By Eleni Sakellis
NEW YORK – Artist Jannis Varelas was commissioned by the Onassis Cultural Center New York to create a new work in conjunction with the exhibition, A World of Emotions: Ancient Greece, 700 BC – 200 AD, opening to the public on March 9.
The resulting work is Black Frames, a large-scale, diptych painting on display in the Olympic Tower Atrium, 645 Fifth Avenue at 51st Street in Midtown Manhattan. The exhibition is free and runs through June 24. Varelas spoke with The National Herald about his work.
“And if the soul is ever to know herself, must she not look at the soul?” is the line from Plato’s Alcibiades, quoted by George Seferis in his poem Argonauts (1935) and also the inspiration for Varelas’ Black Frames. Varelas noted that when the Onassis Foundation contacted him about the commission and the theme of emotions, at first, he didn’t know where to begin. Soon enough, his extraordinary imagination led to dynamic preliminary sketches and the final painting.
Varelas told TNH that the painting, “took two and a half months.” When asked about the location in the Atrium, which is open to the public, he observed that “it works in the space.” People pass through all day and can enjoy the painting during their coffee break or lunch hour since there are tables and a cafe. The bright, vibrant colors create a fantastic counterpoint to the darker emotions expressed towards the end of the exhibition of ancient art in the gallery downstairs.
As visitors move up the stairs and back into the Atrium, Varelas’ painting is there to greet them with light, color, and movement. As noted in the description, “The work explores the complex relationship between self-knowledge and identity within the context of social restrictions and impositions, and the emotional conflicts that can arise between a sense of self and one’s role in society… [It] combines abstract and realistic elements to depict the emotional disruption and fission between the personal and the social, the idiosyncratic and the communal.”
Varelas told TNH that in thinking about emotions and the space between human beings, he created this metaphor with space and color to depict emotion. The relationship is definitely charged, he said. A casual viewer noted that the painting reminded her of her childhood.
The honesty, freedom of expression, and bold colors recall childhood and invite the viewer to reflect on emotions and art in the contemporary world. It was only about six and a half years ago that color became central to Varelas’ work. He told TNH that earlier in his career he focused mainly on black and white and drawings, but turning to painting as his medium, color became vital.
Jannis Varelas, born and raised in Athens, with roots in Ioannina, Epirus on his mother’s side and Corinth on his father’s side, now lives in Los Angeles. He returns to Athens often and previously called Vienna home for nine years, though he noted that he traveled during that time as well.
A Greek artist in Greece, he said, has to travel. He received an MFA from the Royal College of Art in London and a BA from the Athens School of Fine Arts. Selected solo shows include The Breeder, Athens (upcoming, June 2017); New Flags for a New Country/Destroying Elvis, Onassis Cultural Center, Athens (2016); New Flags for a New Country, The Breeder, Athens (2015); and Sleep My Little Sheep Sleep, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, curated by Xenia Kalpaktsoglou (2012). Varelas is represented by The Breeder, thebreedersystem.com