“I am interested in real fiction”.
Marina Olympios’s Painting, Photograph, Video and Performance Testimonies

            Testimony which is not submitted to the test of proof is usually contrasted with reliable belief or knowledge. Furthermore, testimony bears an individualist mark for it is based on individual perception, memory or inference. As much as testimony does not require the credentials of objective evidence and therefore is of limited, subjective reliability, its role ought not be underestimated, for from early childhood, everybody relies on the word of others, notably on parents, rather than on expert evidence in order to find an orientation in the world.

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            Marina Olympios’s painting testimonies emerge out of a concern for the status of artistic visual perception, memory and inference, as the artist remarks in her personal statement. The status of artistic visual perception, memory and inference is no other than the meaning of the adventure we call art, as seen from the point of view of its subject, the artist herself. What is the crux of this adventure, is a matter ultimately decided by time and history and not by the artist herself. It is nevertheless in the wake of responsibility, particularly towards our descendants, that the artist feels obliged to take a reflective stance towards her own past artistic adventure, leading to her painterly testimony. Olympios chooses the means most familiar to her, the language of art in order to reflect on art proper. Therefore there is a strong autobiographical element in Olympios’s yearning for testimony. Her suggestive titles like Girl, Mother’s Solitude and others point to aspects of her personal condition as an artist and mother of a young girl. Her paintings, mostly acrylics on canvas but also oils on canvas, are created in format and size that relate directly to the viewer’s eye and oscillate between abstraction and figuration.

            In Girl, acrylic on canvas, 92X122 cm, the artist adopts some critical distance from her subject matter, assumingly her own little girl, as if to observe her as objectively as possible and share this observation with the viewer. As a result of this critical distance, the girl is portrayed with the back on the viewer, in the background rather than in the foreground, conveying the artist’s desire to reflect on her alongside the issues that animate her art, namely abstraction, color, gesture and the like. The girl’s portrayal with the back on the viewer recalls Caspar David Friedrich’s method of portrayals of wanderers from the back in order to make the viewer reflect on them in their surroundings. However, here, the surroundings do not fit immediately together in the painting in a way that contributes to the story that the artist wishes to relate.[1] Olympios clearly defies Alberti’s classicist rules in that bodies, members, planes are not contributing to the same effect and oblige the viewer to bring together and make compatible a girl portrayed from the back, two red gestural patches of color and a background marked by a variety of colors in soft hues. Similar logic of composition defines The Cello, another acrylic on canvas, 92X122 cm. The difference here is that the girl is positioned in the foreground. However, as in the Girl, in Cello subject matter is again off center.

            What is also astounding to the viewer is the quick and sketchy way that Olympios draws, something extremely obvious in works like Cigaritis, Acamas, Cypriaca, oil on canvas, 56X67 cm or in Acamas, Cypria, acrylic on canvas, 95X48 cm. In these paintings whose subject matter is again portraiture in some dreamy atmosphere adorned by butterflies, outlines are made fast and the depiction of the model is outspokenly non academic. The artist seems to have a direct, unconventional and guilt free relation to the history of painting which can be understood in light of her previous engagement with performance and video art. In her Extracts of the life of a mother a video document the artist compiles three distinct narratives with no apparent relation to one another: extracts from the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus and the misfortunes it brought to the island’s population, alternate with a many character Cyborg punk aesthetic, contact improvisation performance at the roof of a New York building and the daughter of the artist in some Cypriot beach playing with pebbles. The video’s sharp attention to detail, contrasts with the bold and simplified figuration in paintings. It is obvious that Olympios returns to painting after a sharp focus in performance and video and such return takes under consideration the latest stands of art movements in Europe and the USA. From minimalism Olympios adopts the indifference for the illusionistic rendering of images, from pop art its emphasis on mundane everydayness and its comfort with espousing sentiment. Most importantly, from the various painting resuscitation movements of the late seventies and eighties, Olympios adopts a free and eclectic relation to painterly conventions. New image painting in the USA, figuration libre in France, the transavantguardia in Italy advocated a painting free of obligations, refusals, allegiances, references etc where what matters is energy, liberty, spontaneity and emotion.

            In the nineteen eighties, Julian Schnabel’s call for “an emotional state” was indicative for an entire era, as Thomas McEvilley claimed. [2] Olympios seems to succumb to emotion with a direct force and spontaneity similar to Audrey Flack’s photorealist depictions, like the notorious Macarena Esperanza, 1971. Purist inhibitions about cold blooded design and the austerity of much advanced art after the nineteen sixties do not seem to impede Olympios. On the contrary she seems determined to go against purism and austerity as many artists have done in recent years. Along with New Image Painting, the Bad Painting exhibition that took place in 1978 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York was curated by Marcia Tucker and featured “a group of widely idiosynchratic artists who were working with a recognizable image not in a realistic context, and who emphasized the narrative, verbal and humorous possibilities inherent in figurative imagery.”[3] Artists like Neil Jenney through their neoprimitivist work called into question all academic notions about good and bad painting, in itself a political act that Olympios repeats in her consciously naïve drawing style, resembling however more to Francesco Clemente than to Jenney. For, she obviously treats painting as just another medium of expression, just another mode of spectacle, equal or equivalent to video and performance, questioning thus classical good taste and the established hierarchy of arts which has conferred painting the highest status. As the 2008 Vienna Museum of Modern Art show indicated, such highest status of painting has begun to be questioned in the name of art. 

            However, it is noteworthy that Olympios’s version of disregard of accurate, conventional representation, involves an anxiety about politics that is more explicit than in her American colleagues and Italian or French predecessors. Her scorn for the standards of good taste does not originate in irony or anarchy but in a sincere agony, a fervent desire to articulate an artistic voice and a sense of responsibility related to motherhood. It is in this sense, in combining her roles of mother and artist, that her proclaimed interest in “real fiction” may be understood. The statement “I am interested in real fiction” was first used as a slogan for a 1997 exhibition at Galerie pour la vie, CAPC, Musée d’art contemporain in Bordeaux, France. Whereas art has to do with fiction, what is not real, the emotions it produces are genuine and can help us orient ourselves in real life. This interest in emotion that forces the viewer back to reality from the imaginary world of art is behind Olympios’s work titles, demonstrating her need to construct a narrative and form a position towards the world, towards all those issues which art cannot address without being deeply politically tormented: war, loss, hunger, sickness, violence, misplacement, loss of identity and many others. An adult may very well be able to frustrate such concerns and even eventually repress them but a growing child will sooner or later face such issues and turn to parents for the appropriate guidance and orientation. Olympios seems to be struggling with this realization brought forth by the fact of her being both an artist and a mother.

            In the fury of responsibility, Olympios persistently seeks orientation via art in a variety of artistic media, all equal to her mind. For the art that she practices may be true but is more than ever contingent. While she practices a contingent art with which contemporary viewers may identify, avowal, consciousness and communication of contingency seem to terrify her parental instincts. No immediate answers are found no matter how hard they may be sought in the interior monologue of art, a situation that inescapably leads the artist to solitude, to critical distance, detachment from one’s offspring, in short, all these devices that earn her motherhood time to ultimately face the challenges presented by her child.

            Another instance where Olympios mixes fiction with reality via autobiography in order to approach her “real fiction” goal is her photographs in the series “A drop around the world.” These photographs, ranging from abstraction to figuration, are like entries in a personal album: the viewer becomes immediately conscious that the photographs represent a voyager’s eye and that art and personality are so intimately and often inextricably tied together that it is even hard to decide where the one stops and the other begins. Likewise in the video installation and series of photographs documenting crystals and minerals from Cyprus, the artist adopts the perspective of a scientific gaze in order to communicate her reading of emotions directly on nature and the land of her country, rendering again insoluble the tension between fiction and reality.  

            The persona of Emily Dickinson that Olympios adopts in her work, making her visit Iraq, for example, is a 19th century American poet renowned for her introverted and reclusive life with a lifelong fascination with death. Olympios’s semi fictive stories use Dickinson as a mask through which the artist’s anxieties are indirectly communicated so that they slowly invade the viewer’s consciousness, having first and foremost occupied his unconscious. It is these anxieties that ultimately lead Olympios to politics and autobiography in an effort to be more self conscious about her own artistic demarche. The call for self consciousness means a relentless critique and questioning and a concomitant reappraisal of artistic media, upsetting established hierarchies and perturbing classical good taste. In this regard, i.e. in upsetting hierarchies and doubting conventions, Olympios follows the tradition of modernity.      

Copyright Dr Constantinos V. Proimos, Hania of Crete, July 2010

Adjunct Lecturer at the Hellenic Open University and independent art critic


[1] Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting, transl. John B. Spencer, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1966, p. 72.

[2] Katherine Hoffman, Explorations. The Visual Arts since 1945, New York: Harper Collins, 1991, p. 297.

[3] Corinne Robins, The Pluralist Era. American Art, 1968-1981, New York: Harper & Row, 1984, p. 173.


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