On Monday, Jan. 24, I meet with Christos Koutsouras in the gallery of the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (iMOCA) in Fountain Square's Murphy Art Center. Koutsouras is preparing his first ever installation that will be part of his show Reflections of Sea and Light — opening First Friday, Feb. 4 — in addition to his new works on canvas and paper (You can preview a sample of Koutsouras' work in the slideshow at the bottom of this story or by clicking here)
Koutsouras isn't renowned as an installation artist, but as a painter. The focus of his new work is the sea, the horizon line and the mysterious presence beyond that line. From the time of his childhood on the Greek island of Samos to the present, the maritime world has fascinated him. His first career was that of an ocean navigator and as a third officer, and he sailed under Greek and Cypriot flags in the merchant marines. He abandoned that career at the age of 25 to become a painter.
Koutsouras is no stranger to Indy; he moved here in 1998 to teach at the University of Indianapolis with his then-wife, also the mother of his two children. He left in 2005, moving to Seattle where he still lives. His current studio is a three-hour drive south of Seattle, in Astoria, Ore.
"On Monday I drive to Astoria and work," he says. "And on Friday, I drive back to Seattle to get warm."
His current studio is a shack he dubs "Big Red," on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. He started working there in 2009; he found renewed interest in painting after battling depression. The new acrylic-on-canvas work that resulted from this burst of creativity is the subject of the show opening Feb. 4, but so is "Big Red."
Koutsouras is attempting to recreate his new studio in the iMOCA gallery with an installation — a wooden structure that will measure 6 x 8 x10 ft. — to give visitors a sense of his new locus of creativity on the Pacific shore.
The show will also feature the sound of the wind blowing by his studio, recorded live on site.
The perfection of the Acropolis
When I step into the iMOCA gallery, however, the installation seems more of a source of anxiety than peace of mind. The question on Koutsouras' mind is clearly whether they'll finish in time for the Feb. 4 opening. Dozens of wood beams that have seen better days are lying in a disheveled pile on the gallery floor waiting to be put into place. The construction phase of this installation has barely begun. Tom Streit, from Big Car Collective, is on hand helping with the construction.
Despite the stress of the day, Koutsouras is gracious enough to take several hours to engage in a wide-ranging conversation that encompasses not just his own work and life, but also language, arts education, music and politics.
After we shake hands, Koutsouras says something about the Acropolis, the ancient citadel that rises above Athens, and its "perfection," but I don't catch what he says completely, because Streit is currently cutting a beam of wood with a circular saw.
"Why again, in your opinion," I ask Koutsouras, "is the Acropolis a perfect work of art?"
"It's not just my personal opinion," he says. "It has to do with how it was built following the Golden Mean. The base is arching. All the columns are arching. There's no straight line in all the Acropolis Mount. One element is critical to another."
To avoid the circular saw's screech, we head up to Big Car Gallery, on the second floor of the Murphy Art Center, where Koutsouras has more work in progress.
On the gallery wall hangs his 13 ft. wide by 5½ ft. high charcoal on paper drawing — a site specific composition — of a breaking wave that seems remarkable to me for its widely varying shades of gray, its detailed bits of foam that seems to form letters in some mystical language and its graceful capture of a forceful natural phenomenon in a frozen instant of time.
"What do you like about working in charcoal?" I ask.
"You get these gray tones," Koutsouras replies, "Gray tonalities. And you will always be able to get something out of the gray... Sometimes a color can tease you, but black and white, it's right up to your face. It's like boom, that's it."
As I recall, from looking on www.editionsltd.com (Broad Ripple-based Editions Limited Gallery is a partner along with Big Car Gallery in the Feb. 4 show), Koutsouras works in acrylic on canvas as well as with charcoal on paper. In his acrylic painting "Reflections of Sea and Light II," you can see an inlet and the shore beyond.
His influences could range from John Frederick Kensett's 1872 painting "Eaton's Neck, Long Island" with its curved shore, or Chinese landscape painting, with his use of gray and white tones, but I can't really nail down any specific single influence.
"Everybody's an influence," he says. "You start with Picasso in the academy. What he really did good and what he didn't... I've learned a lot from the Chinese and Asian artists. What I still love about those guys is that there's no negative and positive space. Everything becomes one. Because in the West, we always have a negative space which we fill up. I figured it out very early that it's not true. The way I'm thinking of a line is when two energies...surfaces meet together and the tensions they create, that's from the line. That's true when I'm describing a body or a wave or a landscape."
Coffee and cigarettes
The most consistent line in all Koutsouras' recent work is the skyline, where sea and sky meet. Many of Koutsouras' works are colorful and energetic meditations on sea horizons containing various degrees of abstraction (a term that Koutsouras doesn't like at all, because he says every artist uses that reference, even someone like Mark Rothko).
But Koutsouras is certainly closer in spirit to Jackson Pollock than your average landscape — or seascape — painter. His vigorous brushstrokes come closer to recreating the violence of nature rather than any kind of Aristotelian Golden Mean.
When Koutsouras and I return downstairs, Streit had gone for lunch. Koutsouras, who seemingly survives just on coffee and cigarettes, seems mildly perplexed by this absence. But Koutsouras needs a cigarette break anyway, so we step outside. Koutsouras lights up, and as the cars roll by Virginia Ave., we talk about what music he listens to while composing (he loves the Rolling Stones and Italian opera), the moribund state of art in Indy in 1998 ("Thirteen years later I come back and there's this thriving community," he says) and the way he got over his midlife crisis by producing art. After about fifteen minutes, we head back in again.
After Streit comes back, he and Koutsouras start assembling the rectangular foundation of the installation, composed of wood beams, on the floor.
"It's really heavy...not really massive, but at the same time really light," Koutsouras says of the emerging installation.
"Not unlike the Acropolis," I say.
"No," he says, laughing a little. "We're not building the Acropolis."
(Slideshow) Christos Koutsouras: Reflections of Sea and Light
Painter Christos Koutsouras embarks on an installation piece at iMOCA in Fountain Square's Murphy Art Center, part of his show Reflections of Sea and Light. Browse through his new works on canvas and paper, and stop by the show to see the recreation of his Astoria, Ore. shack-cum-studio, "Big Red."