The walk to Peter Gerakaris’ studio, through Long Island City, is filled with an endless array of vibrant restaurants; Czech, Peruvian, French, Japanese. A fitting neighborhood for the colorist’s workspace.
Peter is complex.
His words are both poetic and prose. He grew up in nature and has an unwavering passion for the city. He is a perfectionist yet trusting of others. As soon as you feel you’ve ‘figured’ him out, he says or does something unexpected and you are unsure of what to anticipate next. This too can be said of his work which is a creation of beauty that simultaneously questions its toxicity.
“There’s this certain romantic urge we all have to think about beautiful wildflowers and such but, nature’s the very same force that creates tornados and hurricanes and volcanoes and, plants that are very beautiful but very toxic that you know have been used in warfare. And so, I was kinda obsessed with this duality that makes nature a very indifferent power. It’s a very awesome force but I started going to the botanical garden and they have this awesome section that’s a poisonous garden essentially for toxicology. I was looking at these lobelia flowers and read about them and realized that they were toxic. So something so seductive and beautiful could also be poisonous. So I did this whole series called Toxiganic.“
Over majestic sounds of Kenny Burrell, Peter shared his work, travels, growing up surrounded by nature and his teenage bands names:
Both of my parents are artists, and very nurturing ones at that, so art was omnipresent from the moment they created me. When I was six, however, my family visited Monet’s home in Giverny and that experience still resonates to this day. In hindsight, I now regard that environment as the ultimate synthesis of nature and culture. Specifically, I have this acute recollection of being completely immersed in color in everything from Monet’s gardens to house. I think I was mesmerized by that gestalt effect of environmental color and subsequently I didn’t want to leave!
When it begins humming and starts to surprise me. There can be an ecstatic moment when all the collage-like elements I paint coalesce in a way I did not expect – kind of like the collective harmonies of an orchestra swelling into one big sound, rather than poking out as individual instruments.
I was compelled to move to NYC after college because of the seemingly unparalleled access to culture, people, and opportunities for artists. When I first moved to NYC, I worked for designers like Milton Glaser and artists like Kehinde Wiley. Later on, I was fortunate to connect with collector-curators like Beth Rudin DeWoody when I was exhibiting at the Bronx Museum, and eventually had the chance to create a large site-specific art installation / commission at BERGDORF GOODMAN. I’m not sure any of this would have been possible elsewhere.
In 2003, the first Brooklyn live-work loft I moved into in Crown Heights was situated behind a junkyard, down the street from a crack-house with frequent gang shootings. It turned out to be a “commune” of sorts, with a cast of characters named Trawick, Gandalf, Kellam, Ishmael, and Rasmus. As the new kid on the block, I was art-hazed on occasion, but survived and even managed to cultivate enduring friendships with the artists and musicians I met during that time. When I moved on to what I thought would be greener pastures, because rents had gotten “too high” at the junkyard, I had no idea my next studio building in R.A.M.B.O. (Right After the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) would be federally quarantined due to a bizarre case of Anthrax.
While I think it’s a more challenging time than ever for artists to survive in terms of the cost of living and unprecedented spatial constraints, NYC still remains a top destination for artists who can think outside the box. With new challenges come new opportunities.
An artist-adventurer friend recently invited me along on a 100+ mile trek to the ‘Lost City’ of El Mirador in the Guatemalan rainforest/biosphere (http://ezramagazine.cornell.edu/FALL14/InTheField.html). Each day was spent exploring the vast, jungle-entangled archaeological site and we encountered everything from venomous pit vipers and machine-gun armed militia, to my being thrown off a mule into a tree at full-speed! Meanwhile, scientists were uncovering completely new and amazing artifacts each day. For me, the most striking finds were these enormous, beautifully carved stucco heads with remnants of vibrantly painted color. Often as large as nine feet high, the Mayan masks clad the facades of various monumental pyramids. I found them completely sublime. They often are anthropomorphic or hybrid spirit-creatures which continue to haunt the jungle in an ethereal way. For instance, the howler monkey, with its spiraling tail and bellowing roar, was a recurring symbol in Mayan art. These monkeys now ironically occupy the abandoned pyramids like the previous Mayan kings.
As for the Mayan masks, it’s still not entirely clear what role they played in the context of their rituals and mythology. Having personally collected masks and having been obsessed with them since childhood, I began dreaming vividly about the Mayan heads months after the trek. This inspired me to finally make a surreal, mythic Mask Series of my own. As I attempt to paint the masks as large as the original Mayan heads, I’m awed by how the Mayan spirit lives on through these masks, long after their collapse. I wonder what the “masks” of our civilization might look like to future generations after our own inevitable collapse?
After having been attacked by spider monkeys and chased by the howlers, I of course had to create a monkey mask. This manifested as “Spider Monkey Opera Mask” worn by the mannequin in my large site-specific installation at BERGDORF GOODMAN, a project curated by Linda Fargo and GREY AREA (http://www.petergerakaris.com/public-works-and-installation/).
I’ve been working on a surreal, fantastical “Mask Series”, which inverts the notion of a mask by projecting our internal psychic landscapes onto something that’s typically meant to conceal. While they explore ideas of graphic pastiche with a collage-like illusionism, I paint them all by hand as small, flat works on paper. People put on masks all the time – whether it’s literally something one does to superficially transform an appearance, or a contrived facial expression that contradicts what’s really inside. So I’m having fun reversing this, while mining my interests in mythology, art history, pop-media, etc. Specifically, the masks fuse various art historical references that I feel have some thematic relationship with the more contemporary, global, and personal symbols I collect during travels and art residencies in exotic places. I want to amplify certain tensions between the primal and the refined, the chaotic and the ordered, the exotic and the familiar, all while dancing precariously close to the edge.
Currently, versions of “Piton Opera Mask” and “Peacock Opera Mask” (http://www.petergerakaris.com/works-on-paper/) are on view in Ernest Newman Contemporary’s inaugural exhibit in North Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I’ve also just begun scaling up my favorite compositions as larger tondo paintings, some of which will have shallow 3D relief elements protruding from the frame. One of these includes a four-foot commissioned work based on my “Icarus Mask” (http://www.petergerakaris.com/works-on-paper/icarus-mask/).
Near the end of his career, Rothko, abandoned all attempts at responding to those who inquired after the meaning and purpose behind his paintings. Finally responding that silence is 'so accurate'. How would you describe the meaning and purpose behind your work
I was raised a ‘free-range’ child with a profound respect for nature, yet have subsequently maintained an urban studio in NYC for over a decade. This duality has resulted in a hybrid approach to art and life, as if my artwork filters nature through a pop-media kaleidoscope. Some have described this approach as “Pop-Botanic.” While deceptively graphic and “digital” upon first glance, I still create things by hand with a brush – the more digital our culture has become, the more I relish the analog. Furthermore, my work is also saturated by extensive travels and residency experiences in China, Central America, the Caribbean, and West Africa. Having absorbed a myriad of global influences, music, iconography, and perspectives, my work attempts to engage and remix these motifs like a “Visual DJ” spinning a kaleidoscopic mix. I’ve also played music and jazz guitar for years, so I feel there’s an intrinsic musicality in my work. The bottom line is I strive to make work that is genuine to my experiences and vision, while also pushing the envelope for image making. For those who find a resonance with my work, I hope to tickle their retinas and minds – to perhaps even shift their perception of the world, if only for a magical instant.