Ritual Devotion | Exhibition Catalogue & Essay by Lilly Wei
The Ritual Devotion catalogue is hot off the press! It includes all works from the series, with a wonderful essay by Lilly Wei. Pick up a copy this Saturday, November 2 from 6 – 8pm at the Ritual Devotion opening reception at Octavia Art Gallery.
Dreams, Shadows, Flow By Lilly Wei
Anastasia Pelias’ artistic practice is varied, like that of so many contemporary artists. But while she works in mediums that include installation, video and photography, it seems evident that painting is the one that is closest to her heart. Using the traditional materials of oil and canvas with gesso, turpentine and gravity as the sole constituents of her paintings, her recent production ranges the entire spectrum, from difficult-to-pin-down, fluctuating greys to combustible madders, magentas, and reds to limpid liquid blues. Her titles (or her labels) precisely note the colors—Florentine red, translucent golden green, for instance—giving them top billing as the featured protagonists of her abstract narratives, the names themselves eliciting the expectation of sensual pleasure for those who love painting; I wish that more artists would do the same.
Reminiscent of Whistler’s nocturnes and Rothko’s color diaphanes, these works are quietly intense. Their more-or-less monochrome surfaces—although they can be bi-chromes or tri-chromes—yield gradually to the colors beneath as layer pushes against layer, contributing their nuances to the surface hue, the surface image. While Pelias’ palette is rich, surprisingly, she uses only a few colors in each painting. I say surprisingly because often, the complex, collusive interactions of hues create the illusion of a far more extensive selection of chroma, the shadings and combinations becoming the equivalent of different colors. The turpentine-thinned layers of paint—she applies up to eight or ten coats—appear as free-formed grids, irregular striations or other patterns, and there are a trail of lovely drips and splatters to remind us that they are hand-made objects. She often turns her paintings, playing with gravity, the process intuitive, “a combination,” Pelias said, “of paint doing what it needs to do and me doing what I need to do.”
Pelias prefers to work in series and all the works in this exhibition, Ritual Devotion, made in 2012-2013, grew out of the body of work called “Washed” that occupied her from 2007 until 2011. During the “Washed” series, however, she also worked on an “Automatic” series, a more spontaneous group of works, illustrating her need to counterbalance. It is a reflex that is natural to her, a resistance to any one mode. Instead, she always wants to explore its opposite. That reaction, for instance, compelled her to work for ten years without color in the 1980s, and then three years experimenting with reds, in the
1990s. She is a natural colorist but because it came so easily to her, she refused to work with a full palette for many years. This seeking and addressing of opposites, of reconciling dualities also informs the internal structure of her work, one impulse countered by another, the results a kind of idiosyncratic, precarious symmetry that establishes an exciting equilibrium, the painting switched on to an active mode.
Her paintings require time to make as well as to reveal themselves. First, Pelias explained, there is the looking phase, which is slow. Then there is the application of the paint; that can be fast. She works on each layer separately, covering the entire surface of the work. However, the drying time is once again slow, since it is oil. This gives her time to think, a pause that is critical to her process. It is decidedly not a “one-shot deal,” she explained, not even the so-called “Automatic” paintings. Pelias needs to leave her work and then return to it. That gives her the time to evolve her themes, to watch the paintings attentively as they develop, allowing her to explore unexpected possibilities as they appear. In our age of instantaneity, it is a luxury to allow oneself a slower tempo in order to linger over and savor the act of production.
The scale she prefers is based on her reach, on her bodily dimensions. Pelias is attracted to squares, although not exclusively, and sometimes creates rectangles by doubling a square, fascinated by the concept of repetition, of twinning and alter egos. In a rectangular format that is horizontal, intimations of landscape are more pronounced. Wavering between the purely abstract and the allusive adds tension to the reading, as does the frisson that occurs along the edges where her often contrasting colors meet,
“bumping into each other.” Her paintings envision a dense, richly colored, vibrant world, a dreamscape of enveloping colors that advance, then recede into indeterminate depths. They are always a larger presence than their actual measurements.
Pelias is Greek and the Greek Orthodox Church was the basis for many of her family’s rituals as she was growing up, her family’s individual life enhanced by the authority of the church and its venerated
history. It was, perhaps, more a way to remain connected to her Greek heritage than it was about strongly held religious beliefs, the rituals offering structure, succor and glamour. The elaborate architecture of Greek churches, embellished by ornate altars and ikons, by the glitter of gold and the smell of incense stirred her imagination. These memories, consciously and unconsciously, appeared in her paintings, transfigured. The influence is seen not only in her diptych and triptych formats, reminiscent of altarpieces but also in imagery. There is a Madonna and Child pose known as the “tender kiss” (in Greek, glykophilousa) in which the mother’s head curves downward toward her child. The child’s head tilts upward to nestle in that curve, its small hand cupping and caressing the Madonna’s cheek. In abstract language, Pelias’ combination of subtle curves and interwoven colors refers to that iconic embrace and its blissful intimacy.
As an eclecticist (and a New Orleanian), Pelias might fold the pageantry of the church into the flamboyant celebration of Mardi Gras in her associations. She also refers to the world of classical Greece, in paintings like Delphi, that in turn evokes the antebellum South and its aspirations to be a new Athens. It is not so much nostalgia as it is reverie, a way to weave references, to merge time past and time present.
First and foremost, however, Pelias’ paintings are about color: its charisma, elusiveness and chameleon- like response to light, space and the influence of other hues. For instance, in Ritual Devotion Two, a panoramic 12-foot diptych, roughly half rosy madder, half Prussian Paris blue, the coolness is warmed and the warm cooled where the two colors meet. Love, Pleasure, Water, even larger, is a triptych that extends 15 feet, its violets, blues and greens shading into a kind of vernal twilight. Elaine, for Elaine is a doubled canvas banded with a central cascade of yellow between two very different and elegant greys, an allegory of light framed by darkness, made in memoriam to a beloved cousin. The yellow, on the left side of one canvas and the right of the other, is both separated and merged and forms the kind of visual connection that is important to Pelias.
Delphi is a glowing green-blue, just off-square, the magical result of layering translucent turquoise and translucent orange. End of Love 1 and 2, are also made with the same hues but look entirely different from Delphi—and each other, their colors difficult to name but orange or turquoise most probably would not be what a viewer might guess. Now, and ever is made from translucent violet and permanent yellow light and is a regal purple, oriented vertically. A Thousand Desires is a pink and red valentine, a perfect 6-foot square. Paraskevi is a serene, three-green painting, another 6-foot square, named for the Greek saint who could heal visual impairment (her curious, if appropriate attribute a tray of eyeballs) and refers to perceptiveness and perseverance, Pelias’ constant themes. All in all, they form an irresistible, many- splendored, very personal array of paintings, the narratives social, cultural but above all, emotional, subjective.
Her father was a hero to her. A classicist, he translated ten lines of Pindar a day every day for his own pleasure. It became a model for her, this matter-of-fact attitude toward creative work—to just go into the studio as part of your life, she said, to make it as natural as breathing.
Lilly Wei is a New York-based art critic and independent curator.