The Breeder is pleased to present the work of Chryssa Romanos (1931-2006). Romanos, a distinctive Greek artist, quickly established an individualized style which placed her at the forefront of global artistic developments of her time. The exhibition consists of collage and décollage work, all of which are characterized by a critical position on sociopolitical and artistic issues, as well as poetic polysemy.
Chryssa Romanos was born in Athens, where she lived until 1961 and again from 1981 onwards, but the intermediate two decades she spent in France (1961-1981) determined her artistic temperament. There she met her future husband Nikos Kessanlis, as well as various other artistic personas. Romanos was part of the group of Greek diaspora artists who lived and worked in Western art capitals during the post war period. For the first time in recent Greek history, Greek artists would play an instrumental role in the formation of international artistic movements.
The first section of the exhibition features collages from 1965. Beginning late into 1964, and for the next two years, Chryssa Romanos would create the series Labyrinths, Targets, Horoscopes, Casino, Reportage, and Maps. She would collect and select depictions of reality taken from the photographic footage of highly circulated contemporary newspapers or magazines, iconic images of consumer products or mechanics, documentary accounts of current events, fragments of landscapes and geographic or land registry maps. Romanos would then compile these materials in dialectic relation with written or printed words in order to articulate her own critique of society, artwork and the function of the arts therein.
Amidst the backdrop of Pop Art and its French equivalent, Nouveau Réalisme, and more broadly of Neo-dadaism, it was the moment in which reality invaded the canvas in the form of found material, a derivative of the readymade, or language. Chryssa Romanos draws on the techniques of Dadaist collage, the language of mass-culture advertisement, and the written tongue, not to praise, but to mount a critical commentary on capitalist culture. Similarly, she juxtaposes the irrational, the playful and the fantastic with the sociopolitical framework denoted. Her direct and poignant critical opinion is informed by the climate of general defiance that would lead to May ’68.
Labyrinth is constructed with photographic icons of mechanical and technological parts (pliers, guns, engine parts, airplanes, helicopters, an electric iron, a mask, a gear…) intact or modified, fit into a Daedalian web of dead-ends. Despite the suggestive guidance of arrows and labels, the viewer is unable to access the allusive alpine paradise promised by the post card at the exit.
In Luna Parc International images of consumer products from advertisements are arranged symmetrically about a painted target superimposed over an agglomeration of black-and-white documentary portraits; above them are typed International Luna Parc, TIR (shoot), and Chasse A L’Homme (man hunt). The target, a common motif in Pop Art, refers as much to the popular theme park game –that would reward winners with token gifts– as it does to fate. The tidy, artificial well being promised by the advertisements is here critically contrasted with the chaos of human existence.
In Casino and Reportage the black and white photos of human subjects are contained in the first work, within the thick green outline of a roulette table, complete with numbers, and the roulette itself; where the fate of peoples is played out. In the second instance, the human subject matter is combined with French words and phrases which refer to game and error, the original and the modified. Meaning is again achieved by virtue of a dialectic contrast between different types of imagery with the added connotation of the written word.
Horoscope belongs to another class of her collage works. The main compositional element is the group of the concentric circles which denote the zodiac wheel, supplemented by additional words, symbols and numbers. Here Chryssa Romanos mockingly comments on a phenomenon peculiar to mass culture, that of astrology, which had swamped publications –mostly women’s– along with a variety of other superstitious jargon.
The Map collages of 1956-1966 counterbalance the works that overtly criticize consumer society. Prompted by Guy Debord’s psychogeographical urban guides, the map, as a visual apparatus, gained popularity among artists. Chryssa Romanos infused this format with a particularly personal and lyrical quality. Golden circles, arrows and labels punctuate quotations of idyllic landscapes and extracts of maps. The constituents of memory and imagination poetically cohere into real or plausible routes and stops: childhood home on Kodros Street in Athens, a stay in Rome, the first trip. Individual and artistic freedoms are juxtaposed with a predetermined set of social conventions.
The second section of this exhibition draws from the series Images and Map-Labyrinths, large-scale décollage on Plexiglas. Since 1980/81 the artist has worked systematically in this manner. This method, used by the Nouveaux réalistes of the ’60s, was embraced by Chryssa Romanos as the natural successor of previous artistic investigations and got personalized. The artist would begin by gluing publications and other paper materials (adverts, maps, periodicals, photographic replicas of historic artworks…) on Plexiglas. Once it dried she intervened with a wet sponge, rubbing the surface of the paper until it came partly undone. This procedure was repeated with consecutive layers of paper, which however remain thin and translucent. The artist acts on the back of the work; consequently the final front surface would reveal itself to her only after the procedure was completed.
The technique of gluing and erasing overlaid paper materials necessarily emphasizes the procedure itself and produces dynamic visual palimpsests. Rhythmic labyrinths of forms and colours, structured by notional axes and uneven sections, where occasionally Rorschach’s inkblots might be discerned, invite the gaze and mind to wander.
Reading is neither linear nor guaranteed. The fractured space contains the traces of liberated gesture, memory and cultural experience. The Deadalian worlds of contemporary cities are manifested in Map-Labyrinths as a projection of the psyche. In the work dating to 1982 from the series Images, glimpses of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s village festival can be discerned, as a copy was embedded within the layers. Here the intertextuality of Chryssa Romanos’ work becomes apparent: the artist becomes a gatherer of references, picking both from the vast inventory of mass-culture and the history of Western art, and choices are freely woven into a new artistic enterprise. The transparency, the controlled chance, the rhythm, the meshing of varied artistic and historical imagery, and the fragmentary narration imbue the works with poetic character.
Chryssa Romanos’ varied oeuvre includes also: abstract painting, monotype collage, Meccano –a sculptural series based on the known children’s model construction system– and a series of silkscreens in diary format. Selected exhibitions: Zygos, Athens (1958); Desmos, Athens (1981); Budapest Galeria –with Nikos Kessanlis–, Budapest (1996); Engraving Biennale, Ljubljana (1961); Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, Paris (1965); Sao Paulo Biennale (1965, 1994); Museum of Modern Art, Lund, Sweden (1967); Bonino, New York (1972); Salon de Mai, Paris (1973, 1974, 1976); Maison de la Culture, St Étienne (1977); Europalia, Βelgium (1982); Memories-Recreations-Quests, National Gallery-Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens (1985); Transformations of Modern Art, National Gallery-Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens (1992); The Child in Greek Art, National Gallery-Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens (1993); Women Beyond Borders, Antikenmuseum, Basel (1997); Chartographers, Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb (1997); Istanbul Biennial (1997); “The Years of Defiance: The Art of the ’70s in Greece”, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (2005-2006).
Dionyssia Stephanopoulou, art historian, December 2013