Allusive Light

A.S.: I thought we would start out, on this journey of the mind, from your childhood. When you were in New Zealand. What were the stimuli that you received which made you turn towards painting?
H.L.: I was born, as you know, in the mid-50s in New Zealand, of Greek parents, and it was there that I lived until I was nine years old. As a boy, I watched my older sister paint. At one time, I thought that I too could try. But the real starting-point which was decisive for me was the film The Agony and the Ecstasy which I happened to see, about the life and works of Michelangelo. I was about five at the time, and when I came out of the cinema I was speechless for hours. The film had overwhelmed me, and, without any particular effort, I'd retained many of the details in my mind.
A.S.: When, in 1964, you returned with your family to Greece, did your desire for painting continue?
H.L.: When my father died, we decided as a family to return to Greece, and I registered in the middle of the primary school course. At that time I didn't leave any blank space or margin in my exercise books without drawing in it, making various sketches, so that I frequently got into trouble with my teachers.
A.S.: And this still went on in high school?
H.L.: There things went further. When I was 14, I began to produce improvised posters and stickers which I'd painted entirely on my own, inspired by music, particularly that of the Beatles, Frank Zappa, and the pop idols of the day. With these 'works' of mine I would go round the record shops, and not only did the authors ask to buy them, but I took orders, and so I earned a considerable amount of pocket-money - until my 'business' went bust when ready-made photography posters began to be imported from London.
A.S.: What do you remember about the climate at the end of the '60s, when there was a generalised silence in the art world because of the junta? What other outlets for expression did you find?
H.L.: I was still young and my attention was directed towards music, and, above all, comics. Don't forget that at that time I was going through an early adolescence for the period, with all the consequences of that. I hadn't been to museums or to galleries. I didn't know any artists, nor had I seen at first hand any original works - only those that I'd seen in photographic reproductions in books and encyclopedias which we had at home. In this way, I had 'seen' works by Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh. My wish was, above all, to study painting. In Greece I felt I was stagnating, so as soon as I finished high school, with 2,000 drachmas in my pocket (which I'd saved by working on building sites), I decided to leave for London.
A.S.: And there you registered at an art school?
H.L.: The fees were prohibitive and life in London very expensive. I went to an art school, and there I began to paint from models. My teachers soon picked me out, they encouraged me and considered my success at art college a certainty. But my mind was elsewhere. I'd made it my goal to go to Japan. It was a country which, in the late '70s, had already arrived at living in the year 2000, before everybody else. It was then that I met Mariko, who was later to become my wife, and we decided together to go to Japan.
A.S.: And you learnt Japanese there?
H.L.: Yes. I learnt the language and in parallel I worked, teaching English to Japanese students. At the same time I was looking at museums, reading, travelling, and, above all, painting.
A.S.: How long did you stay in Japan the first time?
H.L.: To begin with, I stayed for ten months. Then I changed course and left, on my own, for Paris, going to study fresco at a well-known school of applied arts. Fresco had been an obsession with me ever since I saw the film about the works of Michelangelo, as a child. My teacher there told me: 'You, my boy, are not cut out for applied arts. Take the examinations at the Beaux-Arts'. So I collected together the drawings and nudes that I'd done, and went to take the exams. I came first, out of 2,000 candidates who came not only from France but from various countries abroad.
A.S.: What happened with your studies there?
H.L.: I was considered by the École des Beaux Arts of Paris itself a 'special talent'. I managed to learn good French and I passed in 14 theoretical subjects in a year. With my paintings which I had created in the meantime I achieved the highest honours in the examinations, so that the Committee of Professors which had been set up decided to give me a degree in a much shorter time than was usual, together with a prize.
A.S.: Did you stay on in Paris?
H.L.: I stayed on of my own accord. I wanted the degree very much for my mother, so that she wouldn't think that I was idling my time away in Paris. After my prize-winning graduation, I went and attended the studio of Louis Nallard (one of the last renowned artists of the Cobra movement), in order to enter more deeply into the meaning of painting. At the same time, I painted in Montmartre, in order to earn my living. In total, I lived in Paris 11 years, from 1974, when I arrived there (from Japan), until 1985.
A.S.: It was a period of great upheavals, with the art world in a state of ferment in Paris at that time. What experiences did you carry away with you, and was it these which determined your future?
H.L.: I went every day to the Louvre and attended whatever of importance was going on at the Centre Pompidou. At the same time I went to see exhibitions at galleries, I read, I watched quality cinema, and listened to music - by the hour. Among my other interests, I was professionally involved with sets for music video-clips. And I worked for French television, and on the Antenne 2 channel.
A.S.: What happened with your painting? Did you work with any Parisian gallery?
H.L.: From the time that I was still a student, the Jacob Gallery, one of the most central, accepted me as an associate (in spite of the fact that I wasn't French, and it was difficult for a foreigner to be accepted, though not impossible, as it proved). The public showed a particular liking for my works, so that, in time, I acquired many devotees who bought them.
A.S.: In spite of all the success which you had as a painter, and as a set designer for TV video-clips, you decided to go off to Japan again?
H.L.: Yes. I left at a culmination of the success which I had in Paris, but, you see, I was unsettled. I wanted to go to Tokyo, which was the Mecca of pop culture at the time (in the 1980s), and nothing could stop me. I wasn't, in any case, interested in the marketability which my works had. What I cared about was acquiring more experiences in a world of upheavals and of a pop art approach, which Paris couldn't supply, whereas Japan at that time was generating whatever was new and vital.
A.S.: Although you started out from model-painting at the Beaux-Arts, your first works were marked by the idiom of their abstract expressionism. How did you move on to the 'new representationalism', and how did you combine this with pop art?
H.L.: At the beginning of the '80s, 'nouvelle figuration', in a dialectical relation with the 'fashion' of the day, started out from Berlin and Paris. Now we come to mention it, 'fashion' is always ahead of its times. Among the things I was doing in those years was going and watching the fashion shows at Dior, at Givenchy, at Chanel. I saw the colours and the new trends at the 'fashion' houses. 'Nouvelle configuration' was the avant-garde at the time. This 'new wave' included many features of contemporary 'fashion'. Apart from 'nouvelle configuration', which fascinated me then, at the same time I admired De Kooning and Jasper Johns. Into my own abstract expressionism which you've mentioned I felt the need also to integrate simultaneously recognisable visual motifs or contemporary symbols, such as, for example, a basketball shoe.
A.S.: In any event, the pop approach to which you went on takes its inspiration from the cinema, advertising, consumer products, the series of colour photo romances published in magazines, and, more generally, life-style. Your own works, through the original combinations which you shaped at the time, moved on to 'neo-pop'. That movement, anyway, with its variations and different versions, never stood still.
H.L.: What you say is very true. Many people think that pop art represents the '50s. That, of course, isn't true. Pop culture has evolved and adapted, like pop music. The root of the word may refer to the 'popular' style, but pop itself conveys the bourgeois aesthetic of the megalopolis, such as New York, Tokyo, Paris, Athens, through globalised ways of life and behaviours. I have been identified with pop culture, without this meaning that I have ended up there. Pop music and pop painting theoretically have the same bases, and in some ways complement one another.
A.S.: Are there pop painters whom you regard as having influenced or inspired you?
H.L.: Naturally. Off-hand, I could name David Hockney, Peter Blake, Andy Warhol, but it doesn't stop there, because I don't regard pop as a closed case. It has dynamic dimensions. It was, anyway, the reason why I returned to Japan in 1984. It is the world's country of pop culture par excellence. I also went to New York. But I didn't like it. I saw a negativity there, through a destructive tendency. In Paris, on the other hand, there was an air of seriousness. Deep down, my intuition told me that the French didn't get on with pop art, because they regarded it as something cheap. So I returned to Japan, which is a country with a positive energy which gives rise to a happy mood. It was there, in Tokyo, that I held my second large personal exhibition, in 1985; and I stayed there for another 11 years.
A.S.: Did you have contacts with Greece at all?
H.L.: I had already been working with the Zoumboulaki Gallery since 1981. Up to 1984, when I left Japan, I had taken part in two group exhibitions. The second was semi-personal; I held it together with Yannis Kottis, in 1984.
A.S.: When you returned from Paris to Japan, what did you discover?
H.L.: In my 1985 exhibition, I discovered that I had given as much as I could to pop. I stopped painting for a year and a half. I thought I could take no more. I felt a saturation of expression, and I began to look more deeply into the meaning of art. I began at the same time to look at old painters such as Velasquez, Michelangelo; I took notice of Da Vinci again, and in 1987 the wish occurred to me to combine this spiritual part of art with pop. I tried to open up a channel of communication between the past and the present by combining the opposite extremes.
A.S.: In what ways did you attempt this combination? I suppose that in your wish to find deeper connections between two different world-views, you read, you thought, and you reconsidered some things. The truth is, of course, that you were never one-dimensional.
H.L.: I have always tried to have my antennae sensitised. I began to read and to go more deeply into ways of philosophy and life, exploring spiritual values, in literature, in essays, etc. I concerned myself with Japanese philosophy, ancient Greek, Christian, and Indian philosophy. I also approached things which are characteristic of the 'New Age'. I tried to discover what was the role of art in the twentieth century. Art, of course, with the means which it has at its disposal today, liberates the artist, but without giving him the necessary philosophical infrastructure. Great freedom at times leads to anarchy. What happens when somebody arrives at this point? On the other hand, ever since the '90s, art has used 'ideas' So, do I have a simple idea and turn it into art? I believe that ideas of such a kind always have a beginning and end, because there will always be someone with a better idea than yours. Conceptual art, as a concept, is quite right. But what does it leave with the addressee?
A.S.: Do you mean that conceptual art works have certain limits? Does inventiveness infiltrate their components? Play on words? Meaning for meaning's sake? Meaning for the sake of its contestation? Meaning as strangeness and surprise? Meaning as the disturbance and subversion of acquis? Meaning as utopia? Meaning as social criticism and a reforming factor? Meaning as slogans, in the last analysis?
H.L.: Yes. All of those things, as you've indirectly noted, are included in the language which shapes conceptual works. But the meaning of meaning is life itself. The question is: what is conveyed to the beholder, and in what ways? But how does art operate if it is to draw upon reality without getting hooked up on it? How is the work to exist without being consumed? An how is the artist to use the ephemeral without getting trapped in its cogs and becoming one of its derivatives? I believe that the desideratum is ways in which you will throw light on reality and its polysemy, passing by way of the Laestrygonians and the Cyclops to a different horizon. The question, in any event, is not how far art can give expression to its age. There is no distance in reflecting your age from what television does, because that too reflects the actuality of your age. If the artist has to open up pathways, then he must function like a philosopher, that is, he must take on a prophetic role, sending out certain signals, like a lighthouse in today's sea of polyglotism. The artist must be a guide, must be responsible for the role which is his in society. It isn't enough for him to 'photograph' events, with the things that are rotten and beautiful in society. He has to awaken the beholder.
A.S.: Doesn't art today, through its critical parameters, also denote methods of self-criticism, which awakens the viewer?
H.L.: Each individual develops a system of values of his own and can shape his own self-criticism, which no one can give him if he doesn't have it. The work of art should help the viewer to see that those things he believes, those things he loves and thinks important may, at the same time, not be as important as he thinks. In different ways, the viewer can feel and become aware of a more correct magnitude of things and of life. Pop culture in the megalopolises, with businesses, enterprise, the economy, ostentation, phantasmagoria, the amassing of wealth, comfort, prosperity, the lust for power, is addressed to the materialism which possesses us and to its pretentiousness.
A.S.: Are you attributing to the 'materialism' of this trend an additional, moral, dimension? Couldn't this lead to a didacticism?
H.L.: What I want to say in other words is that matter, as presented by pop culture, should not become an end in itself. The question is how one handles the moral dimension. Let's go to mythology. There there is the model of Circe. Homer portrays her with the capabilities of casting spells on people and turning them into swine, that is, her vassals. Circe symbolises matter. If man learns to handle it himself, he will not be enchanted, and the rules of the game can be reversed. It is my belief that the way-out lies in a combination and balance of the everyday and of spirituality. The one without the other causes imbalance. I was thinking along these lines when, in 1987, I wanted to lend a spirituality to the pop art I'd produced up till then. And so my works, with their dialectical relation between past and present, I called 'spiritual pop'. I took my models from the Renaissance, from Rubens and Velasquez, in a wish to associate myself with the Principles of Spirituality (principia) which those works suggest, but presented by me with a new style, new modes of expression, new mutations of light and of the function of colours, so as to stress a new parameter which would portray the everyday as other-worldly and the distant as familiar. I believe that all things are one, since all things are aspects of life. We all have a 'materialistic' side, a pop side, we could say, since we live in the city and in everyday routine, but at the same time we also have a spiritual aspect (which we usually conceal or forget), but that nevertheless remains existent and life-giving.
A.S.: But on the other hand, doesn't pop culture also involve a revisionary self-mockery as regards social and other acquis?
H.L.: Naturally, it does, when someone has spiritual quests and identifies the self-mockery which then leads him to self-criticism. But in the age in which we live, those who don't possess these capabilities of identification are gripped by the phantasmagoria and the eudaemonism caused by pop. Don't forget the portraits painted by Warhol. Some people approached them without overlooking the mood of self-mockery, but those who took them very seriously, subsidising their 'greatness', were more numerous. They saw them as the apotheosis of the individual in the society of today.
A.S.: In your works, you use bright and phosphorescent colours, particularly in the pop and spiritual pop works.
H.L.: From 1980, when I began to paint, in the light of the dynamism of pop art, I wanted, through bright and radiant colours, to convey the explosion and the energy of joy, because joy is what is missing today.
A.S.: When you say 'joy', do you mean self-realisation?
H.L.: It's a zest and an appetite for life. It's also the fulfilment and realisation of the self - of a self, however, which isn't connected with all aspects of reality. Because, in living out our everyday routine, we are living, in the end, a relative reality, which is fulfilled through our spiritual dimension. It's for this reason that I from 1987 I began to produce 'spiritual pop' works, so that I could add spirituality to the joy of life.
A.S.: What are the reasons which made you move on from 'spiritual pop' to the 'New Renaissance' (as you were the first to name it) - apart from the fact that you've always taken care for your own renewal?
H.L.: My thought was that if you take away the 'pop' part from 'spiritual pop', what would remain? Only spirituality would remain, which, however, I wanted to refashion, to enrich, to modernise. I thought then of the men of the Renaissance, in their wish romantically to bring antiquity back to centre stage, but to bring back the essence which constitutes it, in a way of their own. A way which would express them. They turned towards classical models, because the philosophy which informed them and the approach to life was and remains enduring. I'm referring to the values which the works profess. I thought, then, of the way that would be today, or, in any event, by which such a need for the restatement of basic values of life could be expressed. If this trend were to re-appear, it would be centred on the essential, it would be with austerity and without ornamentations. It would have to do with man and only with man, because he contains the keys to the Universe within himself. The 'New Renaissance' on which I am working is not confined to the image alone, because then it would be anachronistic. For art to acquire diachronicity, it has to fill in what is missing. Not the letter, but the spirit. And the spirit has to do with philosophy and love of man. It is humanism which is missing from art today. If art is not anthropocentric, for me it has lost its meaning.
A.S.: And nature?
H.L.: I have tried to put nature, albeit as a kind of framework, into my works, but it distracts the eye of the beholder from the essence (we're speaking here, of course, of my New Renaissance works). The essence of the thing is man. I see, and so try to bring out, his inner 'nature'. What exists within him, what he is hiding, what he has in mind and in his heart, what it is that gives him life. In the Archaic period of Greek art, very few features of surrounding nature were represented, and these were to determine or suggest the space. The 'framing' role of the features of nature in figurative representationalism begins to be discernible in Hellenistic times, when artists used another type of realism, to lend greater verisimilitude to what they were representing and for the emotionalism of the beholder to be more easily stimulated. But in our times, it is the need for spirituality and its connotation which are chiefly missing. As far as superficiality goes, we are adequate. But as to the world of man's soul, who is to speak of it and who is to allude to it more persuasively if not art itself? Socrates and Plato talked about these things, and are we ashamed to do so? Have we grown out of them? Is that it?
A.S.: What is light for you, and how does it function in your works?
H.L.: Everything is light for me. Thought, emotion, everything has to do with light. Why is everybody glued to the television? It's the light that's attracting them, just as in the old days it was the open fire. Depending on the handling of light, we can handle time in terms of expression. Depending also on the nature and manner of light, we can connote enduring truths. It is out of darkness that we understand what light is. Painting, in other words, is based on the alternating balances and the tonicities of chiaroscuro, in order to render the meaning of life. And life is the same; it's chiaroscuro, with the shadow bringing out the light.
A.S.: Is magnitude in your works related to tension? And tension to light?
H.L.: If you have quality in your works, or, at least, you want to express qualities, there's no need to shout. But quality can't be spotted at first glance. Sometimes there's a need for size, when you are seeking tension, particularly at the present time, when it's not easy to hear whispers. In my pop paintings, I use black light for the phosphorescent colours which convey joy and give emphasis to the mood and the emotion. I use the phosphorescent colours in spiritual pop because with the ultraviolet radiation of black light they convey a diachronic and metaphysical dimension. When you want to show reality beyond the visual range, that is, the reality 'within', then you use colours which operate beyond the range.
A.S.: Do you use ultraviolet light in order to transubstantiate the image? To give it a fourth dimension?
H.L.: In my pop works, the ultraviolet radiation in some of these brush-strokes or in some areas of the composition gives emphasis to joy, to a zest for life, to a feeling of reconciliation and love, and to the directness of the beholder's participation. In spiritual pop, the emphasis passes to the way in which time functions, through the dialogue between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional presence of the image, which, by the operation of the ultraviolet radiation, becomes four-dimensional. In my 'New Renaissance' works, the ultraviolet radiation stresses the sparking-off for the revelation of views from the inner world of what is depicted. The linkage of the everyday and spirituality functions like the sides of the same coin which interact with one another and co-exist.
A.S.: What response did you feel your works had with the public when you first exhibited them - particularly those of the 'New Renaissance'?
H.L.: In the case of the pop works, there was general enthusiasm (I'm speaking of outside Greece, when I first presented them). When I showed the spiritual pop works in Japan, they were received (as they were elsewhere) with very favourable comment, and I had a very positive response, whereas in Greece the critiques were a little hesitant, because those who saw them were afraid of taking up a position on something they'd never seen before. Here in Greece, people take up a position on something they know. About something they don't know, they don't take a risk. You yourself are taking the risk, because you see that this doesn't exist in France, or in London, or in America. Therefore you take up a position, as I do. How far can someone make progress from a position of safety?
A.S.: In the early '90s, and in a phase of apotheosis of conceptual art, how was an artist who dared - at that time - to propose a 'new representationalism' with a spiritual point at issue treated?
H.L.: It was in Tokyo, when, in 1993, I exhibited my 'New Renaissance' works for the first time at the great Foire. I was like the fly in the ointment. The critics looked at them carefully, and this at that time involved a degree of reservation. But the public, who didn't have taboos and prejudices, reacted in exactly the opposite way, and there were not a few who openly showed their emotion - but I don't want to say any more about that, because I don't want to talk about myself.
A.S.: With which contemporary artist or artists do you feel that you have an eclectic spiritual affinity as to the essence of what you are expressing, and not as to the style and the ways?
H.L.: With Bill Viola. I think that we are following parallel paths. What I express through painting, Bill Viola expresses similarly, but through video. My own painting is conceptual, but not as most people usually interpret the content of that term. It isn't ideas that I turn into images, but transformed and amalgamated realities and concepts of the everyday life which we experience. And I don't render these realities (any more than the values corresponding to them) in an abstract way, but by specification and with clarity, but without being tied down. How, anyway, would you render purity and sincerity as concepts?
A.S.: Do you feel that your works involve a form of nostalgia?
H.L.: I'm against tomb-robbers, against the reconstitution of the past. If there is a dimension of nostalgia, it is a nostalgia for values and not a nostalgia for forms or atmosphere.
A.S.: What do you feel are the differences which distinguish the Renaissance from your 'New Renaissance' works?
H.L.: During the Renaissance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, people had other needs. The artists at that time used religious (together with mythological) subjects, as pretexts for speaking about the latent spiritual reality which they were seeking, as well as its truths. But truth, in whatever aspects it can dimly be made out, is universal and the quest for it that of all mankind. A contemporary 'Renaissance' doesn't need today anything decorative. Today, we don't need the flourishes, but, on the other hand, we don't need the exact opposite either, because conceptual art which has passed on to the abstraction of abstraction has in the end abstracted the essence. Conceptual artists usually maintain (chiefly the theoreticians among them) that they confine themselves to the 'essence', but in reality, it is the 'essence' which is missing.
A.S.: The essence of meaning? Its alienation? The undermining of meaning?
H.L.: When there is meaning, everyone senses it. And when you don't have the right language to communicate whatever meaning the work is supposed to be conveying to the viewer, it's as if you are speaking 'Martian', nobody understands you, with very few exceptions. Pheidias, Mozart, or Bach are universal, because they speak a language which, in one way or another, all peoples understand. For me, 'You don't understand? Then you're an idiot' doesn't apply. Nor does 'Go and study first (as I have done) and then we'll talk about it'. That's why people don't set foot in contemporary exhibitions. Because they feel that they are being taken for a ride. Because we are becoming supercilious. Art should be humble and attempt to raise man up and not to drag him down, to demolish him. And the artist - this is my view - should exist in an unseen way. The artist should be down below, to push man, through his work, upwards. A great deal of love, wisdom, and humility is needed. For me, that's what art needs.
A.S.: And so, in your works you are seeking the essence of life and of things, handing it on through the language of our age.
H.L.: This is exactly what I'm trying to do. Art must push towards solutions, not constantly cause you problems. And it should illuminate, as a guide does the road. Art shouldn't end up producing artists. When you see the Hermes of Praxiteles, you don't think about Praxiteles. It's the work you see, and it's with that that you communicate.
A.S.: What the work is showing. It's like a finger pointing at the moon. Unfortunately, it's the finger you usually pay attention to and not the moon.
H.L.: But it's the moon which counts, or the light of the sun, if you like, which is reflected on the moon. There where the light shows. That is the significance of the work. Not the person who produced it and how able he is. Naturally, we shall try to find out more, after the event, about the person who produced the work. But that is a secondary matter. The primary one is: what is the work showing and in what direction is it making us ask ourselves questions, think, and seek out the principles and qualities which we are forgetting, whereas these exist, because in the end the spiritual need for them exists, and this gives meaning to our everyday routine. We don't overlook either the one parameter or the other. It's a question of subtle and sensitive balances. It's a question of the 'osmosis' of spirituality into our everyday routine which gives it life. And, on the other hand, it is everyday routine which is illuminated 'differently', pointing to pathways for a quest for a spirituality which can vindicate our life. A life which we can enjoy without wear and tear.
A.S.: You mean that we can consume our life without alienating it?
H.L.: Yes. And I also think that the only road to conquering happiness in life is found by constant self-control. It is only then that Circe doesn't enchant us. And all my painting is orientated in that direction, in an effort to awaken the beholder.