In this extraordinary show, CAN Gallery focuses on paintings of men from the 1980s and 90s by Greek artist Celia Daskopoulou. Like many avant-garde Greek artists Daskopoulou left her conservative native country to study in Paris in the 1960s, returning to Athens in the 1970s where she developed her mature style. This largely focused on heavily stylised portraits of women that satirised traditional female depiction and roles in society. Following various bouts of mental ill-heath and a period of hospitalisation, Daskopoulou’s work would become rougher and looser in the 80s, adopting a faux-naïve style and using a darker palette built up in layers of aggressively worked paint. Daskopoulou exhibited successfully during her lifetime, but fell into obscurity following her death in 2006. Her work was ‘rediscovered’ by CAN’s director Christina Androulidaki who organised an exhibition at the gallery in 2018 along with a large presentation at the Athens Biennale the same year. It is a truly important rediscovery and Daskopoulou’s work has a timeless appeal, fitting just as easily alongside Chaïm Soutine and Helene Schjerfbeck as it could with Chantal Joffe or Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.
It is a bold move by CAN to isolate Daskopoulou’s images of men in this exhibition, and it cannot be understated how difficult, and frequently quite haunting, these paintings are. We see images of the artist’s doctor from her time in hospital and in a number of works a man who looks like a traditional depiction of Jesus, with his long hair and beard. Despite their apparent stylisation each one of Daskopoulou’s subjects is distinctly individual and soulful. Their faces emerge from the gloom of black backgrounds, like someone distantly remembered, the artist grasping to retain her memories in slippery paint. A particularly moving image ‘Untitled’ (1982) sees a woman – I assume the artist – cloaked in the arms of the Jesus-like figure, both looking out with a firm sense of tranquillity. However, in a similar image from the year before, we see the same two figures, but this time his hand is clasped threateningly around her throat as she stares out at the viewer. The careful selection of works demonstrates how Daskopoulou confronts the many, contradictory feelings that exist between men and women in an often startling way.
The stand out moment of the show is the diptych featuring ‘Untitled (Rallou)’ and ‘Untitled (soldier)’ (1988). A figure stands frontally, like an icon, on each canvas – one male, one female – hands on hips, both topless and sporting khaki trousers. The face of the woman is largely featureless, while the soldier has eyes and is smoking, clearly identified as a soldier by his uniform. While the figures share a physicality, deftly portrayed in watery strokes of colour, they are clearly distinct from one another. The male is given facial features, yet is reduced to something of a trope, while the female is faceless, yet strangely feels more individual. Daskopoulou was clearly a daring and often humorous painter, and certainly one who deserves to be known more widely on the basis of this small show.