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
Feminist Iconography in the Work of Harry Michalakeas
By Deianira Tolema
“The amount of space dedicated to women in our cultural context is directly proportioned to the role of women in the world vision of their societies.” (1)
The one and only protagonist of the work of artist Harry Michalakeas is the female body hidden between the angst and preoccupations of our time or simply caught looking towards the viewer with a kind of timid self-awareness.
Michalakeas’ sensibility is so imbued with symbolic elements and so refined as to allow the artist to investigate the female mind without forgetting its geographical, cultural, and historical aspects: Michalakeas explores the subject with a careful yet delicate eye and the attention to detail that he has rightfully become known for.
The main subjects discussed in his work go from religion to the customs of different eras to man’s intricate relationship with birth, death, life, and immortality.
“A metaphor of the unrepairable conflict between love and craziness, the story of Medea conveys, within itself, an extreme radicalization of the Greek eye over a female body, which revolves around the unfathomable memory of the flesh; a glimpse of the original life flux where birth and death are melted into each other.” (2)
In the recent work of the artist, “Forgotten” a teenager – of which you can only see her lips, piercings, and tattoos – keeps in her hand – right between her neck and her chest – a fading rose, almost as if this fragile flower represented the fading of femininity, but a strong yet poetic feeling of rebellion; in regard to flowers, the desire of maternity also comes to mind: there is no lightness, no cruelty in the suffused realism that stems from the soft atmosphere depicted by the artist, while the chiaroscuro goes hand in hand with the proportions of the subject; in Michalakeas’ work, roses, just like other flowers normally associated to female beauty, are emblems of inner frailty, introspection, and secrets revealed.
In the work, “Sister”, created for the Last Rites Gallery of New York, you can identify three elements often connected to the feminine: water, blood, and the nearly supernatural ability of women to relate to death almost as if there were no difference between animated and inanimate objects.
Water can also remind us of the placental liquids where babies are conceived; the blood represents life, but also everything that remains after a life cycle; death – the favorite nourishment of Michalakeas’ characters, in most of these works has been tamed and fetishized, reduced to a pile of skulls that could be used as penholders.
Back to Ancient Greece, in the book “Houses of the Body” written by Laura Ferranda, the female face tends to be drawn as a profile except for the Gorgon; furthermore, in regard to artist representation at the time, mirrors are tools generally associated to the feminine – not to vanity, but rather to the discovery of the self that leads to self-awareness: in this light, mirrors become dimensional portals to other worlds where any interaction with our doppelgängers is regulated by glance exchanges as well as by the depth of the artist’s perspective analysis.
The skull in the work, “Sister” represents the “other from the self” that is meant to reunite each reflection – whose meaning is rather ambiguous – to its origin: the female heroines of Michalakeas’ compositions are not afraid of their future and they face it boldly without blinking: their strengths lie in their femininity.
Works of Harry Michalakeas whose main subject is religion in relation to the role of women in today’s society are: “Purity”, where the model selected by the artist, as “imperfect” as she would be according to the church, has a vision of light, hope, and forgiveness; “Loss”, where a woman prays with her eyes shut, dedicating her prayers to her God in tears, with her hands joined, with folded hands, looking for comfort; “Truth”, where the protagonist is a kind of “Figura Christi”; “Purity II”, where the meditation the precludes the contact with the divine is not interrupted by any external forces but is rather emphasized by an uncontainable feeling of belonging to multiple cultures, multiple possibilities – see the Arabian drawings on the nun’s forehead –; “Diana”, where the protagonist of the work is in the process of accepting the original-sin mythology that can arise from the confrontation with both nature and knowledge; “Sinless”, antecedent to the work, “Diana” where the liberation from social stereotypes and conventions begins with animal instincts and there’s no telling where it will end; “Left Hand Path”, where a nun chooses the “path of the left hand”, thus the path of anarchy, dark magic, and even the Devil himself.
According to Indian feminist Chandra Rami Chopra, “The one thing that all religions have in common is the marginalization of women”: Michalakeas explores this concept and enriches it with new meanings tapped into contemporary pop and dark-surrealist culture, although the most recurring topic in his work is that of the objectification of the humane in juxtaposition – or conjunction – to that of death.
In the work of Harry Michalakeas, myth is interpreted in its “upside-down guise”: this philosophical approach to visual communication reminded me of the theories of M. Detienne mentioned in the book, “The Ambiguous Illness” by Eva Cantarella, where images convey retroactive meanings that can influence their interpretations:
“Matriarchal myths, if that is true, can mean exactly the opposite of what they were supposed to mean in 1800, including whatever feminist literature tried to claim and turn into something that it was not. Those myths might, in fact, describe an upside-down world opposed to reality: a world so different from ours to be unthinkable.”
And while death is defied by evoking the power of nature in works such as, “Daughter of Gaia” and Supplicant”, reality, in all grey-shaded verismo, takes over in the works, “Dichotomy”, “Solitude”, “Unbroken”, “After I’m Gone”, and Daughter of Lilith” where the facial features of the model are emphasized by light, and the blank or natural backgrounds are secondary to the subject’s intense feelings of discomfort and sorrow; the eyes of the woman portrayed in these drawings express both sadness and resignation, whereas her gestures, intertwined with one another between subject and self, are reflecting one another in a vicious dialectic circle.
1. Gasparro Sfameni in the book, “The Roman Woman” by Francesca Cenerini, Published by Il Mulino Editore in 2009
2. “Houses of the Body” by Laura Faranda, Published by Meltemi Gli Argonauti in 2007