The Musical Musings of James Michalopoulos
January 1, 2022 - Cayman Clevenger
A FEW PRECARIOUSLY PLACED emerald green caskets seem an unlikely source of inspiration for an artist who paints the joyous revelry and movement of a city alive with character and characters. But artist James Michalopoulos has tapped into something that New Orleanians have known for a long time.
Like a New Orleans jazz funeral draws reverence and celebration from the darkest of days, it seems entirely appropriate that Michalopoulos paints the majority of his works in a former funeral home. What better reminder that life is to be cherished and celebrated— a central theme of Michalopoulos’ work and his latest solo exhibition at The New Orleans Jazz Museum—than to be reminded of the brevity of life?
In this sprawling, partially openair studio, located on Elysian Fields in the Marigny, I recently sat down with Michalopoulos, one of Louisiana’s most important, recognized and influential living artist, for a conversation about
New Orleans culture, music, his artistic process and his most current musical museum show. From the Fat Man to Mahalia: James Michalopoulos’ Music Paintings is an ambitious exhibition of some of the artist’s most famous works, including a selection adapted to his immensely popular JazzFest posters, as well as a collection of contemporary works created by the artist after a broad, exhaustive retrospection of New Orleans’ musical culture, created during one of the only years since 1718 that live music has not been a staple of the Big Easy.
The impact of a global pandemic and the temporary moratorium on live music in a city defined in no small part by its music scene created a unique challenge for Michalopoulos, who had agreed to the exhibition before the pandemic began. “I have this lush subject matter and this wonderful challenge, and it is on my plate, so present, but I am unable to go out and be in the heart of it, in the mix of it, in the moment. I let it lead me where it will.” Rather, like many during the pandemic, Michalopoulos was forced to be creative. “I am fortunate that I have taken photographs of musicians for many, many years and that I have quite a body of work that I can draw on,” he tells me. He also referenced YouTube and sometimes historical photos. Gathering his thoughts and reflecting on the process that led him to what might be his most impressive figurative exhibit to date, Michalopoulos says, “On the other hand, what it did lead me to was a wonderful immersion in our music and our musical heritage, where I have spent months listening to different artists, everything they have done, and sometimes listening over and over again. This allowed me an immersive experience the likes of which I have never had before. It was very rich on that level, coming to understand a lot of what certain artists live through and who they are. Many that I was not so familiar with when I began, and some that I discovered during this process and still others where I revisited my experiences with them.” Michalopoulos’ process resembles the way in which a method actor prepares for a role: “Every night, I would turn on local music,” he says, “tailoring it exactly to what I was doing. Even though I was working visually, my primary exposure was auditory. When I am painting Big Freedia, I am listening to bounce.”
With his latest exhibition, Michalopoulos undertakes an incredibly ambitious goal: capturing the vibrant energy and milieu of the New Orleans music scene, as well as iconic figures that have made New Orleans music world famous. In abstract paintings, he channels the feeling of music into flowing works of color and texture on canvas. A partially deconstructed grand piano is sprawled across the floor as if it leapt off one of his whimsical canvases. Artifacts from the Jazz Museum’s collection accompany the works, further underscoring the importance of the figures depicted.
This is hardly Michalopoulos’ first solo exhibition. His works have been shown at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, the Venice Biennale Art Festival, the Dallas Museum of Art, the R.W. Norton, the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, the Amuse Bouche Winery in Napa, California, and the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia, among many others.
James Michalopoulos was born in Pennsylvania in June of 1951. His father was an architect whose modernist buildings now define downtown Pittsburgh. His uncle, William Baziotes, was a renowned surrealist painter whose works hang on the walls of the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute in Chicago.
In 1981, Michalopoulos was drawn to New Orleans. He explains what first enchanted him: “The openness of New Orleans is what most attracted me. The fact that people are generous and tolerant, that people have a wide latitude and are forgiving. There is a sense that people have a greater ability to be expressive here. There is a generalized feeling that there is a place for everyone here in town and that people are, if not encouraged, allowed to be who they are. That tolerance makes for a unique culture, a culture of richness and personal expression. It’s one where people feel able to do the work that they need to do to be who they are, and that freedom and collective expression is what makes New Orleans one of the most unique places on the planet.”
The architecture and culture of the city became his muse, Michalopoulos says.
His work conjures emotion, movement and the ethereal in the quotidian: vibrant flowers, homes and buildings that waltz across the canvas, and vignettes of everyday life that are transformed into something profound. The artist’s catalogue includes landscapes and cityscapes, flora and fauna, architecturals and impressive portraits, among other unique subjects.
The artist explains that he approaches his subjects not from a formalized notion of what he is looking at, but rather, “a state of appreciation and allowance. It is a gestalt, and in that gestalt I am allowing for the spirit and the subtleties in what I perceive to be its reality.” Color abounds on Michalopoulos’ canvases. Some of his works invite you so close that you can smell the pungent perfume of oil paint. Other scenes become clearer from across the room.
Michalopoulos’ thick impasto (layering of paint) creates a truly three-dimensional quality to his work, something even more apparent when looking at the variety and sheer quantity of his oeuvre on display at the Jazz Museum.
Perhaps more than anyone else, James Michalopoulos has the unique ability and perspective to capture the way New Orleans feels in his paintings. His iconic crooked houses and buildings—and the way he applies movement to inanimate objects—is the very movement you can often feel as the ground moves below you when a large truck rumbles down the street.
Or maybe it is a vision of the city many folks see when they partake in the libations that have made New Orleans famous. “I believe that in a sense things are much less solid than they seem to be, and there is a kind of movement in all things. All things are in a transitional state, and I allow myself to tune into the vibration of what is there before me. I render myself very transparently vulnerable and available to what subject is there in front of me. There is an evanescent quality to a lot of the city. The shimmering light, the seeming subtleties of the structures, I tune into it, and I allow it. I am almost in a way in a dream, and I feel that the city is almost a dream at times.”
Michalopoulos’ works seem to dance, even with stoic subjects where movement seems improbable; perhaps that is because he is dancing while he is painting. “For me, if I am listening to music while I am painting, I find myself dancing. I think that painting is a lot like a dance, and at some moment, even if I do not find myself dancing, there is a will to dance, and that is how it is best held. It is a give and take, it is a back and forth, and there is failure and success in it, but there is a groove and a possibility in it that is not just in the ending, but also the way I am with it in the middle of creating it. On the best days, I am with the painting in a respectful and engaging way all the way through the process. It is a dance, it is a thrust and a parry, and a constant state of contradiction and correction with a will toward appreciation and celebration.”
Michalopoulos chooses his subject matter carefully; he paints what inspires him. He paints people, places and things that he finds beautiful or interesting, and for that reason, his work is never repetitive and his subject matter in a city like New Orleans is seemingly endless. “I start with ‘this rocks my boat, I love what I am looking at,’ then it is just about doing honor to that,” he explains. “I know the subject is beautiful and exciting; now, how can I find my way to the successful realization of that or an evocation of an aspect of that element that is worthwhile, enlivening, honorable, or exciting.”
Michalopoulos’ paintings bear witness to the wealth of cultural abundance that defines the Crescent City. With each canvas he documents the joie de vivre of this modern day Atlantis, triumphantly rising from the mouth of the Mississippi, through the pure and simple acts of appreciation and celebration. “This is about inspiration, but the final piece itself is about life. This is a witness to who I am in this matter, and who we are culturally.”
For nearly four decades, Michalopoulos has been sanctifying what many of us in the modern South take for granted: the magic and beauty that surrounds us in our everyday lives. With each passing year, Michalopoulos becomes more prominent, more prestigious, and he continuously proves why he is one of the most preeminent artists in the Modern American South.
There has never been a better time to experience Michalopoulos’ artwork. The Jazz Museum Exhibit will run through January 1, 2022, and the artist’s works are also on display at some of New Orleans’ finest restaurants, as well as at the Loews Hotel. While you are in town, be sure to drop by the Michalopoulos Gallery at 617 Bienville Street in the French Quarter.
Cayman Clevenger is an art dealer, fine art appraiser and attorney at LouisianaArt.com.
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