George Hadjimichalis

Athens

at National Museum of Contemporary Art

George Hadjimichalis: Self-portrait, from “The First Chapter, 1939-1951,” 2011, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 by 27 1/2 inches; at the National Museum of Contemporary Art.

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In this recent show, “The Painter A.K.: A Novel,” Athens-based artist George Hadjimichalis assumed the role of a fictional painter in order to explore a wide range of psychological states and political issues. In his first museum solo since representing Greece in the 2005 Venice Biennale, Hadjimichalis presented here an extensive survey of over 300 works by a painter referred to in the catalogue and wall labels only by the initials A.K. According to a press release, K. alludes to Kafka as well as to Brecht’s Mr. Keuner, and the overall concept of the show can be linked to the groundbreaking 1925 book The Double by Austrian psycho- analyst Otto Rank.

Hadjimichalis is best known for conceptual pieces and installations of found objects and archival material. However, having begun his career as a painter, he returned to the medium to deliver a convincing ruse as well as a painterly tour de force, since A.K.’s oeuvre encompasses various 20th-century periods and styles. Presented as a kind of visual novel, the show began with a wall text that helped establish the artist’s identity. A.K. was born in Athens in 1924 and died sometime in the mid-’80s. A manic-depressive, he became increasingly reclusive and nearly psychotic toward the end of his life. The multifarious images and techniques he used over the years reflect personal upheavals, set against the backdrop of Greece’s tumultuous political landscape. In the exhibition catalogue, Hadjimichalis admits that some of his own life experiences parallel A.K.’s, but the project is not specifically autobiographical.

Organized by museum curator Daphne Vitali, the exhibition was arranged chronologically according to A.K.’s biography and filled several large galleries in the sprawling Athens Conservatory (temporary home of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, whose new building is currently under construction). Focused on A.K.’s early work, the first room contained some 30 medium-size oils painted in an expressionist style that betrays the influence of Soutine, Kokoschka and Goya. Among this group, a refined self-portrait contrasts with visceral images of bound figures painted at the time the Nazis occupied Greece in the early 1940s. Even darker and more abstract, another series corresponds to the oppressive dictatorship that followed the war.

Indicating a relatively peaceful and sensuous time, A.K.’s palette brightens in works of the late ’50s and ’60s to an almost Matissean luminosity, and a female nude frequently appears in the compositions. The idyllic mood, though, was eventually supplanted by scenes of domestic violence. Images of bloodstained clothing and a painstakingly rendered shrouded figure suggest the tragic death of a loved one. From this point forward, A.K. descends to an abject emotional state. As evident in the work, he confined himself to his
tiny apartment, taking photographs of minute architectural details and reflections in the dirty windows, and making countless small paintings of doorknobs, sink fixtures and the like. These photos and obsessively wrought, photorealist-style paintings were among the show’s highlights.

A.K.’s final works were an installation piece and a short film. Visitors could enter the large, eerie, mazelike construction, which is a scaled-down model of A.K.’s apartment, except with all black walls and illuminated only by a single bare lightbulb. The installation was used as a set for the film. The 5-minute, black-and-white video loop displayed in a side gallery lingers on ghostly figures in hallways; a man slices his finger with a razor blade in one scene, and in a dreamlike sequence, two figures cavort under satin sheets. Ultimately, the film appears as an elegiac ode to lost love and the thwarted emotions that A.K. (aka Hadjimichalis) struggled with and apparently could come to terms with only through art.

In a subtle way, the mood of the show overall reflected not only Greek history over the last century (A.K.’s lifetime) but also the political and economic turmoil that has gripped Greece recently (the time in which Hadjimichalis finished the works in the exhibition). One wonders what A.K. would be painting at this moment had he lived. In a press statement, the artist noted that the most political artworks are the most personal ones.