By Kate Kolberg
In 1914, Giorgio de Chirico, a founder of the Metaphysical art movement, painted the well-known proto-surrealist work Le Chant d’Amour (The Song of Love). The painting shows the face of a Classical bust hanging on a wall beside an equally large rubber glove. It is a simple enough painting but, true to surrealist tendencies, even though the forms in the painting are well-articulated, their sense is incoherent. It makes you question how this “timeless,” disembodied face of kanon-like (1) perfection feels about this generic, flaccid rubber glove beside it. Or, if this is a love song, who sings it? What do they yearn for? Revel in? Le Chant d’Amour is now over a century old, but Peggy Kouroumalos’ recent exhibition Snakes Under My Bed at Main Street in Toronto had me turning in similar spirals. Consisting of two paintings of bedroom scenes and a collection of ceramic sculptures that look as if they spilled out onto the surrounding floor, the work all felt rather familiar—yet embodied an incoherence that forced me to wonder about who was meant to dwell within them.
The two bedrooms of Snakes Under My Bed were so unalike that they appeared to belong to different people. The first, please, please, please, let me get what I want this time (2015) was drab; the scummy walls covered in graffiti scrawlings and a Ghoulies poster. On the floor beside the mattress sat a still-smoking ashtray beside a tipped can of pepsi pooling out onto the carpet, alongside a collection of gothy black leather shoes facing each other. Nearby, on the painted green floor of the gallery, matching ceramic shoes sat in a complementary format. The ceramics acted like supports to the paintings, both actualizing and bridging them together, ultimately leading you to the second painting, Baby, life’s what you make it (2018) in the gallery’s adjacent room. Unlike its grungy, post-punk referential counterpart, this bedroom was ostentatious. It boasted a pink and blue patterned carpet, a finely embellished curtained bed, and decorative Greek orthodox prints on the wall. But the room was also a mess: a poppy surfaced through a cement-like crack in the carpet, snakes slithered in and out of frame (from under the bed and otherwise), shards of Classical Greek pottery and sculptures were strewn about, and a half-devoured pomegranate sat oozing its juices onto the rug, staining the pink carpet pinker.
As with the initial bedroom, some of the painted objects found their way onto the floor around the feet of the viewer, each taking on newly complicated forms in their ceramic lives: a snake in “ouroboros” (its head consuming its tail) with ridges like a Greek column encircling a staircase-like vase, or another that sat neatly severed into multiple pieces. This garden of small sculptures seasoned narratives that not only related back into the paintings, but also out towards otherwise uncharted territory, for example, a pair of wide eyes bulging out from a plate miming a Christian epithet for Saint Lucy. (2) While the objects meandered into increasingly incoherent narratives, reminders like the dainty snake balanced on the radiator, or the ornate hand-mirror resting on cinder blocks reinforced an impression of unity; cues that somewhere amongst this surreal miscellany there were operational crossings between the grunge and the prim.
With this in the balance, Snakes Under My Bed was akin to a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book; it made a plea: which of these narratives will you trace? Personally, I deviated into one that examined the fanciful bedroom replete with all-the-frill. First, I identified with how this room felt like a portrait of someone bursting at the seams while trying to hold it all together. But perhaps the greatest appeal for me was the face of the classical sculpture, broken in half and lying in the middle of the floor; the calm expression of the smooth ivory-hued stone and the finely patterned ridges of its hair. Though half of the face was missing, it was easy to imagine that the other would match with perfect symmetry. Like with de Chirico’s Le Chant d’Amour, I wondered who sang this strange lullaby? What does this perfectly-made bed think about the pomegranate oozing out onto the carpet? And then, less abstractly, how do these ancient, highly-regarded objects feel about being carelessly scattered—and shattered—on the floor of this outdated bedroom? What are they even doing there in the first place?
Kouroumalos shed some insight onto these questions in the de Chirico quote included in the exhibition text, which reads, “One can deduce and conclude that every object has two aspects: one current one, which we see nearly always and which is seen by men in general; and the other, which is spectral and metaphysical and seen only by rare individuals in a moment of clairvoyance.” (3) It is a sentiment that matches my own experience of Snakes Under My Bed. I find Kouroumalos’ object sensitivity is similar to that of de Chirico, mainly in how they use objects to conjure a responsivity with a general assembly, while organizing others to disclose personal experiences or to hint at their own moments of such clairvoyance. For example, what de Chirico revealed through the rubber glove in Le Chant d’amour was the absent hand—or, the absent human. Kouroumalos, with her slithering snakes, reminds the viewer of time’s tireless capacity to continue passing. In each, we can observe the subject’s active presence is specially marked by its active absence, forming more general, and melancholic evocations of time and humanity.
At first I considered that Kouroumalos may have used the Classical sculpture and red figure vase fragments for a similar reason, that is, to evoke a universalized lamentation of humanity and time. This has been done many times before, and those versed in Western art history will have encountered mutable references to Greek antiquity in numerous ways. Most notably, 18th century art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann instrumentally defined the “noble simplicity and calm grandeur” (4) of this ancient visual culture. Yet, for Kouroumalos and de Chirico, these objects largely masquerade as familiar—the nod to the classics is something else. I realized that since the artists are of Greek origins, they cease to act as those “seen by men in general,” (5) and instead gently disclose specific information about them. What Kouroumalos presents are emblematic pieces of her unique personal narrative and history; she offers pictorial insight into the identity of the person who sings the love song, or rather, who sleeps in that four-poster bed at night.
This is a point that should be considered with care, particularly during the push toward a more pluralist understanding of history. While these busts may feel familiar, the canon of art represents Classical objects in a frame that was specially reimagined and repurposed toward a Western—and not Greek—narrative. Thus, regardless of whether it is real or imagined, Kouroumalos’ bedrooms full of contemporary, traditional orthodox, and ancient Greek decorations, delineates an important living cultural continuity that is separable from the Western construction of history and representation. Others may have decided to play out the “Choose Your Own Adventure” game of Kouroumalos’ Snakes Under My Bed differently; as with the snakes in continuous and segmented ouroboros, the beginnings and endings are multiple. These trails exist solely within the role of the predetermined protagonist, unfolding their own unique history and narrative. And so, as viewers, we each must remain spiraling amongst the incoherence of the signs that breach and bridge the isolated scenes of her singular mind.
1. “Kanon” in this sense referring to the written aesthetic treatise by ancient Greek sculptor Polykleitos (active ca. 450-420 BCE), which exemplified his concept of a body’s artistic perfection as devised through mathematical proportions. This name also leant itself to a nude male sculpture he designed in conjunction to the written treatise and referred to as “rule” or “example.”
2. Lucia of Syracuse, otherwise known as Saint Lucy, is the patron saint of the blind in Catholicism, and as such is often shown holding a dish with eyes.
3. de Chirico, Giorgio. On Metaphysical Art, 1919.
4. Winckelmann, Johann Joachim. Reflections on the painting and sculpture of the Greeks: with Instructions for the connoisseur, and an essay On grace in works of art. 1755. Note: in certain translations of this text the word “calm” is substituted for alike others such as “quiet” or “sedate.
5. de Chirico, 1919.
Snakes Under my Bed ran from November 25 – December 22, 2018 at Main Street in Toronto, ON.
Feature Image: Ouroboros of antiquity, 2018 by Peggy Kouroumalos. Photo courtesy of Main Street.