Alexis Avlamis is a Greek painter based in Athens, Greece, with a BFA degree with honors from the Athens School of Fine Arts (2002). Soon after, in 2004, he pursued a Master’s degree at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, RI, but a year later he deferred admission indefinitely due to personal and financial reasons. Some say that everything happens for a reason and in Alexis’s case, I believe that’s true.
Upon his return to Athens, he committed to his studio practice and to the creative path he had chosen, which was no other than encaustic painting. His tenacity is inspiring, in terms of the amount of research that has gone into controlling and mastering his craft.
I had only been familiar with his work for couple of months before I first visited his studio two years ago. A potent scent of natural wax had literally soaked the entire apartment, and the view of his outdoor working area at the time was just dazzling. As I walked out, the soft humming that I was aware of from the get-go could now be attributed to the countless bees. They were visiting just like I was – drawn by the myriad wax blocks of various qualities spanning from the US to China. While Alexis was briefing me on encaustic painting, I was becoming more and more uncomfortable, as the bees’ perseverance to befriend me was a rather animated experience. It must’ve been early summer and we stretched his massive canvas in the front garden. Heating plates, containers, pigments—you name it—it was all there; this was a painter at work.
Alexis is currently in residence at the Vermont Studio Center (VSC). Luckily, I had the opportunity to view his latest body of work early this fall and I had to tell you about it. He has created many large-scale works of luscious and luminous surfaces – ideal for one to meditate on the world that unfolds within them. Inch by inch, theriomorphic creatures, mystical landscapes, and fragile details occupy the space of the canvases. Highly controlled strokes and a rich palette give life to the emotional menagerie of the artist. Extremely hard to photograph, one can only get a real sense of Alexis’s world up close.
Alexis is a gentleman and a dear friend, and I am inviting you to continue on Inside the Artist’s Studio with me in 2010, with this first post for the new year.
Georgia Kotretsos: What does the traditional encaustic technique bring to your ornate microcosms? Is there a contemporary take on the technique?
Alexis Avlamis: I was first introduced to the archaic technique of encaustic (hot-wax painting) in 1998, at a Benaki Museum exhibition in Athens. It focused on the relationship between Byzantine art and the painterly traditions of antiquity. It was the first time I had the opportunity to observe up-close the art of mummy portraiture, or better yet, Fayum portraits (mid-1st century through the beginning of the 3rd century). What captivated me was the lifelike appearance of the portraits—their luminosity, sensual beauty, and permanence. Through lots of experimentation with the technique, I came to a realization that would serve as an ideal vehicle for me to explore the ambiguous, improvisational nature of my imagery. Also by doing extensive research, I realized that paradoxically, the oldest easel painting method dates back to the 5th century.
So, the multiple extraordinary and contradictory qualities of waxes and plant resins offered me the stimuli to discover an unsurpassable wide range of unique painting qualities and techniques. I have always been attracted to raw and unadulterated natural substances. An aspect of my practice is to engage with sustainable agriculture; thus sourcing pure wax from local bee farms came naturally to me. In that way, I had a chance to closely observe and appreciate the delicate interdependence of bees’ life cycle and of those who keep them. Spending time with the beehives feeds my imagination as I experience the buzz of activity. In addition, the discussions I often have with the hospitable bee farmers have helped me come to understand how global warming has seriously impacted their way of life. I value their conversations tremendously because I share their concerns.
As a process-oriented painter, I was fascinated by the demanding and labor-intensive character of encaustic painting. I use the highly fluid state of encaustic to document and elaborate constant movement and changes reminiscent of weather, rock and cloud patterns, veins, markings, organs, rivers, cast shadows, biomorphic figures, and creatures.
I set myself free to the unpredictability of the medium rather than a controlled process, choosing to solidify individual moments and evoke memories, sounds, and smells. I utilize the hot wax paint to build a gestural thin-to-thick relief, gloss versus matte textures, impasto-like luminous paths, grids, stripes, dots, drips, beams, and figures. Different applications include: embossing and embedding plant elements, scumbling, scraping, incising, fusing, and applying various sources of heat with the help of heat guns, lamps, hot-plates, torches, and a heated stylus, as well as the sun. I seal traces of emotions, impulses, and psychological states as evidence of my engagement with encaustic’s responsiveness. I use my hands to impart an enamel-like glaze to the painting surface. I employ encaustic’s enigmatic attributes to convey various visual worlds and mental states.
Encaustic emerged again in the 20th century as a powerful aesthetic force facilitated by modern technology’s possibilities. Jasper Johns applied encaustic in his well-known painting Flag (1954-55), in order to bypass the slow drying time of enamel paints. This was followed by Brice Marden, Lynda Benglis, and successive generations who are continuing to use encaustic.
GK: How do you and your work relate to nature?
AA: I consider myself lucky to have been raised between a metropolitan city and the countryside of the Ionian island of Kefalonia, experiencing nature and its biodiversity there. As a kid, mountain ranges and natural phenomena seemed to be intimidating, evoking both fears and wonder.
I learned to pay attention–observe sounds, smells, vision, textures, patterns, and light casting shadows on the terrain. All this multi-sensory information was, and still is, invaluable to me. It charges my drive for exploration and through these experiences, allows me to absorb the surrounding environment. I realized that seeing and visualizing brings personal awareness into play and demands active engagement. In this dreaming state, both night and day, inaccessible ideas may become realities. I build and compose different groups of images from these illusionary states, leading me to esoteric landscapes. Through these journeys, I gain a heightened sense of whimsy, which in return infuses my practice.
GK: Your work mirrors the force behind your paintings — the highly imaginative and rich world of an artist, whose sensitivity seems rare. Where does the imagery you so delicately paint come from?
AA: My art practice stems mainly from various forms of natural and manmade organisms. The interrelation of hikes, natural patterns, line forms, maps, aerial views, world mythologies, films, comics, and epic poems all feeds my work. My emotional reasoning, memories, impulses, imagination, fantasy, and sensory impressions function as a metaphoric realm, which penetrates into the/my unconscious. My own intuitive way of composing a personal vocabulary creates symbiotic relationships between the various characters that appear on my canvas. Sometimes the imagery reflects the otherworldliness of contemporary society, mythological figures, pop culture, everyday objects, and architecture, as well as many other components.
Forms and movement in the world outside of man are duplicated within the human organism. When you understand a thing outside of yourself you are actually recognizing something that is felt within you.
GK: Talk to me about your residency in Vermont. How important was it for you to find yourself in an art community where painting and drawing is a 24/7 affair?
AA: I am not often engaging with visual artists and writers in a communal creative environment or setting. Living and working in such a unique atmosphere offers me a space to share common hopes and concerns with my peers. Also, meeting many creative individuals from different cultural backgrounds and countries enriches the dialogue among us. The community functions as a nest that simultaneously contains the individual and the like-minded. There is an astounding amount of free thinking that is manifested artistically.
Prior to my stay here at VSC, I was totally overwhelmed by a recent family crisis. This shift has been very beneficial for me because it boosted my spirit, by allowing me to regain my faith and rhythm in my work. Being exposed to a totally different physical environment yielded a new outlook and also enriched the visual content of my imagery. A full program, which includes open studios, slide talks, visiting artists, critiques, and social activities is a fulfilling experience, which in turn met my expectations. This equal level of inspiration among the residents, has established a professionalism and integrity towards the art making of a collective understanding.
GK: What is your studio situation at VSC as well as in Athens?
AA: My studio here at the VSC is bright, spacious (400 m2), and comfortable. It is situated in the historic building of Barbara White, which in itself is poetic, while beautifully shaped with a lot of character.
It houses the Studio Center printshop and darkrooms. Both my windows overlook at a leaf-spattered lawn leading down to the Gihon River; across, I see the Schultz sculpture studios and metal-shop. It feels very relaxing resting my eyes and looking out my window and meditating on whatever happens to fill my mind at the time. Indoors, there is a lively yet respectful communal atmosphere. I relish the experience of listening to the music on my iPod while working, creating a rhythm and flow which sustains my work throughout the night without noticing.
As for Athens, my working space is a flat, housing both a living and studio area. It is 85m2 —big, bright, and quiet. I moved in three years ago and fell in love with it. I feel very lucky to be able to rent in a suburban area at an affordable price.
There is a semi-open air room, which serves as a storage area. For the winter months, I use a small room as a studio; the rest is my living space. The best part is the patio and the garden, where I have a small-scale organic farm. I grow watermelons, eggplants, peppers, beans, melons, tomatoes, flowers, herbs, and ladybugs! Predators feed on aphids and keep the garden free of pests. It’s a joy!
I usually enjoy working outdoors and melt large batches of encaustic medium. Wax’s scent attracts tons of bees partying on wax blocks and nibbling at my paintings! In addition, I get studio visits from hedgehogs, turtles, birds, cats, and lots of snails, especially on rainy days.
There is a family living above my apartment with a child who plays the piano very well and visits my studio often to critique my work. His critiques are the best and most insightful reviews I have ever gotten. Just across from my studio, there is a public park where I go to take a break and stretch my neck with Frida, my Athenian mutt!
GK: The word on the street is that a solo show is in the works. Why don’t you tell me a bit about your upcoming shows?
AA: My last show was about four years ago. Since then, I took the time to develop a consistent body of large-scale encaustic works, part of which will be exhibited in March at my solo show in Thessaloniki, Greece. The show will be split between two galleries: Zina Athanassiadou Gallery in Thessaloniki and the AAA (Athanassiadou Art Advice) space in Athens. The galleries will have their openings a week apart. A catalogue will be published, which will include both paintings and drawings from the exhibitions. Numerous detailed images of these large scale works will also make the catalogue, because I find it essential to include them; these parts of a whole stand great on their own, too. By isolating inner compositions, the imagery takes on a different, individual meaning. The working title of the show is Phantasmagoria. You’re all invited!
And that’s a wrap!