Athens

Kostis Velonis, Reconstruction of the model of Vladimir Tatlin’s monument to the Third International as an instrument of research for domesticity, 2009, wood, acrylic, veneer, plywood, spray paint, 43 1/4 x 11 3/4 x 11 3/4".

Kostis Velonis, Reconstruction of the model of Vladimir Tatlin’s monument to the Third International as an instrument of research for domesticity, 2009, wood, acrylic, veneer, plywood, spray paint, 43 1/4 x 11 3/4 x 11 3/4".

Kostis Velonis

Kostis Velonis, Reconstruction of the model of Vladimir Tatlin’s monument to the Third International as an instrument of research for domesticity, 2009, wood, acrylic, veneer, plywood, spray paint, 43 1/4 x 11 3/4 x 11 3/4".

“Marx in Arcadia” may seem a somewhat oxymoronic title for an exhibition. Is Kostis Velonis positing a revolutionary pastoralism? Well, why not? Who but Marx foresaw a future society beyond the division of labor, where I may “do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic”? Velonis, though, seems to spend his days more as a carpenter and handyman than as any sort of agriculturalist who engages in bracing postprandial critique. His sculptures and works on paper are an interestingly uneasy combination of two strains of recent art: the “Unmonumental” school of haphazard, jerry-built, intuitivelyfree-associative assemblage on the one hand; and a more concept-driven mode based on the research on and critique of the supposedly utopian desires embodied in modernist art and architecture on the other. The very title of his assemblage, Reconstruction of the model of Vladimir Tatlin’s monument to the Third International as an instrument of research for domesticity, 2009, speaks for itself as an expression of the “left-wing melancholy” (to borrow Walter Benjamin’s phrase) arising from the contemplation of the ways in which works founded on a revolutionary élan have devolved into objects of private contemplation—as Benjamin put it, through “the metamorphosis of political struggle from a compulsory decision into an object of pleasure, from a means of production into an article of consumption.” Tatlin’s monument thus becomes the prototype for a piece of damaged and useless wooden furniture—moreover, one whose diagonal double helix has been simplified into an angled conical peak that might now seem less like a symbol for revolutionary aspiration than a dunce cap. And yet doesn’t this construction, by reducing the Promethean tower to a common domestic object, fulfill Anatoly Lunacharsky’s demand to “link art with life” as Tatlin’s overweening project never did?

Velonis manages to diagnose his melancholia without disowning it. He pulls off the trick of finding its irony—or rather, its scathing humor—and suggests, I think, that the aestheticization and domestication of critical consciousness may not entirely be the result of a complacent fatalism, as Benjamin thought it was (and as in the very different circumstances of 1931 it may well have been). It may also be a way of preserving it in potentia when it can’t be put into action. Repeatedly these works evoke a rebellion that may be impracticable and a bit sad but is at least beautiful. Usine Occupée (Occupied Factory), 2010, is mostly, literally, a black box—there is no suggestion of the takeover that its title suggests is going on inside; and the tower rising on one side of it resembles a church steeple more than a factory chimney. It’s another domestically scaled monument, a bit more stolid than the takeoff on Tatlin, and less abject. The works on paper—near-abstractions made of acrylic, watercolor, and sometimes bits of wood on paper—mean to convey such quixotic concepts as Farming to Defeat Town Designed Plans, 2010; another claims to depict One Peasant Riot, 2010. What Chus Martinez wrote of Velonis’s exhibition at Athens’s National Museum of Contemporary Art last fall is equally true of this one: “All the works in the show share the idea that we are living in a paradoxical situation”—a situation, that is, in which desires aimed at the public sphere can only be nurtured as private fixations. Velonis can hardly be expected to resolve the contradiction; but with tenderness and frustration, he makes it manifest.

Barry Schwabsky