NYC-based American painter and interdisciplinary artist Peter D. Gerakaris shares his views on paintings that can inebriate, art functioning as a surrogate Nature in cities, and familiar geometry from the 80’s television show 3-2-1 Contact. “I feel our brains constantly play tricks on us by ‘remixing’ memories, like DJ’s spinning nostalgic fabrications.

Peter D. Gerakaris Studio

Peter D. Gerakaris Studio

Peter D. Gerakaris Studio, a plethora of paints and brushes.

Peter D. Gerakaris Studio, a plethora of paints and brushes.

Heather Zises: When working in the studio, are there particular voices or dialogues that bubble to the surface of your thoughts? i.e. Sound bites of former professors, conversations with friends, or even cameos of your own voice? If so, do they distract you or guide you?

Peter D. Gerakaris: One of the beauties of our species having evolved beyond the bicameral mind is that we can choose to ignore, or at least call into question all those demanding internal voices!  While I’m creating art, it’s a predominantly non-verbal experience. The intense “dialogues” I have with my work manifest in the form of visual “call and response”, like a group of musicians interacting, and have little or nothing to do with text or the spoken word. Art and language are just completely different modes of communication for me. When I decide on a visual gesture during my process, it is essentially a visceral response to another visual gesture, mental vision, visual cue, emotion and/or feeling, or even sound (both noise and music); but least of all a “voice”. Even if I am responding to literature through art, I have to internalize the text long before I head into my studio to the point where it basically becomes a launch pad for its own transmogrification into a series of pictorial impulses. The voices to which I think you’re referring tie into what I’d call the “feedback-loop stage” of art making, e.g. the analytic and critical assessments after the act of creation. For better or worse, I am the only one who truly knows what I want to make, therefore the onus is on me to not only listen to that, but to do it the best I can – in that sense, I am probably my toughest critic and wouldn’t wish it on anyone else!

HZ: In past conversations, you mentioned that when you work in other media, for example your accordion books, you work on many of them simultaneously. Do you employ this method with your approach to painting as well? In particular, with the Tondo series, they all seem to be interconnected, engaged in conversation with one another.

PDG: Yes and yes! I just wonder what they’re saying to one another?

HZ: The titles of your works strike me as very thoughtful. Do you come up with these namesakes before each work is made, or is it more of a slow burn where ideas gestate during the creative process?

PDG: Thank you. I try to avoid making formulaic work with formulaic titles, plus I’m a fan of neologisms. Each body of work requires a completely different approach. I can definitively say that applying names to the work only comes after the work is finished and the work itself has survived a certain gestation period. If I actually feel like ascribing a name to a work, that’s typically a sign the piece is “finished” (or as finished as it ever will be). And nothing nags me more than “Untitled”. Sorry, I know that is the name of the enterprise for which you formerly curated, but I couldn’t resist (maybe that was your ironic intent?). But I digress. I often find that my work tends to invoke feelings for viewers of “other” places, if not frontiers – amalgams of inner and outer spaces, physical and psychological “sites,” such that there aren’t necessarily specific words to evoke the totality, so I have to invent an appropriate neologism.  An example of a recent neologism is “Cosmicarium”, a 96 x 80 inch “painting installation” constructed out of 19 interlocking canvases in hexagonal and tondo formats that mushroom out of the largest, central square canvas. It invokes “Terrarium”, “Aquarium”, and “Cosmos / Cosmic” series and is very “2001 Space Odyssey”. I’ve also been making accordion books of various formats for some time (ca. 2005), and have come up with completely different titling schema for those. One of the latest origami-fold series, which I simultaneously envision as a moquette for a large sculptural environment, is called the “Accordion Pavilion of Cosmic Delights”. It’s an obvious allusion to Bosch, but re-envisioned through a three-dimensional geometric lens of the fluorescent-hued accordion book format.

Peter D. Gerakaris, Cosmicarium Origami Book Sculpture, Mixed media on paper & wood, 30 in. x 12 in. x 12 in. Private Collection (Shaker Heights, OH)

HZ: It seems like environments—both real and fabricated—largely inform your work. Thematically your compositions are imbued with an amalgam of occidental and oriental attitudes, riotous color, geometric patterning, fantastical flora and fauna, cosmic fields and aquatic environs. However, it would appear that your compositions are resistant toward narratives that champion society’s “umbilical attachment to cities.” In a sense, isn’t that notion just as surreal?

PDG: I would argue the surreal twist I think you’re intuiting is the aesthetic mode(s) with which I portray Nature, e.g.: I’m not using an “earthy aesthetic” or traditionally “organic” colors, rather industrial age cadmium, florescent, and metallic pigments. Additionally, the manner in which I paint has a very intentional geometry, precision, and architecture like the stealthy ways urban design seduces us into forgetting Nature.  And the nitty-gritty of my aesthetic alludes just as much to the geometry, precision, colors, graffiti, and architecture found in the built environment of Nature as well. So it ends up being a bizarre mash-up of botanical themes and urban phantasmagorias. Cities are sexy just as flowers are provocative, so there is something highly duplicitous in both. I have long wondered if the primary reason most culture craving and art collecting happens in cities is because art functions as a surrogate Nature here – it seems to fulfill a deep-seated existential need.

Peter D. Gerakaris Studio, "Garden of Aquatic Delights," Accordion book with figurine on mirrored plinth

Peter D. Gerakaris Studio, “Garden of Aquatic Delights,” Accordion book with figurine on mirrored plinth

HZ: Your works offer the viewer a multi-sensory experience via visual embrace. If you could somehow add audible and olfactory qualities into the mix, what would they sound and smell like?

PDG: It’s funny you mention that, because I believe I have a mild form of synesthesia: in my case, a mixing of the aural and the visual. I sometimes hear acute tones, plus rhythmic and harmonic figures in response to colors and forms. The only way I could describe them to you now would be to pick up my guitar and play, or notate them on sheet music.  Hmmm, maybe I should start “playing my paintings?” Conversely, I see vivid abstractions of colors and geometric patterns that transform with time in response to specific sonic cues – and hopefully some of that rubs off in the imagery. In Western music theory, there are seven basic “classical modes” (scales) and each one for me has a very different place on the color spectrum. Curiously, when Sir Isaac Newton proposed the first seven-tone color wheel, he used the seven whole tones of the western scale to denote each hue. As for the olfactory sense, I for some reason prefer the idea that my paintings could be sipped or drunken rather than eaten. I’d want them to be the world’s most ambrosial cocktails with the likes of which you’ve never tasted. For that matter, I never want the bacchanal to end in my art – if only they could be moveable feasts. I do think there is a time and place for the celebratory in art.

HZ: If you experience a creative impasse during painting, how do you overcome it? Do you walk away? Do you move works around onto different walls for a fresh perspective?

PDG: Sometimes you just want to throw your paintings out the window. But the old window frames in my studio are too rusted to make that practical. But seriously, there are a number of strategies. Aside from an immediate shift in perspective—i.e. spinning a tondo upside down or looking at a picture in a mirror—I find the less literal shifts of perspective to be the most useful.  Getting my head out of the studio and into the outdoors is crucial and travel is also great. Whatever it takes to expunge or release the immediate problem from my mind – that can do wonders. Peculiarly, I often find the best solutions come unexpectedly, yet vividly during the interstitial moment between consciousness and a sleep. I refer to this period as a “mental twilight time.” And it rarely pays to rush to a pictorial conclusion, so I have to constantly fight my own impatience.

HZ: Do you think the art world today still upholds the notion that it is a “boys club?”

PDG: I’m not sure and have no idea what the current statistics are. Having studied the 1950’s New York School, and then exhibiting with many contemporary female artists, there’s no question today is a far better climate for women.  I have plenty of female friends who seemingly thrive in various facets of the “art world”. Or maybe it’s more like a plurality of “art worlds” that exist today, which means there’s theoretically a niche for anyone with the right combination of merit, hard work, and some luck.

HZ: What can you tell me about your visual culture growing up? How much has it influenced your work, if at all?

PDG: As much as my paintings might appear as fragment of an acid flashback, they’re really the result of growing up with artist parents in the country who allowed me to overdose on a steady mixture of fresh air, PBS Nature shows, and Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” series. My father is an “artist metalsmith” and sculptor, and my mother has recently returned to photography with the advent of digital processes. I learned how to draw by playing a Dada-esque “call and response” exercise called “the doodle game”: one person makes a random squiggle, the next person must turn it into something. My parents and I would play this game of improvised mark-making endlessly. Not only has it had a profound impact on my art making, but also it probably taught me the spirit of improvisation I now use for jazz guitar, whether my parents intended that or not. In one respect, you could say I’m the mere byproduct of an experiment by two artists who moved “back to the land” in the 70s.  I now realize there is something simultaneously lovely and perverse about this approach to childrearing (but it’s really 95% lovely). In my parent’s defense, I know they presided over their little experiment with the deepest of love, devotion, and altruistic intent – in that sense they deserve the credit.

Peter D. Gerakaris with one of his Accordion Books fully expanded

Peter D. Gerakaris with one of his Accordion Books fully expanded

HZ: As a painter and a self-described “Post-Modern Renaissance Man,” what are your views on new media? Do you think one can maintain a successful post without the aid of social media? Where does one draw the line between digital and analog?

PDG: I cannot take any credit for that title. “Post-Modern Renaissance Man” was a moniker devised for me by two Harvard-educated filmmaker brothers with whom I used to collaborate. As for the term “new media,” that’s an awfully broad stroke, but generally I’m in favor of any tool that allows its user(s) to deploy it for innovative, meaningful, if not revolutionary results. Conversely, I’m not in favor of novelties that use their users more than their users use them. I personally question whether or not the positive outcomes of social media still come more at the expense of users or the developers, when viewed on a macro level, literally and figuratively. I’d fathom the former. So while one might argue that the individual artist without social media endures a disadvantage, I’d point out that the artist may be just crazy enough to enjoy and take full advantage of any “self-imposed social media solitude.” As for analog versus digital, I feel people fetishize both equally so I’d prefer not to make any generalist claims. I have my hands equally dirty in both modes. When my computer crashed during studies abroad in Italy during college, I channeled my “frustration at the virtual” into the desire to paint with my hands on real canvas – I switched my major from “combined digital media” to “painting”. However, I don’t think we have to view analog and digital as diametrically opposed. We live imperfect, impure lives in a post-digital world. Perhaps the most compelling things in life turn out not to be so pure or black and white.

HZ: Are there any particular artists whom have had a profound influence upon you/your over all work?

PDG: There are simply far too many to list. And the list constantly proliferates and evolves. The most intriguing influence for me is all the messy “stuff” fueling one’s art that comes from the deepest of sources – dreams, childhood experiences, and visions – not highly calculated gestures meant to reference another artist, theory, or paradigm. I was recently watching the intro from a “3-2-1 Contact” episode (ca. 1984) with a friend who also grew up on PBS. It was the first time we’d seen it since the 80s, but the animated hexagonal sequence struck me as profoundly uncanny. My friend, who writes for Art in America now, immediately asked, “Pete: what if all your latest hexagonal work [Cosmicariums] comes from this?!” For better or worse, he’s probably right. Plus I feel our brains constantly play tricks on us by “remixing” memories, like DJ’s spinning nostalgic fabrications. That’s all to say, I’m most interested to examine and tap into those impulses. And finally, I’d say the art I love looking at makes me want to run back to my studio and start painting my own stuff, not mimicking someone else’s.

Peter D. Gerakaris, Maelstrom II, 2012, Gouache, pen and ink on paper, 15 in x 15 in, Private Collection (NY, NY)

Peter D. Gerakaris, Maelstrom II, 2012, Gouache, pen and ink on paper, 15 in x 15 in, Private Collection (NY, NY)

HZ: The disciplines of art and music pair beautifully together, time and time again. As a guitarist, composer, producer yourself, how much does music influence your own artistic practice? How often do you collaborate with musicians on art projects? (Did you know the V&A Museum in London is mounting a retrospective of David Bowie this spring?)

PDG: I agree completely about this symbiosis. Although it’s unnecessary for a viewer to know, I’m certain of music’s inextricable link to my art and vice versa, whether conscious or unconscious. I could get into a lot of personal theory as well, about the interaction of color and how two or more colors change the perception of the original constituent colors just as how the notes of a certain musical harmony or chord change our perception of those individual notes. But that’s a future essay. Sure, I’m open to collaborating with musicians via visual art projects, as long as we share enough common ground and sensibilities. There are some jazz musicians I’d dream of working with – John Scofield for instance. I have already developed plans for transforming my small accordion books into large-scale sculptures and to function as architectural and stage-set environments. In short, I think it’s a really exhilarating place / space in which to be. As for David Bowie’s retrospective at the V&A, I recall you mentioning that. Let me ask: would you rather party at a live Bowie show at the Fillmore (SF) or get shuffled through a white cube with security guards making sure you don’t bump into the artifacts? I have yet another personal theory that museums are a bit like glorified mausoleums, as I tend to gravitate most toward experience art and music in their primary contexts: in situ.

Peter D. Gerakaris Studio, the painter in a penumbral shadow picking guitar strings while paintings dry.

Peter D. Gerakaris Studio, the painter in a penumbral shadow picking guitar strings while paintings dry.

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