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“Animating the New Hero”

Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery at John Jay College, CUNY, Curated by Thalia Vrachopoulos

By Jonathan Goodman, December 20, 2023

Image: Ellen Evjen

Curated by Thalia Vrachopoulos, a professor of art history at John Jay College, the large group show, “Animating the New Hero” was located in the Shiva gallery on the first floor of the John Jay College. The show’s works, made by more than twenty artists, consider the contemporary hero on screens, on drawings, and in ways that take animation and push it ahead in search of an ancient theme: the hero in both an archaic and a contemporary sense. 


However, the animation of the heroic culture is different; it takes an ancient theme and pursues it via contemporary electronic technology while renewing the hero image. One of the most striking images in the show was Ellen Evgen’s So She Said (2018) of a woman running, outlined in black, in the middle of a white screen. 


In this particular case, the electronic idiom intensified the image. Vrachopoulos, who has a long history curating in galleries and museums, including the Shiva Gallery, was able to variously include images that illustrate the long, historically mythic presence of the hero and his current delineation, seen in images that were both technological and traditionally fine art. 


The means of representation experienced in the show range from the abstract to the figurative. The hero, whose mythological status has been made greater by times when most people don’t take a chance, owes the strength of his position to representation–in words and deeds. The image is the most immediate way of catching the figure's immoderate greatness, but it cannot tell a narrative easily. 


Technology, with its ability to see the image develop over time, indeed moves across duration and can suggest a story with ease. So the show moves from a single picture to multiple ones in motion, elucidating an action or tale.


The broad range of images Vrachopoulos put into this striking collection of work possesses a literary yet revised hero cast, even when the images are abstract. Of course, the trope of the hero is based on narrative, and the curator, originally born in Greece, showed excellent skill in tying together many assorted presentations, non-objective and realistic, to a single view–that of the contemporary hero. One of the most interesting elements of the presentation was the successful unity of what the viewer regarded. In a group show such as this, the influences must meld, with the large reading of an often technological myth holding sway.


As time progresses, our ability to maintain memory is being erased, but this show is not only highly contemporary, it also incorporates, starting with its very theme, a sense of the past. Even if we ignore the past, it follows us. Vrachopoulos’s show, in its illustration of a very ancient yet historically commanding theme, the hero, necessarily carries with it a high regard for early structures, thematic and imagistic, that would support the hero vision essential to our reading of bravery, independence, and exploration.


As a result, even though creative mythological scholars such as Joseph Campbell are now gone, indeed for a while, the need to keep the memory of myth alive, central to the show, takes on a mythic purpose itself. The curatorial act is a gesture shaped by memory–found in the art, in the curator’s organizational skills, and in successfully conveying meaning to the viewer. 


I am not suggesting that this was solely a scholarly show; it is a modern one, accessible in a modern setting. Yet the presentation took place in an academic gallery of an educational institution. One of the best things about “Animating the New Hero” occurred in the curator’s gifted contemporizing; inevitably, animation’s history is short, but the many examples of this genre were able to keep historical awareness alive, by strengthening narration via new genres.


What can be done to reassert the romantic beauty of the past–in a thoroughly current manner? The technology encountered is one accessible to investing today’s understanding of stories with a language that presents the stories in noted ways–and in a rather easy manner: the populist imagination has taken over, forcing us to cast our intelligence in highly direct terms. But what if the subject matter tends to resist an instantaneous vision, in favor of the historical depth of the tale? Narration, often made use of in this broad vision of a theme more literary than pictorial, necessarily needs time to unfold.


One way of solving the gap between contemporary times and an ancient trope is to determine if the relations between the two are characterized by a sympathetic reading of the ties. Vrachopoulos has been able to do so extremely well. All strong art and curation are based on the imaginative understanding of the theme involved. Curation in particular needs not only to sympathize but also to organize and relate; as the examples I have chosen will regularly indicate, fine art in this highly imaginative, highly intelligent practice of mythic comparisons leads us to a useful and innovative reading of the exhibition’s theme.


Dulce Pinzon, a Mexican photographer now spending time between Mexico and New York, presented Superman (2023) (C-Print mounted on Sintra), an image of a man riding a bicycle on an unknown city street, with a trestle leading to some sort of grain tower, along with a row of parked cars behind him on the right. This hero-delivery man wears a Superman suit with a red cape spreading out behind him. At the front of the bicycle is a large red cooler, held in an open steel wire basket.


Given the person’s determined expression, along with the bright suit and the title of the image, it is hard not to see the photograph both as a statement of working-class ambition and its repudiation within a desolate urban throughway. Here is a hero from the near-to-underclass, whose unknown job occurs within an embattled, impoverished territory. 


The running figures in New York City artist Ellen Evjen’s cartoon So She Said( 2019), belong to an animation. They are, inevitably still images, although they are animated into a drawing with a duration. The hassled, multitasking women shown, are simply and roughly rendered, and appear highly contemporary in their presence; outlines control the three images, whose bodies merely contain space. By contrasting the rawness of the images with the technological nature of their making, the artist participates in two time periods at once. Interestingly, the tone of the drawing is anti-heroic, asking Evjen’s audience to accept the animation as a kind of distancing from what we might expect.


Georgos Tzinoudis, from Greece, did a painting performance in which the students and general communities participated. This mural consisted of a complexly patterned black-and-white drawing, filled with black dots and stripes that compete with each other for our attention. The popularization of the hero was seen in Tzinoudis’ crowd of repeated nondescript figures. Here the hero figures are seen simultaneously in the similarity of the figures as much as in the near anarchy of the design. 


Matthew Roberts’ gold mask, placed on the body of a male figure wearing a dark blue robe, comes from Invasive Species, an animation made this year. The mask is more of an adorned head, slightly square-cut and dotted with bits of white that show off the larger form, apparently covered with a kind of gold leaf. In this context, the figure who is looking at his cell phone can be seen as the modern hero-business-man. As with most of the animation images, we are not given the chance, in the static nature of the catalog, to see how the imagery moves.


That suggests the question, what do you call a work that is as much a drawing as a motion-driven work of art? How is it possible to describe it? The place of animation, from the beginning, has always leaned toward entertainment; but there has also been a small place for it in high culture: the illustration of classical music clips and so on. By addressing both high and low, Vrachopoulos is setting up a broad spectrum of possibilities. Still, it is fair to say that the works in the show veer toward a thorough understanding, asking the audience to accept the image’s nature, no matter his sex or class. Yet the hero is the stalwart figure of classical Greek tradition; we think of Achilles and Ajax at war, the long stay at sea of Odysseus. 


But very little rhetorical and actual bravery occurs in the figures I mention. The implications of the art are democratic. Here the hero can be the heroine, and the class status of the prominent figures in the images can come from very poor circumstances. Heroes are everywhere! This is the implication and the strength of the show. We need to remember now that “animate” can refer not only to the past century (and more) of art invention; it also indicates that a lifeless figure can be made into a living one. These kinds of transformations, utterly imaginary beauty and also real, turn the show from entertainment into something mythic, far larger.


Dominick Lombardi, offered his CCWS-25 (2018), two small mixed-media works. These two standing composite cows made of white, multicolored, abstract shields stand on a wooden pedestal. The content of this work speaks to the new hero as a genetically engineered entity. Born in the Bronx in 1954, Lombardi is heavily taken with popular culture at a time when such culture is erasing high-mindedness. The works of the American cartoonist Robert Crumb were an inspiration; like traditions behind the Greek epics, the late 20th-century artist’s imagination dwelled on narrative, although the visual was as strong as the writing in Crumb's case. 


Kyung Eun You‘s Wave (2022), an image taken from animation, offers a purple background in which the aisle of a subway car is described. The figures drawn in black lines are standing up, holding on to commuter poles like the ones in New York City subways where the artist from Korea now lives. 


On the lower half of the image, we can see a slightly dimmed white-line drawing describing a crashing wave spanning the width of the image. The lines are thin to the point of being schematic; they describe the most urban of images, the inside of a subway car, and the most oceanic of pictorial inventions: a linear portrait of a wave. Combined, they capture both well-known, accessible pictures as well as, city and country images of everyday heroes.


Unused Regiments (2022) a multi-media installation by Galina Shevchenko is a mixture of fine art–embroidery–and animation. Superimposed in black embroidery on the blue monochromatic background, are figures of service women of the Soviet Union. Shevchenko revises feminine roles while inevitably, animation technology contemporises it. Of course, blue is the color of the sea, the unspoken but often accompanying environment of classical visions of the hero.


As time goes on, the painting may illustrate a contemporary revision of a very early trope: the sea as background and stage for the playing out of heroic motive; in this case that of the female pilot and marine. The show demonstrates, that the shifting of the theme into a contemporary context results not only from a transition in time but also a deepening of inference, as well as the interiorization of the essence of water, concerning historical, mostly literary, texts.

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Galina Schevanko

Matthew Roberts

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