What’s on in Hydra: Greece’s art island

What’s on in Hydra: Greece’s art island

As well as being one of the loveliest of the Greek islands – greatly helped by a ban on high-rise buildings and all forms of motorized transport – Hydra has always been a favourite place for the artistically inclined. Henry Miller admired the island’s “wild and naked perfection” and Leonard Cohen became Hydra’s adopted son when in 1960 he bought a whitewashed townhouse above the harbour where he wrote some of his greatest songs and which is still owned and occupied by his family. American painter Brice Marden is another long-term Hydra devotee, as was the late, great Arte Povera artist Jannis Kounellis.

Leonard Cohen and others on Hydra, Greece CREDIT: THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION /GETTY

More recently Hydra has become a destination for the art world cognoscenti, in great part courtesy of patron extraordinaire Pauline Karpidas, who 20 years ago converted a former ship builder’s workshop on the harbour waterfront into an art space and who since then has put on a yearly programme of specially commissioned summer shows by leading international artists of all generations.

Past exhibitors in this modest but beautifully proportioned space with its raftered roof, bulbous whitewashed walls and ancient worn flagstones have included Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Gillian Wearing and Gary Hume (who were part of a 15-strong 1997 YBA show entitled Package Holiday); as well as German painter Wilhelm Sasnal and Swiss artist Urs Fischer – the latter making much of his show in situ using furniture from nearby Tassos Café.

Major American figures Richard Prince, Nate Lowman and Carroll Dunham have also exhibited in the Hydra Workshop, as well as the painter John Currin, who in 2002 showed for the first time alongside his sculptor wife Rachel Feinstein under the title The Honeymooners.

Jamian Juliano-Villani Drive Thru Arlington National Cemetery, 2016 CREDIT: JAMIAN JULIANO-VILLANI DRIVE THRU ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, 2016

Now, after two decades, the Karpidas family have decided that this is to be the last year of the Hydra Workshop. Its final occupant is the New Jersey-born, Brooklyn based Jamian Juliano-Villani who, although still in her twenties, has been attracting widespread acclaim for her vivid, meticulously executed paintings which, despite being painstakingly hand-made, she describes as “a poor man’s Photoshop”.

For the show’s opening weekend a couple of weeks ago, art world grandees – including Tate Modern’s Maria Balshaw, Serpentine Director Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Nicholas Cullinan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery – flocked to see these bizarre combinations of images taken by Juliano-Villani from a wide range of sources, whether personal photos, adverts, cartoons or commercials.

In one, a bowl of mixed salad is tossed by a pair of feet in pink satin ballet shoes whilst bizarrely casting a shadow of Alfred Hitchcock onto a wall behind; while in another, a pair of scarlet Egyptian deities have sex on a tyre swing amidst a field of matching red poppies.

DESTE Building on the island of Hydra CREDIT: PHOTO © HUGO GLENDINNING

For her Self Portrait in Greece Juliano-Villani pays mischievous homage to Hydra – and also perhaps the island’s feral felines – by depicting herself as a disquietingly glamorous reclining cat with eyeshadow-ed and mascara-ed human eyes and pouting lipsticked lips. However the idyllic backdrop of azure sea and white-painted villa is somewhat offset by the addition of an enema and acne treatment products. All in all, a grand finale to usher out the end of an era with a bang rather than a whimper – or rather with a fierce miaow.

Up on the cliffs across the bay, another uncompromising American artist is to be found in Hydra’s former slaughterhouse which since 2008 has been an outpost of the Athens-based DESTE Foundation, founded by the Greek Cypriot industrialist and mega-collector Dakis Joannou. Every summer an artist or group of artists are invited to make work for this dramatic setting, and now The Slaughterhouse is playing host to Figa by New York based Kara Walker.

Installation view, Kara Walker – Figa DESTE Foundation Project Space, Slaughterhouse, Hydra (June 20 – September 30, 2017) CREDIT: PHOTO: FANIS VLASTARAS & REBECCA CONSTANTOPOULOU

Walker is known for her hard-hitting explorations of gender and race relations, and here she has transported the colossal left hand of the giant sugar sphinx which she showed in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory in 2014.

The severed hand has been configured into a fist with the thumb thrust between the index and middle fingers in the “Figa” gesture, which carries multiple meanings – both obscene and lucky – across cultures and history, from Ancient Greece and Rome up to the present day.

Installation view, Kara Walker – Figa DESTE Foundation Project Space, Slaughterhouse, Hydra (June 20 – September 30, 2017) CREDIT: PHOTO: FANIS VLASTARAS & REBECCA CONSTANTOPOULOU

In Hydra’s slaughterhouse, in the land of the sculptural fragment, this disembodied left-over becomes as much a richly referential relic as a gesture, overlooking the Aegean and marking yet another place of pilgrimage for art lovers.

Jamian Juliano-Villani is at Hydra Workshop until 29 September; Kara Walker is at DESTE Foundation Project Space’s, Slaughterhouse, until 30 September