Trawlers, 2004, gouache, ink, and pencil on paper, 7” x 9″
Looking through the gallery window, Alexia Stamatiou’s paintings seem like a celebration of color and life, an eye-catching display against the pristine white of the Sunday Gallery located in New York City’s Lower East Side. Her series of thirty-three small-scale gouache paintings, approximately the size of greeting cards, line the perimeter of the gallery in a single row. The name of her solo show, In the Twinkling of an Eye, evokes a playful innocence that is reflected in her characters – nude figures in brilliant blues, greens, and pinks, set amidst foliage with their arms reaching towards the sky.
Yet a closer look from inside the gallery reveals something more complex than naïve figures drawn in a sweet, folk-art style. In The Twinkling of an Eye, I soon learn, is a reference to The Rapture. But Stamatiou’s approach to The Rapture is unusual: with a familiar style and innocuous figures, she translates a weighty, dark subject into intimate, smart, and skillfully composed narratives that haunt with a whisper.
When I meet with Alexia Stamatiou in the middle of winter in a dark East Village pub decorated in deep reds, imposing velvet curtains, and Russian propaganda art, she contrasts not only with the décor, but also with the bleakness of the season itself. Dressed simply in a polo shirt, jeans, and sneakers, she has a refreshing, unaffected sensibility. With a relaxed quality more common to her hometown of Miami, Florida than frenetic Manhattan, it’s hard to believe that she’s been living in New York City for nearly a decade.
“The skull as a symbol has fascinated me for years now. It is an icon of mortality, but there is also that immediate sense of mystery and wickedness.” – Alexia Stamatiou
And so I begin to talk with Stamatiou about this compelling new series that she regards as “contemporary mythology.” Despite her casual demeanor, when Stamatiou talks about her art (in a pleasant yet measured manner) she demonstrates a strong command of her subject and an acute sense of its expression in her art.
Stamatiou draws from a revisionist Rapture doctrine that emerged in United States in the 1800s called Dispensational Premillennialism. This belief departs from previous interpretations of The Rapture in its very literal approach, placing an emphasis on the bodily assimilation of true Christians to heaven, while everyone else is left to suffer or die in horrific events like the Tribulation and Armageddon. After the horror, Christ returns for his peaceful millennial reign on Earth. Although harmless in isolation, , Stamatiou believes that it became a colossal problem when it crept into politics in the 1970s.
Though The Rapture is usually portrayed as a culmination of the most nefarious elements – violence, demons, plagues and torture – Stamatiou captures quieter moments. Men, women, and children are in optimal form: naked, with untamed hair, free of material possessions, sitting in nature. Living the Dream shows a group of women and children focusing on an object in the distance, as if waiting for a UFO. The characters wear crosses marked on their necks like cattle brands, and “not Left Behind” written across their bellies like tattoos. She explains this marking as “an example of the figure’s confidence in their faith,” but not indicative of their fate.
Many of the paintings show men engulfed by their own beards. Stamatiou says that they “have been through several seasons in the wild waiting [for] The End. Time is just dragging on and they wait, refusing to believe that their divinations may have been wrong.”
Winter Pile shows men who, frustrated by waiting, are taking matters into their own hands, physically piling on top of each other with the highest man reaching for a bit of cloud. There is whimsy and irony in these paintings, but melancholy also looms in the portraits of absurd acts done with complete humility, driven by fear. One by One shows two figures “caught up in the air,” dangling like rag dolls from a large blue “gumball” cloud. Below, a single, small, round head peeks from atop a mountain of green gumballs in hopes of elevation. The vulnerability in both of these characters makes it difficult to distinguish which one is actually in the favorable position.
Rapture (3), 2006, gouache and ink on maple panel, 10″ x 10″
From her past series that drew from Australian burial rituals and Viking mythology to The Rapture, Stamatiou explores various aspects of mortality and our relationship with it. In Nature (Yellow Remains), a blue woman with voluminous blue hair set against yellow looks down at collection of white skulls.
“The skull as a symbol has fascinated me for years now,” Stamatiou says. “It has become the underlying thread that connects the past five series that I’ve made. It is an icon of mortality, but there is also that immediate sense of mystery and wickedness…that something is off because human remains are exposed in an unexpected place. Death is so natural and inevitable but could not be more alien or sinister to us.”
Her paintings unfold narratives between the dead and the living, giving the viewer a cross-section of both worlds. What makes Stamatiou’s work unique is that she has consistently avoided exploiting the morbidity and dramatic tendencies of death and offers us quieter stories that develop over time instead.
“There is something basic that keeps reemerging about this kind of human interaction that I like more than the situation itself,” she explains.
Her work is layered with symbols, intricate detailing, disparate images, and beautiful color palettes that invite the viewer in for a very interesting conversation.
When I ask her what is next she tells me that she needs to finish this project before taking on new stories. “But I can’t say that I haven’t been researching a lot about Heinrich Himmler – head of the Gestapo and S.S. – and the Schaefer Expedition to Tibet. He was a mystic and belonged to occult sects. It is very difficult subject matter. I had no idea how strange and obscure some of the underlying beliefs and theories that propelled Nazism were. That whole era in world history is so dark that it is difficult to navigate the boundaries of respect and good taste in drawing from it as subject matter. So I’m still figuring it out…”
– Erica Miguel