There are artwork renewing our gaze and revealing new facets every time we meet it
He finds it amusing that whenever his work is shown in Greece, they think it’s by a French painter; whenever it’s shown in France, they think it’s by a Greek painter. Vassilis Salpistis was born in Thessaloniki and left for France in the mid-90s. He still lives and works in Paris, has just finished writing for a performance at the French capital’s Fondation Ricard, and is preparing for an exhibition at Kappatos Gallery, Athens, which he often collaborates with.
His work has as its starting point a critical approach to painting, which draws from art history and lays claim to a vital diversity of techniques and aesthetics. This open-ended relationship with painting is developed in tandem with a wider exploration of image as a concept, using collage, film and, more recently, writing and performance.
For Vassilis, “collage, in its simplest form, is two existing images that clash and form a third image. There’s something childlike and magical about this process, which at the same time allows us to observe the artist’s thoughts step by step, more clearly than in any other medium.” Recently, writing has featured as a central element of his work – for instance in “Ta Afaia,” which he presented in 2020 in the house and workshop that Aris Konstantinidis designed for Yannis Moralis in Aegina. His performance served as a preamble – a prologos – to the international performance festival organized by Kappatos Gallery and Pantheon Cultural Company.
“Through these pieces, through verbal exhibitions, I narrate ‘invisible paintings,’ which in turn lets me develop a new relationship with the painted image, and of course a very different relationship with the audience. But what made contact with the audience truly different in Aegina was the pandemic, through which we continue to live. For the first time in theatrical tradition, the actor took off his mask before addressing the audience, who have to wear their own masks in order to be able to attend and listen.”
Vassilis Salpistis’s path to the visual arts was opened by Dimitris Fragkos, “an exceptional painter and teacher,” as Vassilis notes. Starting off, he painted people in large, detailed compositions with a pronounced narrative mood. With time, this established, dominant understanding of painting transformed, with the artist beginning to experiment with the relationship between image and canvas, also expanding it to include other media, such as film and performance. “Despite the ostensible expansion of its thematic areas, my work seems to progress like a spiral, returning to the same questions via different paths, both as content and as image – different each time but just as exhaustingly labyrinthine.”
Central to Salpistis’s work is the viewer, in whom he believes immensely. “The way each person ‘sees’ a painting is perhaps the most important question for a painter. When we stand in front of a piece, we have the feeling that we ‘get’ everything within seconds – its style, its content, whether we like it, or whether we are moved by it. In contrast to music, fiction or cinema, all of the information is already there from the first moment. And yet, there are works that hold our attention. We approach them to discover a new detail and step back to see it as a whole and we get close again to look at another detail that has drawn our attention – and this dance can sometimes last years, with the artwork renewing our gaze and revealing new facets every time we meet it.” In his opinion, the tags that accompany and describe paintings in museums and in books lead viewers to believe that there is but one message, and it is their obligation to “understand” it before moving on to the next painting, which Vassilis finds disappointing. “I do of course understand the informative intention behind these tags, especially in a field as complicated as contemporary art, but I believe we ought to place more trust in viewers’ imagination, as well as in the artwork itself.”
He has a great interest in the new ways in which audiences approach visual art: in the digital age of the internet, art is dual in nature, found both in physical space and on our screens. “We like to complain about photographs of our work, presenting the argument that the only real experience of a painting can be had when you are in the same space as it, and view it up close. And we are correct. But the truth is that the vast majority of the public will come in contact with our work solely via its depictions in catalogs and online, just like we too have studied in person only part of the artworks and the painters that form our personal pantheon. I therefore consider it necessary to find a way to translate something of our work into the language of other images, so it can remain unaltered in an Instagram post viewed on a mobile screen. It doesn’t have to be a ‘cheap’ reproduction of the ‘real’ work – in the sense that each of these channels of communication is a potentially autonomous means of expression, just like etchings or tapestries, on which people have reproduced existing paintings since the Renaissance.”