ART / athens / creativity / greece / interview / painting

Verghi:  The plight and pleasures of a pioneering  plein air painter

”BEYOND MY MEANS II”, 141,X191CM, MIXED MEDIA, 2014-15 (2)

THERE are so many elements that converge in Chryssa Verghi’s  art. Among her painted odes to nature,   you will spot references to certain crucial crossroads in the history of art and landscape painting, such as her painted encomium to Monet ‘s  ‘ Water Lillies’, a touch of Romanticism’s passion for the sublime and mystical in nature, Expressionism’s  painterly flair, or even Pollock’s love of paint drops.  Nature here is a life giving force to be celebrated and respected –  the mother of all things. Verghi captures via paint, how nature can uplift you, embrace you, soothe you, astound you with her colour and light, but then again how she can lure you into dark and dangerous places – musty and dank. After seeing her work, one is almost left with an after taste or an aroma  – the musty smell of fig leaves,  of damp earth, verdant vegetation or undergrowth feeding off nearby cool ,crystalline waters. The myriads of blues, greens and browns of her larger canvases in particular, play havoc on your eyes, excite the senses, detoxify the mind and boldly confront you with a powerful force.

Crisis and culture

Despite the crisis, 2015 has been a good year for this artist, whose paintings for many were the main highlight at the Art Athina art fair in May, where they  featured in a solo show at Alpha C.K. Art Gallery’s stand. Verghi also exhibited at London’s Belgravia Gallery, in their ‘Spring Exhibition’, while the Greek summer rewarded her with the pinnacle of her artistic career so far – her retrospective at Syros’ Cyclades Pinacotheque, spanning three decades of her work (1985-2015),  entitled ‘Chryssa Verghi: The Soul of the Landscape’. Her current show at the Evripides Gallery in Kolonaki (10 Iraklitou St, tel  210-361-5909, running till October  17) includes a selection of those works , with a few other additions.

“The Greek art scene is slowly being abolished by the crisis, although us artists are a resilient bunch”, explains Verghi to ‘Art Scene Athens’, and continues: “But  we insist on exploring our creativity and  produce art nevertheless. The will has been weakened, but is still there, and the ways to exhibit are harder to find, considering that galleries are closing and they have no money  to take part in international fairs.  Greece’s Art Athina fair this year was realised without any government funding. The newly added  23% tax will kill us off even more. For me, this means my works have been selling abroad but not so much in Greece. But on the other hand, the crisis has also helped deflate things in certain respects, such as the prices – people are now insisting on a better quality of art. In the past, works could get sold off even before the official show’s inauguration, while now that is not the case.”

Yet despite the crisis, some art lovers have tried to keep the creative flame alive in the heart of Athens. While some gallery doors close, others open – such as those of the Evripides Gallery (www.evripides-art.gr). This new gallery is situated  in the building once known as the ’House of Cyprus’ – a cultural establishment which had also offered much to the community, before it closed. Businessman and art collector Kostas Evripides together with his wife Nasia, have given new life to the building with their gallery.  Mr Evripides and his wife have been collecting Greek art for the past 20 years. The 3-storey, 600 m2 art space  first opened its doors to the public in June, with an exhibition of works by Yiannis Spyropoulos.

Painting in nature

Verghi is a plein air painter – a cumbersome practice, which involves taking her large canvases with her on the beach or by the river, working outdoors in order to become one with her natural environ.  She told ‘Art Scene Athens’ about her unique artistic process, which usually begins after 3pm, when the light is steadier: “The conditions for creating my work outdoors  are totally different from those in the studio. When working in nature, I  take with me nothing more than just the colours and the rolled up canvas, which I then spread on the ground. These primordial conditions can hide some unforeseen outcomes. Over the years I have discovered means and techniques in order to realise my creative process under the given circumstances. I work quickly, so that I can catch the light and my feelings. I paint on large surfaces  via  a  gestural manner , trying thus to interpret artistically the feeling which overcomes me when I am engaged in my subject. In the last few years, I have been finishing off the works in the studio, choosing in this way to distance myself from nature, and to focus on the work’s essential elements. This has also lead me towards creating more abstract works.” The artist adds that it can take her months, even years to complete a work and that she works on various paintings at the same time.

Some of  Verghi’s canvases combine acute focus on detail in some parts, with total abstraction in others. One could say that a viewer’s eye travels over a landscape in a similar fashion, vaguely focusing on the  uninteresting  before choosing to investigate  more interesting factors that will catch his/her attention:  the mesmerising ripples and reflections on the sea’s surface, or  the curvaceous leaves of a fig tree, dappled by the light .

Artists’ influence and art history

Art history professor and National Gallery Director Marina Lambraki-Plaka has written the following on Verghi: ”She makes her painting material both thicker and thinner using glazing, impasto, coatings and palimpsests in order to create images which sometimes refer to the traditional landscape and other times are more reminiscent of the lunar landscape of Tapies while at still other times they show a connection with the gestural work of Pollock’’.  Art historian Charis Kambouridis on the other hand writes in the catalogue from her summer retrospective show on Syros, how there are ”several muted references to the history of landscape painting, for instance the rising hill as a reference to Wyeth, the water lilies, the impressionistic colours in place of a realistic description or the Dutch horizons. In this sense Verghi  joins the postmodern trend in conversing with favourite phases from the past of art.’’

Verghi explains to us from her point of view, who she believes her mentors  are:

“I was a student of Dimitris Mytaras and Nikos Kessanlis, although my work didn’t seem to bear any relationship to Kessanlis’ when I was under his guidance in his studio. Charis Kambouridis does discern a strong influence though, and he’s probably right. However outside the Athens School of Fine Arts, I always believed that my real teacher was Panayiotis Tetsis. Spyropoulos, Bouzianis and Papaloukas are among my favourite Greek painters. Outside of Greece, there’s Monet of course, for his lyrical abstraction, Tapies for the textures and ‘matiere’, Pollock’s artistic process, because for some reason  I start my works similarly, Richter, but also Turner, whose work is so modern and  eternal. He was so beyond his age. There’s also Bonnard, Klimt and of course Cezanne, who  believed that art is about the human, added to nature.”

Trials and tribulations

But it hasn’t been all up hill for Verghi, who has worked extremely hard to obtain her present-day reputation as one of Greece’s leading ladies of contemporary painting: “I don’t believe in female or male art. It’s a matter of dedication, time and lifestyle. However it is harder for women to make a career out of art, especially if they choose to also have a family, because you have to always be part of the scene, always proving yourself. In the past there was prejudice against women artists – collectors were wary of them (I have experienced this myself), because they believed their work wasn’t worth investing in. They believed that women artists were more prone to abandoning their art, in favour of the family.”

Furthermore, it’s not just being a woman that can create problems for an artist, it’s also the fact that Verghi has stuck to plein air: “I belong to a group of artists who continue to paint from life” (she is part of the contemporary Greek movement involved with exploring ‘the gaze’,  including artists such as Rorris, Palantzas, Daskalakis, Beldekos, Filopoulou). “From what I see, there are no  ‘continuers’  of this movement, at least not in Greece. The  teachers at the Athens School of Fine Arts who were painters, are all pensioners now, and there doesn’t seem to be any real effort to find contemporary counterparts to take their place. In fact the opposite seems to apply. Furthermore, plein air painting is viewed as passé nowadays, or as old school, and that’s why it isn’t seen in international art fairs.”

On the other hand, Verghi points out that representational  painting of another nature, which has to do with photorealism, symbolism, surrealism or even comics and  ‘images of the mind’, seems to be flooding the art market and  gaining ground both in Greece and abroad. Time will tell what can be realized by going against the grain of contemporary trends and sticking to a less travelled road…

And people?

People play a very, very minor role in Verghi’s art . Apart from her son – the little boy who once followed her on her painting excursions by the sea. During this phase of his life, he plays the main protagonist in her paintings – tenderly rendered by his mother’s gifted hand. These works of the late ‘90s seem to have enmeshed within the brushstrokes that feeling of mother love.  “The retrospective was an opportunity for me to see anew chapters/phases of my life which are interconnected with my work. Indeed,  I now recognise the emotion and tenderness in the works where my son plays the leading role, created 15-20 years ago. Some of these works are almost like a diary (eg ‘Seaside Games’ series).  Others (eg ‘Playing with the Reflection’) were an excuse to explore a new thematic unity and artistic subject – in this case, reflections – which I have been exploring for years.”

But Verghi’s son seems to have been the only real human ‘distraction’, from her main aim to capture nature in all its grace and grandeur .  Her landscapes  are ‘archetypal’ – this is what the land was like ‘in the beginning’ , untouched by the human hand, pure. People do appear sometimes (small figures), in order to create a scale of things – as a metre of measure. The artist points out though that her works might be without people, but they are not without life. The people might be missing, but this does not mean her work is not about the human experience of nature, of life and its cycles.

Verghi’s ecological conscience in the past also led her to donate one of her works to auction in order to raise money for the National Forest Fund, as part of the Environmental Programme of the Goulandris Museum of Natural History (in 2008). The work, estimated at 22,000 euros, finally sold for 30,000 euros and was bought by the Greek State. It is now housed in the Greek Parliament. The money was used to buy fire trucks for the fire brigade.

I leave you with some impressions from my experience of her current show, which is a must-see: This is not the white, dazzling light of Greece that we see in her works, but a more dissipated, soft light, sometimes a tad dusky and mellow. Brushstrokes and landscape play tricks on each other – speckles of paint become the faded glitter of light on water, large blue surfaces  wash away the stress, while crusty brown impasto brings us down to earth in other works. There is texture, colour, emotion and history. But what prevails the most (in my humble opinion), is the artist’s sheer love of nature, and the human need to be close to nature, to escape there, to discover and learn from its symbolism and laws. This is what Verghi manages to pass on to the viewer – that impulsive instinct, that necessary connection between the human and nature, which is as important as the grandest cultural heirloom,  that must be preserved and not lost.

2002-2005, ''RIVER''205x216cm, μικτή τεχνική,1995-1999, ''Βυθός'', ''Waterdepths'', 100x150cm ΚΥΡΙΑΖΑΝΟΣ

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