Costas Picadas: Merging Nature with Science

Costas Picadas, the son of a doctor, was raised in Greece, but he studied art in Paris and eventually made his way to New York, where he now lives and works. A mid-career artist, he specializes in two-dimensional works and in videos that address, in wonderful ways, idioms based on nature and science, in particular the grandeur of forests and the cell forms associated with immunology, a branch of medicine in which he is particularly interested. The combination is remarkable--there is a genuine sylvan lyricism to the forest pieces, dense with the thin trunks of trees and underbrush, as well as an inspired reading of the cell forms, which are imaginatively painted as part of the compositional language. The cell forms are notable not so much for their faithfulness to scientific reality as for their imaginative reconstruction of form. Picadas’s density of surface is brought about by a devotion to a lyric reading of nature and science. His imagery arrives at a realism very close to the actualities that originated the painting. Yet his penchant for a natural verisimilitude is at the same time offset by the very abstract effects he is concerned with, in which different kinds of decorative efflorescences--patterns of curling lines, passages that look like mists, images impossible to conceive of unless the microscope is used as a guide--merge into genuinely large statements of vision.

But where does the vision originate? Picadas is not a medical researcher, although he has been affiliated with research institutes. Instead, he possesses the knowledge of someone raised in a medical family who has gone on to pursue studies in the fields of cellular biology, even though he has not become a professional scientific investigator. Even so, his predilection for such material supports rather than overly complicates his artistic impulse. The paintings he is shown working on in videos are densely covered with non-objective embellishments, which are overlaid as though he were creating a palimpsest. The merger of abstract effects and forms that originate with real science gives Picadas the ability to bridge the gap between the intuitive and the analytical. How many artists can successfully bring this about? Interest between the realism of nature and the realism of science is equally shared in Picadas’s production, which establishes a lyric outlook meant to praise the visible and invisible processes of nature’s forms and processes. This can be done only if the artist pays close attention to the shape of things, focusing on the realities, and also the imaginative visions, he is describing. To the artist’s credit, the integrity of his work is based on a close reading of visual possibilities that occur in the world, as well as an originality that is intuitive and conceived of outside of realism. His fidelity to nature is the source of his strength, but so is his originality.

In contemporary art in America, we have an emphasis on politics and theory. Costas doesn’t deliberately reject these orientations, but he does invest his time in the promulgation of a visual art rather than one that is overly intellectualized. His presentation of the densities of the natural world, often accompanied by music in his videos, promises a utopia that is increasingly undermined by our destruction of forests. It is rare for someone to so successfully merge a passion for the external world with the microscopic visualizations of cells. At the same time, in at least some of the work, we can point to the informal influence of the New York School, whose allover sense of composition Picadas picks up and makes good use of. But the fact that his true inspirations are science and nature moves him away from later generations of abstract expressionism. Instead, he produces, with considerable success, a language dictated by an intuitive eclecticism; this means he employs whatever is visually useful. Essentially a poet of nature despite living in an urban domain, Picadas makes art that reminds us of our ability to synthesize a composition across a spectrum of influences, not always closely aligned.

Thus, Picadas owes his accomplishments to several areas of interest: nature, science, art. He is to be praised for the successful merger of the three themes; no one field dominates the other two. The works made by Picadas belonging to the “Biomes” series bear out his interests in the legacy of the New York School, as well as his interests in the visual structures of the cells he studies. The consequences of his interest result in a sequence of meditations on complexity; the linear intricacies of this group of work are quite remarkable for their entangled, restless filling of the compositional white of the background, its void. In fact, the fields we perceive are filled with unattached, squiggling lines that seem to possess neither rhyme nor reason yet hang together well as a whole. Surely, work like this relates to the generally uninhibited style of abstract expressionism, but it is also coming from another place, in which suggestions of cells lie underneath the near frenzy of the imagery we encounter. The medical underpinning of “Biomes” gives it a structure and a flair different from the improvisations of the New York School, even as its busy surface references it. The lines fly out of the regular space of the composition, moving deep into the white frame that surrounds the body of the painting. As a result, there isn’t really a check between the image and its boundaries--the artist has decided to play the composition out into the farthest reaches of its field. The results are messy but inspired. If we look at “Drawing 2” (2020), round cell forms, created by thin lines, of many colors jostle and nudge each other, with the lines extending to the very edge of the paper. The circles are aligned roughly in vertical columns, slightly at a diagonal. The overall impression is one of extraordinary, bustling energy, in which a riot of effects is somehow kept in containment even as it threatens to overwhelm its paper support.

With regard to the videos, Picadas did a beautiful, five-minute-long forest film in the early months of 2020. The video is called “Biophilia,” and is accompanied by a harp playing music that approximates the sound of falling water. His vision of narrowly separated trees, regularly appearing with the sun shining through them, are made even more lyric by the flower-like designs, moving together and breaking apart, superimposed on the images of the forests. The imagery changes every few seconds. Picadas’s view of nature hers is unabashedly romantic--exactly what we need in the face of a debased urbanization and deforestation. It is possible to think of the video, made for the Roadmaps Festival this year, as a non-stationary painting of nature, accompanied by music, that amounts to an operatic vision of the forest’s beauty. The music regularly repeats itself, to the point where it feels nearly minimalist (but in lyric fashion, without that music’s grandiose overtones). Instead, it is a poem, in which the innate beauty of the trees is an attempt to compensate for a nature deeply damaged in the hands of man. Costas Picadas surely is not the first person to feel this way, or to make art this way, but his handling of the imagery, mostly in black and white, relies on our ancient appreciation of thickets of trees, which offer shelter and solace in equal amounts. We can only express our wonder in the face of so unmediated a portrayal of beauty. At the same time, we recognize Costas is taking a risk--his untrammeled vision of the forest, along with the romantic music he uses to accompany his video, could be criticized for observing a sentimental perception of nature. I don’t think this is true, but if it were, I would ascribe it to the tragic circumstance of natural life we now face, in which it seems like destruction alone can be described. The artist cannot be blamed for offering a view of nature meant to give solace to his audience in a time of near ecological ruin. Costas is in fact showing courage in his idealized view of the forest, which now all too easily is seen as a commodity rather than a transcendent biomass.

In art, among younger artists especially, there is a movement away from the deliberately beautiful. The unabashedly romantic art of Picadas is starting to be consigned to earlier times. But this is not fair, in the sense that a beautiful image, attractively made, has been the staple of art since art has been made. Even Arte Povera, the powerful movement in opposition to post-Second World War materialism, made beautiful things out of humble materials. It is only recently that we are coming across a practice whose imagery is rude to the point of offense, although it can be argued that this kind of work is also a spirited reply to the machinations of capital as they occur in the artworld, New York and elsewhere. Picadas’s romanticism can thus be seen not so much as an emotional turn back toward art of the past as it is an assertion of inspired belief in the ongoing presence of natural form, occurring as it does in his art even on a cellular level. The success of his work shows that such an approach still is viable, possessing meaning despite the attacks of industry and overpopulation on forests that are now only fragilely maintained. There is not much we can do about this; we can only support art and social actions in favor of nature at a time when it is more than easy to be pessimistic about the future of the land. It is true that Picadas lives in New York City--not especially known for its sylvan landscape! But he is also from Greece, where the rural remains strongly alive in the experience and imagination of Greek people. This may give him a connection to the landscape that belies his present situation.

The true problem brought up by Picadas’s art has to do with a resistance to a materialism that is taking over all of the world (maybe first in the United States), in which we have lost touch with nature, and have succumbed to computer media. This will inevitably affect both our social existence and our imagination. But the situation is difficult to resist. Nature is losing ground to the suburbs; rural areas now feature malls and franchises that permanently damage our ability to enjoy mountains and hills and rivers and trees. Picadas offers, even from his urban vantage point, a way of looking at nature through art. The videos and canvases are permanent, not tractable to change in their presentation of nature found outside and within us. In that sense they offer a view in contrast to our fast disappearing woodlands. But such art is also manmade, and is intended to be seen in cultural centers, which are usually occur in cities. It is too soon to say whether the current movement of artists upstate can ameliorate in any major way the way nature is declining--or intensify, in a cultural sense, the persistence of an art meant to maintain, indeed save, our experience of natural life. Picadas makes art out of a brick building’s basement in Queens, surely distant from the forests he so grandly incorporates into his videos, or, for that matter, the forests of cells he so beautifully reports on in paintings and works on paper. In both cases, these themes can be seen as descriptions of a kind of nature. What becomes clear, above all else, is Picadas’s refusal to bend his imagination in the face of ecological damage, as great as it is. So his art, which coheres because it is beautiful, also suggests a way of proceeding ethically in a time of great natural harm. To the artist’s credit, it is rare that the two concerns fit so well together, in a fashion that asserts artistic tradition.

Jonathan Goodman