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|The Terrible Trials of Mrs. T
by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
|Konstantin Kakanias, "Her Hollywood Years, Part I," Sept. 10-Oct. 21, 2000, at Works on Paper, Inc., 6150 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, Ca. 90048.
Mrs. Tependris frets as she paces her living room full of antique furniture and ancestor portraits. She needs a change of scene, a fresh start. Where to go? Los Angeles, of course.
Mrs. Tependris is the alter ego and creation of Greek artist Konstantin Kakanias. In drawings and paintings, she has traveled around the world with him, most recently coming to L.A., which as been Kakanias' home for the past three years. Her impressions of the L.A. art world have been recorded by Kakanias in dozens of clever watercolor drawings with texts in "Her Hollywood Years: Part I," on view at Works on Paper, Inc. from Sept. 10 to Oct. 21.
Kakanias estimates that he has memorialized Mrs. T. in hundreds of works so far. Some of them are more or less narrative -- her decision to escape from New York, for instance. But most of them are little illuminations of current art history -- Mrs. T. amid the works, the artists, the trendy galleries, the whole art business. The line between the character and her creator is left intentionally fuzzy.
Kakanias's dark eyes dance with self-deprecating humor as he speaks in seductively cross-pollinated accents, "Mrs. Tependris," he says, "is this friend of mine who I have created to give me the liberty to play and to revise things from another point of view. The woman is me but I'm not her. We share opinions, but not about everything."
One critic, responding to a show of Kakanias' drawings and painted ceramics at Postmasters Gallery in New York last year, called his art "wickedly flippant and completely irreverent." Another observed that Kakanias has taken on "the subject of celebrity worship, from which the art world is hardly immune, neatly debunking its trendier figures while mythologizing them at the same time."
Kakanias is inclined to agree about the mix in his work: "It's comedy," he stresses, "but it's not satire … not ill-spirited. I choose these artists because I like what they do."
Tanned and trim, Kakanias, 38, is wearing shorts and a t-shirt on a sweltering summer afternoon in his Western Avenue studio, the same used for many years by Pop artist Ed Ruscha. The walls are aflutter with dozens of sprightly watercolors of the rich and bored Mrs. Tependris' adventures in L.A. In her helmet hair and Manolo mules, she goes to the Chinatown art galleries where she loses her toy poodle but puts up flyers offering a $10,000,000 reward.
For the most part, however, Kakanias inserts Mrs. Tependris into prototypical works by celebrated artists. In homage to a famous David Hockney painting, she stands at the edge of a pool looking down at a nude boy swimming under water. In the manner of Conceptual artist John Baldessari, there is a painting of her bejeweled hand pointing at a box containing an emerald necklace and earrings. As Chris Burden, during his performance art period, she has herself locked in a locker for five days.
Kakanias, a native of Athens, moved to Paris at the age of 18 where he studied fashion and fine art. He says that his late father, an industrialist, collected art while his mother "collects pearls." By the age of 22, Kakanias was doing illustrations of the couture shows for Vogue and designing fabric patterns for Christian Lacroix and Yves Saint Laurent until, after five years, he took time off to live in Egypt.
In the countryside around Luxor, he studied Egyptian art and copied the ancient frescos. "The marvelous architecture and art, it was the best school ever," he says. As a result, Mrs. Tependris "walks like an Egyptian," in profile with one foot striding forward.
Kakanias returned to Paris and his career in fashion for another five years. Then in 1988, he moved to New York and a new set of illustration and design clients: Vanity Fair and Barney's. But, like Mrs. T., he decided that he needed a change. "I love fashion. I'm not against anything that amuses you," he points out. "But I got so tired of all that."
Around that time, he met Thomas Ammann, the respected art dealer who died in 1993. While visiting Ammann's home, Kakanias was introduced to the important contemporary art that influenced his move away from commercial work.
It was in the early '90s that he took the first steps. "I decided I didn't want to do anything that other people wanted me to do," Kakanias says, looking pensive. "I gave it up to dedicate myself to art with a big A."
Initially, he addressed his heritage, building small models of charming Greek-style houses. Family dysfunction was rife within but could only be observed if a viewer peered through the windows. Within a few years, he was showing them at galleries, often playing the role of a Greek crone, wearing a peasant costume and sweeping the gallery with a broom. Perhaps, this affinity for performance led to the use of Mrs. Tependris as a character in his art, after inventing her in 1993 for fashion illustrations for the New York Times. "I would love to be an actor," he admits. "All artists are also actors, I think."
Kakanias' move to L.A. three years ago was not without its complications. Although Kakanias speaks four languages -- Greek, English, French and Italian -- he couldn't drive a car. "I took 75 lessons to learn how to drive and still had to bribe the professor to pass the test," he says with incredulity. "Can you believe it?"
On the other hand, Mrs. T. seems to be enjoying her stay here. For instance, in one large painting, Mrs. Tependris melds her obsession with fashion and fine art by outfitting herself in a Raymond Pettibon t-shirt, Jim Isermann patterned pants and a Charles Ray handbag. A scrawled text claims, "Mrs. T. is trying very seriously to feel, to experience their cultural ideas, their artistic vision."
However, such dedication takes its toll. In another drawing, she has established 12-step group, Chic Anonymous (CA). Posed as one of Catherine Opie's photographs of pierced lesbians, Mrs. Tependris is stuck through with gold Bulgari safety pins, wears a gold Hermes dog collar, and has the bloody words "chic anonymous" scratched onto her naked back.
Kakanias employs Mrs. T. to both complement and comment on the inscrutability and invention contemporary art. "It gives me the desired distance between me and the object," he says. But make no mistake. "This is a tribute to art and artists."
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is completing a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe for Alfred Knopf. She writes regularly about art and design.
Sponsored by AXA Nordstern Art Insurance Corporation.