Tassos Pavlopoulos, Young bather seems to be waiting for someone, 2012, acrylic on paper, 20 × 16".

Tassos Pavlopoulos, Young bather seems to be waiting for someone, 2012, acrylic on paper, 20 × 16".

Tassos Pavlopoulos

Tassos Pavlopoulos, Young bather seems to be waiting for someone, 2012, acrylic on paper, 20 × 16".

In the catalogue essay Tassos Pavlopoulos wrote for his exhibition “Phantasmagoria,” the artist lays out a surprising thesis for a show that brought together drawings from the 1980s onward with recent works on paper and canvas, a film, and bronze sculptures. His early drawings, which he had intentionally kept hidden from viewers until now, Pavlopoulos writes, are “the seeds of [his] art,” underpinning all of his better-known works. These were mounted on a single wall: a dizzying, absurdist array that included a 1991 proposal for what the artist calls the “box with the crocodiles” project, in which he has drawn a crate with a crocodile head floating down a river in what appears to be a crude homage to the form of a Trojan horse.

Other drawings included one of a sperm whale hovering over a desert landscape complete with a cactus and a skull, and a diagram of an “art stomach,” with sections for glory, money, and alcohol. This collection was supplemented by newer works presented on the wall opposite, which poke fun at the art world and society in general by invoking our primal, Darwinian origins. Among these works were several pieces from 2012, including an image of a gorilla poised like a figure out of a Picasso painting with the text YOUNG BATHER SEEMS TO BE WAITING FOR SOMEONE (the same figure was depicted in one of the bronze sculptures); a gorilla represented as Christ on a cross with the text BACK TO THE VISUAL BASICS; and a grotesque, apelike woman on a swing, legs akimbo, genitals fully articulated, with THE KEY FIGURE IN THE HISTORY OF MODERNISM written over her. The last drawing worked well with The Dance, 2012, in which apelike women take on the characteristics of Picasso’s dancers.

In one image, again from 2012, a gentleman wears an eye mask and a fedora with the word FATHER on it; he holds in his arms an adult child with the word ME—it is, in fact, a self-portrait—written on his neck. Over the scene, the words MAX ERNST BY NIGHT are inscribed—a kind of fraught, Freudian articulation of the artist’s debt to the Surrealists. Yet, though Pavlopoulos acknowledges his sources in Dada, Surrealism, and other modernist avant-gardes, it is cinema that has allowed him to mix, as the artist writes in his essay, Picasso with Fellini, Warhol with Pedro Almodóvar, Duchamp with Ingmar Bergman, Francis Picabia with Jim Jarmusch, Max Ernst with Andrzej Wajda. The intention of such dissonant conflation is to activate history’s thick undergrowth of references in the most disorienting way possible: Pavlopoulos is attempting to counter a world he observes as sterilized, in which imagination has been replaced by submissive bureaucracy and “gilded ‘special effects.’” The abject humor in Pavlopoulos’s work, in this sense, has its purpose; there is a reason why he turns Picasso’s 1901 La Nana (Dwarf Dancer) into an adorable gorilla, both in pencil and bronze. Repulsion and abjection are reclaimed as a chuckle under the breath. History is turned upside down and inside out. Viewers are challenged to make sense of nonsense.

In his essay, Pavlopoulos describes this assemblage of works as a “glance at the future”—one he paradoxically locates in John Ford’s masterpiece The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). In the film, Tom Doniphon, who represents the pioneering soul of the Old West, saves the life of bureaucrat Ransom Stoddard by shooting the frontier villain of the title and letting Stoddard take credit for it. Thus, statehood was founded on the sacrifice of the lawless, not on the law. What does this mean? Pavlopoulos won’t say. “If you don’t know who killed Liberty Valance,” he writes, “then I’ve wasted my time. I cannot make myself any clearer.”

Stephanie Bailey