FROM the tribal to the Greek Orthodox, the route isn’t so long, especially in Tasos Mantzavinos’ exhibition of new works, entitled ‘The Game, ‘Snakes and Ladders’’, at Skoufa Gallery (till December 4). Here, you will find the artist’s entanglement of the two, plus other sources of inspiration taken from Greek mythology and folk art, the popular ‘international’ children’s game mentioned in the title, and much more.
Dogs, Pegasi, saints, monks, warriors, two-headed monsters, dragons and snakes, are the main protagonists in this artistic world, where the tribal colours of blue, orange, red and black predominate. Instead of just painting his forms, Mantzavinos also scratches them into the painted surface, revealing other colours underneath. The scratched surfaces of his paintings are especially sirenic.
Yiorgos Mylonas writes in the show’s catalogue that Mantzavinos “becomes a ‘soldier-saint’ in these works, who references the forms of Orthodox iconography. In the work ‘Killing the two-faced monster’, the black-and-white figure of saint Mantzavinos appears”. Mylonas speaks of how Mantzavinos was drawn to the form of the totem in this series of works (and all that it stands for), whilst also to certain aspects of Greek Orthodox tradition, such as “The smoked silver of the votive offerings” (‘tama’), which led the artist to paint his saints’ portraits blackened, like the blackened silver of those little votive offerings we find in Greek churches, usually hung around the icons. Mylonas quotes Mantzavinos’ belief that “the artist has all of the characteristics of an ascetic monk”. He also emphasizes the ‘Greekness’ of his work, and the fact that Mantzavinos wants to delve deep into his cultural heritage, something which every artist should do, wherever they come from.
The Pegasus, heroic and proud also makes an appearance, like a positive ray of hope. This is a symbol that has become universal. So has Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, which also features: Odysseus with his ship and crew, replaced by saints in some works, but harking back to similar scenes depicted on ancient Greek vases (something which artist Gaitis had also explored); Plus many, many dragons – a primordial creature to be found in many cultures, from the Chinese, to the English, to the ancient Greek.
Rosalia Adamopoulou analyses the dragon in her essay in the catalogue, and its wide gamut of symbolic meaning, in cultures around the world – from protector/guardian, to poet, to outsider. She adds: “Tasos Mantzavinos does not hesitate to use symbols from his heritage, from myth, history and faith, which he embodies in his paintings, often giving them a new context.” She also suggests that Mantzavinos’ work could be categorized as ‘neo-expressionist’.
Mantzavinos manages to mould his primary sources of inspiration – certainly most of them coming from his Greek heritage – into his own artistic cosmology. Do the results cast him into the category of being a purely regional artist? Obviously it’s debatable, but personally, I find that this artist’s work hasn’t turned a blind eye to the pulse of contemporary art, and the general trends and ideas/concepts circulating therein.
I don’t know if Mantzavinos visited documenta14 at all, when it was in town in the summer, but the ‘tribal’ was something that featured intensely there, and the debate about where to draw the line between regional/indigenous and international art. Beau Dick’s totemic works were one example in that show, that come to mind, and this sudden burst of colour and a more ‘ethnic’ look in these new works by Mantzavinos, plus the totemic factor, seem to connect with Dick’s work too. Probably just a coincidence, but proof however, that Mantzavinos’ art, isn’t just about ‘Greekness’. Or maybe it’s the other way round: that Mantzavinos has picked up on the tribal concept, plus the ‘tribal self’ within the Greek Orthodox culture.
Brief bio: Mantzavinos was born in Athens, in 1958. He has realized 33 solo exhibitions, has taken part in group shows and has illustrated many limited edition books, including Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’, published last year by Mimnermos Publications (only 40 copies). He studied at the Athens School of Fine Arts (1979-85), and has represented Greece at the Alexandria Biennale of 1987.
• You can also see more of Mantzavinos’ work at the bookshop of MIET (The National Bank of Greece’s Cultural Foundation, 13 Amerikis St, tel 210-361-4143), in a show entitled ‘The Woman from Zakythos’, comprising 11 drawings and 7 paintings, curated by Yiorgos Mylonas (runs till January 27).
• Skoufa Gallery is on 4 Skoufa St, Kolonaki. Tel 210-364-3025. Info@skoufagallery.gr. Open Mon, Wed, Sat 10am-3.30pm, and Tues, Thurs, Fri 10am-3.30pm and 5.30-9pm.