Harry Michalakeas is fascinated by the juxtaposition of natural and artificial beauty, and plays with both to fashion an odd realism that is familiar yet strange.

Nature is more than a simple subject of Michalakeas’ work – it’s a means to localize current notions of beauty, and draw a kind of “iconography of the present” indicating our place in the universe.

To give life to his vivid skies and gauzy black and white atmospheres, Michalakeas takes inspiration from the same nature we have both feared and tamed for centuries, and draws human faces made from tree branches, each revealed in a way that delights without any kind of saccharine charm. They could be illusions; they could be what we saw as children when we looked up into a winter forest; they could be dreams.

Michalakeas is also focused on beauty and he is somewhat obsessive in serial portraits of robot/manikin female bodies and faces; each shorn of hair and laden with a blank and “perfect” personality. The artist’s desire to analyze and reflect the ambiguities and contradictions of Western culture take a stab at individuation, and our constant reinvention of certain socio-psychological imperatives to “conquer and transform the self.” Michalakeas asks: How far can we go with this power? His work dove tails in some ways with that of French body artist Orlan, who has explored the “self” in tragicomic fashion through surgical interventions.

For Michalakeas, the genetic reinvention through art is magnified, and he asks us to recall our truer selves as we gaze upon the “beautiful” manikins he has portrayed. There is a possibility, he seems to say, of imaging a more beautiful human being if only we could honestly absorb and process our ideals. Then, suggests the artist, we would be freer to see what beauty really is, and to acknowledge the full breadth of Nature’s gifts – and curses.

What binds everything together in Michalakeas’ dance of tree branches, blank faces and encrypted meanings is, of course, the burden of identity, a potent player in our lives that stands at the intersection of beauty and nature, implicitly reminding us of both our origins and our future.

By Deianira Tolema