Jannis Varelas,"Not I" video projection.

By: Amanda Dalla Villa Adams

German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s angel of history surveys the past and “sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.”  But instead of turning away, the angel is swiftly driven by an irresistible force – the storm of progress – to the future.  In the storm’s wake sits the growing pile of detritus.

Jannis Varelas begins with this pile of detritus in his current exhibition, Sleep My Little Sheep Sleep at the Contemporary Arts Center.  While Benjamin responded to the European political upheaval during World War II, Varelas’ work reacts to the 2008 financial crisis.  Using a heavy didactic hand and decontextualized references to literary, cinematic, and theatrical works, Varelas ironically highlights our shifting global-political world that marginalizes the poor and disenfranchised.   He juxtaposes this with dark, absurdist humor, garish colors, appropriation, and jarring figural collages.  As a whole, the works have a low-budget aesthetic, made from found materials through seemingly hasty construction.  Sound is a major component that welcomes the viewer even before the visual.  For example, a dull clanging noise reverberates against the high ceilings in the main room.  Pervasive and overwhelming, it is nearly impossible to pinpoint its source; instead, it just methodically keeps metronomic time.

He pairs this sound with several video projections and a series of large-scale figural drawings, Ghost 1-4.  One projection, The Giant, features a single image of a cast iron clown-shaped mechanical bank.  Although a recognizable vintage toy, Varelas has altered the surface of the toy by repainting the face bright green and situates it on a saturated red and pink ground.  By enlarging the scale and projecting it overhead, the dull blank eyes of the clown stare out at the viewer and offer little but questions.  It feels both menacing and oddly inviting in a bodily sense.  Next to this, Varelas places Ghost 1-4, leaning each drawing against a large chain link fence supported by cement blocks.  Comprised of bits of vinyl, pages ripped from magazines, drawings, watercolor, photographs, and felt, the collaged figures use the reoccurring motif of bread as body parts and decorative backgrounds.  With their disproportionate scale, gender ambiguity, and gestural construction, the figures appropriate the vocabulary of Willem de Kooning’s Woman series but in a desexualized way.  Varelas repeats this same sort of aggression against the body in Face 1-3, another series of figural drawings, and Head Box, a three-dimensional cardboard head.

In contrast to this physical mutilation of the body, Varelas takes a different and subtler approach in Solange’s Dream and Jane’s Poem, to discuss the inner psychological turmoil that arises in the wake of progress.  Both videos feature a female marionette, assembled from a series of conical and cylindrical geometric parts that seem to resemble a three-dimensionalized figure of Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase (1912).  Referring loosely to Jean Genet’s play Les Bonnes (1945), Varelas’ protagonist in each short film suffers through her own psychological inner conflict and destruction.  Again, sound plays an important role and mimics the visual trauma to create a mood that is both unsettling and threatening.  Jane’s Poem couples the video with a spoken narrative to produce an ominous and frenzied state while Solange’s Dream uses dramatic classical music to develop a somber mood.

Another video work, Not I (1973), references an additional playwright associated with the theater of the absurd, Samuel Beckett.  First performed in 1973, Beckett’s monologue featured a completely dark stage with a spotlight framing a woman’s lips.  In the original performance, her lips moved back and forth rapidly in a feverish monologue as the woman recounted a host of inner horrors that she vehemently denies having happened to her.  Varelas appropriates this reference but then humorously alters it.  Using the same brightly painted red lips, Varelas’ mouth chews at an equally rapid pace, but only blows a wad of pink bubble gum.  This repeated action is both formulaically rhythmic and ironically defiant in a cool and removed way, especially in contrast to its emotionally charged referent.

As a whole, the works respond to the reality of failed progress.  By using decontextualized references and situating them in relation to the body, Varelas’ work is a commentary on the failures of development, especially at the cost of financial gain and marginalization.  But in these works, there are no solutions to the crisis nor do they offer any redemptive hope.  Varelas does not seem concerned with providing answers or even compelling questions; instead it is merely a response to the abject.  In hindsight, he fails to adequately address the problem that he identifies in the didactic text.  Ultimately his art cannot overcome the alienation or marginalization of people effected by the global crisis.  In the end, the viewer walks out of the space, hearing the residual dull clanging noise from the beginning.   With each step down the staircase, the resonant metallic noise grows fainter until suddenly it fades away.  Although a persistent noise in the gallery, it has little affect outside the space of the white cube.

Jannis Varelas, Sleep My Little Sheep Sleep through September 3, 2012 at the Contemporary Arts Center, Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, 44 East Sixth St., Cincinnati, Ohio 45202









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