheric systems and affected my treatment of light and mark-making in the work. The relationship between the disaster and the body surfaced via compositions focusing on the bust of the figure — initially implying a heavy chest feeling, but later the idea of the body as a filter of experience — that are further developed in this new series. Generator feels less emotionally wrapped up in the disaster and takes on a more interrogative point of view. The narratives point to questioning unpredictable forces and dissecting invisible systems at play in an almost scientifically analytical way that often turns to absurdity. For example, in Citrus Circuit, the scattered lemons hold electricity and present themselves as orbiting members of a make-believe solar system.

VH How else do you think this new series of drawings has evolved thematically from Seasons of Unravelling? It feels like in this new body of work, the figures have accepted the state of world, there is less of a moral value ascribed to the events they are observing or enacting, fearsome as they may be, like the nuclear test site explosion in Shock to the System — somehow we have the sense the looming figure in each of these drawings is a witness, but not a judge — the events taking place are not inherently good or bad, they just are.

CP The events presented in this series are disguised as impactful and consequential when they really are just object arrangements on a tabletop. By creating local systems of cause and effect between inanimate objects, I am participating in childhood rituals like make-believe and playing God. The recurring busts are absorbing the events as much as manifesting them, and their unknown intentions bring it upon us to start the interrogation. In Shock to the System, I’m referencing an archival photo of the first hydrogen bomb testing in Bikini Atoll, which as a reproduction of the event is inconsequential, yet holds power. Relating to the scale of the photograph, a couple of dead cockroaches, a loose bulb, and a lit candle are access points to the narrative. While making this series, I was thinking of the French translation of “still life” as “dead nature” (nature morte) and purposefully resisting it. My dead nature is vibrant and full of magical properties.

VH I love that play on the etymology of nature morte. I also like the way some of the new drawings seem to function as these magical time capsules of a conglomerate of atmospheric patterns, “weather-keepers” of sorts. Current State, specifically, reads like a window into the constantly shifting microcosm of the LA skies, and many of the works reference containers, or are containers in themselves, like the cabinet of curiosities, or the prism in There Simply Aren’t Enough Colors On This Planet, or the jellyfish circuitry contained in Higher Powers. How do you situate the motif of the container in these works?

CP This motif of containers started with a work I made last year (Omnipresent) where I am directly referencing Peter Alexander’s Cloud Box, a container that holds the intangible — weather, time, and spirit all at once. In thinking about systems, containers allude to the logic of a controlled environment, a microcosm, an ecosystem. In Current State I bottled the Los Angeles lightning storm within the layers of a dome window, almost like a rare specimen. In this work, the contained lightning sky, full of pink and purple hues, becomes this romantic landscape where the apocalyptic spectacle feels like a miracle that we as much as the flowers on the table are witnessing. I recently bumped into some of Billy Al Bengston’s paintings (Loke and Laika) that have a similar dynamic, a beautiful gradient sky with floating meteors. Upon unexpectedly meeting him and totally fangirling about these paintings to him, he went, “E’rybody loves a floatin’ rock!” and turned away… leaving the romance behind him.

VH Talk about a defense mechanism. But going back to the romance you were evoking, the way you talk about the romanticizing of the storm reminds me of the English Romantic painters of the 18th century and the Hudson River School painters of the 19th, who were obsessed with depicting the sublime by way of nature. But theirs was a genuine belief in the sublimity of nature as an access to God. Your drawings seem like they reference the sublime without believing in it — as if it were too good to be true. The fact that so much of your work is immersed in the Los Angeles landscape takes it a step further, LA being known in the cultural imaginary as a sort of artificial paradise — an impossible microcosm of sun, sea, mountains, and sand. Do you relate to LA as a microcosm of paradise? An illusion of paradise? Do you believe the illusion?

CP The romanticization of the storm to me feels completely Disney-ified, miraculous and synchronic like an animated symphony of sorts. The drawings definitely speculate the sublime and all its contradictions, like the figure playing both God and scientist, the objects posing both as alive and dead. It does feel too good to be true, that’s why I’m restlessly looking for reason in systems and can only find absurdity. Given that I am a magnet for series of comic tragedies, I can’t help but be a little superstitious about the way I move in the world. Los Angeles, because of its cultural status as an artificial paradise, becomes the perfect playground for games of make-believe. Concrete has never seemed friendlier and even plastic has a soul, a place dipped in fiction where beautiful contradictions can take place. California and all of its drastic landscape changes could be a sweet microcosm, but LA could never be a slice of heaven, there’s way too much scamming going on for that…

VH It’s a pay-to-enter slice of heaven.

CP With a lot of deceptive Hollywood smiles.

VH Another prevalent theme across these drawings is play, but also, like you said, the idea of playing God or scientist — in all of them, a translucent or partly obfuscated figure intervenes over a tabletop on which different scenes unfold: in the aptly named Traffic God, one plays with cars amidst a Los Angeles freeway-scape, plastic palm trees swaying in the background, and in Citrus Circuit another reaches down, conducting electricity through lemons arranged in a still life-like tableau. Like a child playing with puppets, these figures become the omnipotent, omniscient main characters of their respective microcosms, orchestrating their own reality, wreaking havoc or keeping the peace, and just generally experimenting.

CP Exactly. Sort of like a deus ex machina in ancient Greek tragedies — when there could be no possible human resolution to a conflict, instead of a dead end, an actor playing God would be held by a crane and lowered onto the stage to signify holy resolution. CP Ooof if only…

VH Alongside the sense of play, there’s also an almost magical sensibility in many of these drawings, as we’ve touched on before — the magical intricacy of life on earth, so much larger and more complex than any one person’s capacity for comprehension. How does the investigation of magical functions and invisible forces you’re engaged in here relate to magical thinking, a child’s hope in the impossible, or belief that extends beyond logic? Sometimes I feel like we’re all caught up in a sort of magical thinking in the face of climate change and our planet’s likely nigh demise, like if we just wait and pretend like everything is fine it might all actually turn out ok. And somehow even when presented with hard, inescapable facts, we’re still caught up in the unshakable belief that reality as we know it will continue if we just go about our lives, recycling and taking shorter showers. There’s something touching about the way we humans cling to the belief in the status quo even in the face of daunting realities — but also something dangerous, a deep-seated complacency that prevents us from taking real, urgent, lasting action.

CP The status quo mentality acts as an illusion that veils ecological responsibility for the ones not doing their part and offers a false sense of empowerment to the conscious ones. In reality, the individual is helpless, deceived by available systems designed to lessen the burden on the planet, but that constantly fall short. I have a recent example of being made aware of recycling as a possible kind of magical thinking. I was doing my part by blindly recycling plastic (a responsible member of the status quo) until I had an eye-opening conversation with someone who took me through all the processing steps and financial implications, from the moment plastic leaves my hand to its final form as opaque material molded in cubes.

He brought it to my attention that we recycle so much plastic that there is too much recycled plastic for the limited and financially beneficial uses we have come up for it, and it’s just sitting somewhere in the world stacked in useless cubes. And then he asked me what the difference is between having a pile of trash and a stack of cubes…

VH Thinking of all those stacks of well-intentioned but now superfluous recycled plastic feels like a punch in the face. But there’s still something beautiful, maybe, about the power of our belief systems in the face of insurmountable challenges. Belief, even in the debunked, is still a way of constructing meaning — sometimes innocuously and other times dangerously so.

CP All we really have is the here and now when thinking about our planet as a ticking bomb — play might literally be our only available coping mechanism. It can still do its part to soften the blow, or even draw it out. VH Like child’s play, even the illusion of empowerment can be empowering.