Monday, March 9, 2015

I’m Just a Simple Artist Who Travels: A Talk with Bas Poulos

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

To admit a visitor, Bas Poulos must take the time to unlock his security gate, which means that despite all the granite counter-top town homes that surround his house and studio, West 23rd street has yet to shed its criminal element. On one of my visits, Poulos told me about the Cadillac Escalante parked by a neighbor’s guest which was found the next morning on concrete blocks without wheels. I pity the misguided dumbass who does bust in on Poulos, because despite his age (b. 1941), the artist appears to have the strength for which his Peloponnesian ancestors are known, a physical attribute solidly backed up by literary tradition. It was Thucydides I think who estimated one Spartan was the equivalent of several Greeks from another region, and there’s consensus among the ancient writers that the original inhabitants of Arcadia were so undeniably tough they were born of the soil, ate acorns and existed before the moon.

The brilliant scholar H.D.F. Kitto said that talk is the breath of life to Greeks, which Poulos amended to “to tell a story,” so I must tell the story about Poulos’ Peloponnesian Uncle Pano. In 1938 Poulos’ grandmother summonsed her son, Poulos’ father, back to their Greek village from America because she had found him a wife, but when his father met the woman to whom his marriage had been arranged, he refused to marry, and then committed the sin marrying another woman from a different village, who would become Poulos’ mother. This was not how things were done. The rejected woman’s relatives voiced outrage, which led to a meeting to discuss the insult. It was Poulos’ father’s cousin, Uncle Pano, who settled things. “Uncle Pano was tough,” Poulos said, “he was much older when I knew him, but as a younger man in the early forties he had been part of the Nazi resistance and did things like ambush German convoys, and he was so fearless they called him the Jackal. Uncle Pano told the woman’s family that my father had indeed disrespected tradition by rejecting her, and then bringing his new wife into the village. But my father, the Jackal told them, would be leaving in a few days, while he on the other hand would be there the rest of his life, so anyone who fucked with my father would have to answer to him.”

When I saw his “Mycenaean Bridge” series, I knew I would write about Poulos. Here were deliciously colored landscapes comprised of Bronze Age objects that were part of a network of ancient roads built for chariots. With this art I could relive visits to Mycenaean archaeological sites, and bore people on the topic of Agamemnon. What could be more fun? But it turned out Poulos was uninterested in the arts’ Mycenaean and Homeric significance. “I am interested in the symbolism of bridges,” he explained. Bridges connect two land masses, which symbolizes my personal history, as a Greek American with links to the Greek landscape. The paintings represent my walking across these bridges.”

Bronze Age Mycenaean bridges are rare, but Hellenic stone bridges made for seasonal crossing of river beds and gorges are plentiful in the Peloponnese, and Poulos discovered over thirty of them within one day‘s distance from his home in the village of Karies. Figuring he might be the only American to return to his ancestral home and artistically capture these bridges, the director of Sparta’s Koumantareios Art Gallery who is organizing an upcoming exhibition encouraged him to try to learn the bridges’ names and ages by way of documentation. “The bridges were seasonal,” Poulos said, “not for cars, but for shepherds and goat herds. My Greek was good enough to ask the old men in cafés and gas stations about the location of their village’s stone bridge, and of course they all had different answers, and argued, over location, over how many arches, if it had collapsed, and more than once I found myself parked on some blind road curve, or behind an olive grove with my rent car searching for the bridge. A few times villagers offered to take me to the bridge their father showed them when they were kids, but try to arrange a time and date, no damn way. Once near Dimitsana I was able to find the bridge because I heard the sound of the gorge water. I eventually told the Sparta curator, look, I’m an artist, not an art historian or archaeologist.”

Basilios Poulos, Arcadia Vista A of the 'Greek Landscape Series', 2012/13, Acrylic on canvas, 48" x 60"

If Poulos’ bridge series got my attention, his “Greek Landscape” and “South Carolina Landscape” series silenced me. The seductive colors in these paintings bring home Matisse’s statement that his “beautiful blues, reds, and yellows were meant to stir the sensual depths in men.” Essentially, Poulos’ pictorial sensibility approximates a central tenet of modernism which favors an unforgettable visual experience over representational accuracy, and distances the image from objective reality by use of emphatic color and irregular form. Poulos’ announcement of his March 14 exhibition Journey into Landscape at Houston Baptist University made me want to know more about him and his art, which led to several lengthy studio visits in which I learned the following:

Virginia Billeaud Anderson: It was fun to learn in Robert Boyd’s December 2014 post that you photographed yourself in front of Jackson Pollock’s The Deep. I studied that painting when I wrote about it in 2007.

Bas Poulos: It’s a great painting, and I like to think it played a part in my coming here, and I’ll tell you how. When I came to Houston in 1975 as “artist in residence” at Rice University, and in 1978 would accept a tenure track position, I was unsure about the job. This was at the time of my Guggenheim fellowship and I had a studio in Manhattan, and I was showing with Andre Emmerich gallery, and Clement Greenberg had praised my work, so naturally I had reservations about leaving. Then I saw Pollock’s The Deep at MFAH and it convinced me Houston wasn’t the boonies, and it was okay for me to leave New York and all the activities and museums. Later that painting ended up in the Pompidou center as a gift to France in honor of John de Menil, and I’ve visited it many times in Paris, and documented my trips to see it with my camera. I consider it a masterpiece, although many of the critics disliked Pollock’s late paintings, I think it was a wonderful period.

VBA: To hell with commentary. How refreshing to interact with art made solely for the purpose of being viewed. I liken it to an act of piety. What interesting variation in the degree of abstraction among your landscapes. In some paintings the bridge is unrecognizable, or completely hidden in foliage, and in others it is recognizably distorted. Arguably, where you annihilate the object, there is greater impact.

BP: The “Lost Bridges” series illustrates that. Its bridge arches are removed from nature through abstraction, because as you know I have no desire to accurately reproduce the object.

VBA: On one of my visits you showed me a photograph of a wooded area in South Carolina that captured sunlight cast against tree trunks and across the ground. That photo provided insight into your process, especially when seen transferred to charcoal line drawing on canvas, and preliminarily blocked in with wide swatches of acrylic, which by the way made me think of stained glass.

BP: That’s a photograph of my family’s land in Columbia, South Carolina. You know Picasso said he observed the landscape then entered his studio. I take it one step further and walk the landscape, which allows me to see how the light filters through foliage, branches, and leaves, hits trees and the ground plane and how shadows are cast by tree clusters, so my beginning impulse is observation. From the photo or sketch I create the armature or structure of the painting, the drawing and blocked in colors, then arrange for cohesiveness. I’m not creating a portrait of the landscape, but a visual experience. It’s the same with bridges, the patterns of stones in the arches form the drawing armatures for color that works in opposition to organic shapes of the foliage. I’m not interested in documenting the bridge, just taking from it for the painting’s armature, which with color and luminosity factored in, are crucial elements of the visual experience. Braque did this with his Cubist paintings of the L’Estaque viaduct, and I actually painted several ancient viaducts I found in Greece.

VBA: Sensual color and luminosity do not exclude the use of black, which in your art helps to define form. In some areas black isolate patches of color, and throughout it compliments and enhances color.

BP: You see that. One color represents the bridge, another the sun behind it, another tree silhouettes, and I use black to help define the landscape, for instance this fallen tree trunk in this diptych, but like Ad Reinhardt, you can add red to black to make a warm black, or add blue to black to make a cool black, notice none of these black tones are the same in this South Carolina landscape. The swatches of yellow in this painting were inspired by how sunlight appeared to me in the wetlands, you sense the color yellow where water reflects light. So I use drawing and Fauve-like color to describe the structure of the landscape, drawing is armature that supports the color. Color is the primary element of my abstract sensibility, along with the idea of luminosity and time of day.

Basilios Poulos, "Bright Day" Congaree River Basin of the 'Carolina Landscape Series'. (Diptych) 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 48" x 72"

VBA: Several times we’ve discussed the influence of Derain’s “L’Estaque” landscapes, particularly the small one in MOMA which you admire. Derain does a devilish thing in that passage with the bridge arch. It’s a miserably drawn object, crudely executed, but its colors are incomparably exuberant.

BP: The Derains are important, and the smaller landscape in the Museum of Modern Art is possibly a better painting than The Turning Road, L’Estaque in the MFAH’s Beck collection.

VBA: Rather than record nature Derain sought to create images that were timeless and enduring. In my opinion, your 2014 Window to the Landscape (Homage to Pierre Bonnard) fits that category. The painting’s spatial compression is unexpected, and its colors resonate.

BP: I painted Window to the Landscape in 2014, at the same time I began painting landscapes with abstracted human figures. I intended the painting as homage to Pierre Bonnard. I saw several Bonnard retrospectives, and was moved by his depictions of Marthe nude in the bathtub or on the bed, and particularly by the paintings of windows opening to the landscape, which of course Matisse did as well. Bonnard presents his window within the context of the interior, but mine has no direct reference to the interior or exterior. Unlike Bonnard’s depiction of the interior with table and still life objects, mine is abstract, interior and exterior spaces are indistinguishable. I constructed an abstract architecture which includes the interesting concept of a frame within a frame which isolates the flat area of green in the center to represent the landscape beyond the window. Some will laugh at me for linking myself to these giants.

VBA: Only sanctimonious dimwits. You’re honoring Bonnard.

BP: Yes, honoring.

Basilios Poulos, Window to the Landscape (Homage to Pierre Bonnard), 2014, Acrylic on canvas, 48"x60"

VBA: Many people still remember the painting you exhibited thirty years ago in Fresh Paint: The Houston School which was critically praised by Thomas McEvilley in Artforum as one of the exhibition’s best. That was no intensely colored, spatially ambiguous landscape.

BP: That’s correct. At that time I painted color field abstraction in the vein of Morris Louis, Kenneth Nolan, and Helen Frankenthaler. I was engaged in this kind of art for a very long time, had many exhibitions, in fact for a time I worked with four galleries simultaneously, showing regularly in Houston, San Francisco, New York and Atlanta, while teaching full time at Rice. I was young, and felt powerful then, but eventually realized I could not sustain it, primarily because abstraction has to be supported with critical theory, and I realized my theory was based on nature, that I was a landscape painter.

VBA: Tell us about your shift into figuration after color field abstraction.

BP: Although I never gave up the idea of the expressive use of color, color as the vehicle for expression, in about 1987 I abandoned color field abstraction, its formalist attitude, stopped painting on canvas, and started painting on wood. I had been looking at Byzantine art, and visiting monasteries in Greece. I would walk in and tell the monks I’m a Greek artist and I want to see the old icons, and they wouldn’t hesitate to take me into their treasuries, and just like that hand me a valuable icon. So I began working with figuration, using iridescent and metallic pigments, a framing device, some in diptych format, I painted icons until about 2005, 2006, and then had to re-invent myself again.

VBA: Did the monks serve raki?

BP: It’s tradition. They welcome visitors by serving raki or a cool glass of water, and a loukoumi which is a Turkish delight.

VBA: I love that about you Greeks. I remember being served raki the instant I entered a village market. And you probably don’t remember the day I found you searching for loukoumi so you could properly greet visitors from the Columbia Museum of Art who were coming to your studio.

BP: My art is in their permanent collection. They were coming to Houston to see their museum’s “Monet” in MFAH’s Monet “Seine” exhibition, and planned to visit my studio after.

Basilios Poulos, Two Figures in the Landscape, 2014, Acrylic on canvas, 36" x 48"

VBA: Bas, your figuration in the form of disordered representation of nature is quite unified. Viewed collectively, the Greek and South Carolina landscapes form a continuum with the other subject matter, the icons, and architectural scenes of Greek classical temple columns and theaters that are abstracted to the point of non recognition. They concur with the superbly colored “Three Graces” and “Dance” series of female nudes, which though classically posed are intensely erotic due to stylized rendering of hips and breasts, and also link to your displaced odalisques, black stocking floozies, and various torsos and body fragments. It’s my judgment that the entire figurative corpus looks ahead to the new paintings of nudes abstractly hidden in the landscape.

BP: An artist can’t stand still. I had to move ahead after the landscapes, to making figures in landscapes. Cezanne did that. More than once he revisited his “Bathers.”

VBA: There are cornerstones of modernism that are so familiar, I sometimes misremember them. Our talks inspired me to look again at Cezanne’s nudes, and I found myself startled by the blue and green contours he employed to corrupt the figures, and disembody those lovely nudes.

BP: I’m also inspired by the German Expressionist Kirchner ’s Three Bathers of 1913, a memorable painting of nudes in landscape. And Picasso created cubist-style figures in landscapes, particularly the one in the Picasso Museum from 1908 which I saw about 12 years ago. You know it’s only 28 inches wide. Compositionally, it has a nude reclining, and another standing inconspicuously near the trees; stylistically the figures are practically unreadable, with facial features abstractly eliminated. Picasso drew with the brush you know, compared to Matisse who painted with it.

VBA: What happened to the woman your father refused to marry.

BP: I actually saw her. One summer, I’m in the village of Karies, in the plateia near the giant sycamore tree near the café tables and chairs, and I look up and see Uncle Pano the Jackal opening his eye widely to give me a signal, so I go over and he asks me if I want to meet the woman who almost became my mother. I wasn’t so sure about meeting her, but told him I certainly wanted to see her, so he pointed to a plump old lady sitting with the old men. It turned out that after the rejection her family sent her to another village near Githio where she married and had a family, so the day I saw her she must have returned to our village to visit her family.

VBA: Is there anything else you want readers to know?

BP: Remember that my show at Houston Baptist University Contemporary Art Gallery opens on March 14 and runs through April 15. I will exhibit fourteen or so works, ones that are purely landscapes to represents the beginning of my landscapes, and one from the “Arcadia Vista” series which was recently shown in Greece and Turkey. I’m also showing two tapestries that represent the end of my work with the Greek landscape. A bulk of the HBU show will be “South Carolina” landscapes because these represent the end of my work with landscapes, including a diptych. And I will also show the painting we talked about, Window to the Landscape,” inspired by Bonnard. There’s something else I want to say. Since retiring from teaching at Rice in 2008, I have returned to being just a simple artist who likes to travel. That’s what I am. In fact that’s the title I want for this interview! Virginia, I’m just a simple Greek American artist, who travels.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting ... Thanks for the back stories.
    Ron Hartgrove