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A cultivated coming of age November 14, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Arts Events Greece, Arts Exhibitions Greece, Arts Museums.
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The Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art presents a quarter of its holdings at Athens venues

Almost 30 years ago, a handful of people with a love for the visual arts decided to join forces in establishing a Contemporary Art Museum in Thessaloniki. Their enthusiasm and commitment found quick response. At first Alexandros Iolas, followed by Alexandros Xydis several years later, donated large parts of their collections to the emerging Museum, while the state provided, on a long-term loan, the building. Born of private initiative and partly state-subsidized, the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art was the first Museum to focus on contemporary art at a time when contemporary, international art was unknown to the Greek public and long before Greece acquired other showcases for contemporary art.

Yet its permanent collection was not fully presented to the public, mainly because the Museum’s exhibition space was not large enough to hold great parts of the collection. Besides large retrospective exhibitions, there were also presentations of the collection; that held just a few years ago was of great importance, yet it also showed just a portion of the collection.

“Topoi: An Exhibition, An Approach, A Museum, A History,” is the largest presentation to date of the Museum’s collection and its first outing in Athens. Curated by Denys Zacharopoulos, the Museum’s artistic director since 2006, it is spread across different venues of the capital city. The Pireos Street annex of the Benaki Museum is where the bulk is being shown but displays are also on show at the main building of the Benaki, the School of Fine Arts, Zappeion Hall and the Alex Mylonas Museum of Contemporary Art, which recently has become part of the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art.

The curator has succeeded in presenting a broad-ranging and diversified collection, almost 400 works by a total of almost 200 artists, in a way that flows, makes meaningful and unusual connections between the works and keeps the attention of the viewer. Part of its success is due to the choice of the artworks, some of the best in the Museum’s collection, which totals 1,600 works by both Greek and international artists.

The way the exhibition is structured is, however, its most impressive aspect. In its home Museum in Thessaloniki, the works that came from a specific donor were grouped together as separate entities. An example are the sculptures by Achilleas Apergis that the sculptor’s family donated to the Museum. The Athens exhibition does not distinguish the works in terms of their donors, although it opens with two portraits from its principal donors: Alexandros Iolas painted by Costas Tsoclis and Alexandros Xydis as painted by Yiannis Tsarouchis.

The exhibition also stays away from linear, chronological structure, the standard presentation for large collections, and does not classify the works in terms of artistic movements or the artists’ age group. A neo-Goth-style painting by young artist Alexandros Tzannis is, for example, placed near a sculpture by Dennis Oppenheim, a key figure in American conceptual art. A painting by Lila Polenaki is placed next to a sculpture by the Sixties Generation artist Vlassis Caniaris. A drawing by Nikos Gavriil Pentzikis is close to a drawing of Henry Miller.

By making such juxtapositions, the exhibition encourages the imagination of the viewer to travel freely across time and stylistic movements. It stays away from didactic, constricting categorizations and suggests that understanding art can be a far more rewarding experience if one is allowed to enjoy it through free associations. Topoi, which means “places” is also meant as mental places. This, however, does not mean that the connections made in the exhibition are haphazard. On the contrary, they stem from a penetrating analysis of art.

The juxtaposition of Andy Warhol’s “Alexander the Great” with a series of works by Theophilos, the naif Greek painter who had an impact on painters such as Yiannis Tsarouchis, is indicative of the play. An American pop artist from the 1960s has nothing in common with a naif artist from Mytilene. Interestingly, neither of them came from the high echelons of art, Warhol’s background was in advertising. However, both Warhol and Theophilos, each in a different degree and scale, became famous and developed a style that played an important part in the development of 20th century art.

Juxtapositions of this kind indicate that art can be open to various interpretations and that a Museum’s collection can be viewed from many different angles. The exhibition encourages that sense of freedom but also remains true to the core and personality of the collection. It has, however, left out the collection’s more conventional works. In general, “Topoi” highlights Greek, avant-garde art of the 1960s and 70s, which is one of the collection’s strengths. Works by artists such as Vlassis Caniaris, Stathis Logothetis, Takis, Pavlos, Yiannis Gaitis or Daniil fall into this category. Much of the art of this period contained a political subtext and was concerned with the social role of art. In the early 1970s, the so-called group of the New Realists, painters Yiannis Valavanidis, Kleopatra Diga, Kyriakos Katzourakis, Chronis Botsoglou and Yiannis Psychopedis, expressed this tendency. The exhibition includes a section that presents the works shown in the group’s first exhibition.

In “Topoi”, one will also find some impressive, open-air works. The atrium of the Pireos annex of the Benaki Museum houses “Carousel” by Alexis Akrithakis, a work that the artist dedicated to the “Children of Vietnam” in 1969.

At the Zappeion playground, Mark Hadjipateras, Marc Charpentier and Jonas Lehec have made art part of children’s play. Their work will remain in situ and is a donation by the Museum to the City of Athens. It is yet one more example of one of the exhibition’s principal notions: to show that art cannot be made to fit into strict categories but is something open to varying interpretations. As well as that it is a form of creativity that occupies a place in everyone’s thoughts and imagination, a pleasure that we can all relate to and make a natural part of our lives. “Topoi” runs to November 25.

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