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Russian artist reinvigorates classical style with inventive approach

By Michael Sims

APRIL 5, 1999:  The Parthenon is one of Nashville's immediately recognizable civic icons, but most people don't think of it as a major venue for the visual arts. Perhaps that perception is about to change. "We're determined to pursue a more serious gallery status," says Lila Hall, assistant curator of the new exhibition in the East Gallery of the Parthenon. "We're trying to feature more lasting, museum-quality work."

If the current exhibition, "Painting as Improvisation Works by Gregori Maiofis," is any indication, the Parthenon is off to a flying start. Seldom does our timid little burg get to see work as challenging and satisfying as the paintings of this enormously talented young Russian.

Gregori Maiofis (pronounced "May-office") was born in 1970 in Leningrad, now restored to its pre-Soviet name of St. Petersburg. He inherited a family tradition of artistic excellence: His father was a highly respected book illustrator, his grandfather a renowned architect. "I began drawing at a very early age," Maiofis recalls. "I can't remember not drawing. I even made a couple of etchings at the age of 8, under my father's guidance."

Maiofis flew into Nashville from St. Petersburg for the opening reception on Mar. 20. He is an intense young man with a trim beard and Frida Kahlo eyebrows. Articulate and passionate, he speaks excellent English. He was 21 when he first arrived in this country, and he soon became interested in the modern philosophical movements headed by such influential critics as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes. "My formation as an artist," he says flatly, "took place in the U.S." However, he adds, since 1996 he has spent 90 percent of his time back home in Russia.

Susan Shockley, head curator at the Parthenon, encountered Maiofis' work by chance and immediately fell for it. "What Gregori does is make you look at Western art history in a new way," she insists. "You see the classical figure and you're drawn to look at it; you know it's going to be beautiful. But then when you get closer to it, you find this disturbing quality."

He turns Western art on its head, Hall adds, "using these classical elements but reevaluating them in a new and modern way, telling a new story but with the same artistic language that has been used for centuries."

Maiofis' immersion in the classical style comes naturally. He compares his father's illustrations to those of such figurative masters as Gustav Doré. In Communist Russia, book illustration became an important vehicle for art, because illustrators, dealing with revered texts that lacked the topicality to threaten Soviet authority, worked relatively censor-free.

Maiofis takes his father's classicism into decidedly modern territory. In some of his paintings, magnificently drawn figures loll and cavort in poses of classical Greek beauty. But they do so on fragments of canvas, which Maiofis paints, cuts, and rearranges to form intriguing juxtapositions, sometimes against a painted gridwork that confines his fiery colors and furious brushwork. In other works, such as the provocative triptych "Invention of the Other (II)," hands reach into the trimmed canvas scenes to pull open the mouth of a male figure, creating an image of vulnerability and violation.

Maiofis rejects the term "collage" to describe his work, because he isn't comfortable with the aesthetic ideologies that created the collage technique. He prefers the word "combination." "My work may be described as the creation of combinations," he says. "Any cultural material may become a constructive element; 'originality' becomes possible only in the very organization of combinations."

Some of the paintings rework traditional themes and figures, while others include direct quotations from older works--the face of a gypsy girl from a Frans Hals painting, for example, or other references to Poussin and Goya. Like Picasso in his reworkings of Velasquez's "Las Meninas," Maiofis embraces and goes beyond the past in several masterful variations on Andrea Del Sarto's portrayal of Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac. Most of the scene is barely sketched in. Here and there, either painted onto the canvas or painted onto cut-and-pasted pieces of canvas, are vignetted close-ups of the tableau, such as the face of Abraham gazing heavenward hopefully. The fractured combinations are moving but deliberately fraught with ambiguity.

Maiofis says of the narrative gaps in this series: "The created 'combination' is ready for further development, and it is the viewer who is invited to complete the chain and to turn a fragmented image into a text without 'blanks.'"

To sum up the nice fit between the artist and the museum, Lila Hall weaves Gregori Maiofis and the Parthenon together in an appealing analogy: "As we began to do research about Gregori, and we were seeing where he was developing, it really seemed to fit with a new direction for the Parthenon. We are a recreation of an ancient building. And Gregori produces fragments that expound upon classical and historical themes, either events or other artists' works. He creates these fragments--these symbols, or signs--and he places them in an order that may be analogous to the way archeologists and historians try to put together the fragments of the Parthenon."

Maiofis describes his work more simply: "I'm trying to create a style that's able to incorporate almost everything." It seems to be working.


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