Mimesis in the age of AI art: a talk with Theo Chronis
Theo Chronis, born in 1981 in Athens and raised amidst the ancient ruins and sun-kissed shores of Greece, has always been surrounded by art and history. From a young age, he was captivated by the rich tapestry of stories, myths, and legends that his homeland offered. This early immersion in the world of art and culture set him on a path that would see him traverse various artistic landscapes.
Tragedy struck early in his life with the unexpected passing of his father, a pivotal moment that deeply influenced his artistic journey and letting himself immerse and find shelter in his art studies. Over the years, Theo’s work has evolved, reflecting both personal experiences and broader societal shifts. From the tangible textures of traditional painting to the intangible realm of digital art, his career has spanned diverse mediums and styles. His recent involvement in the NFT art scene and community has added another layer to his already rich artistic tapestry. His long search for meaning and wanting to change the state of painting as a discipline in the 21st century, especially figurative painting and the desire to make it relevant again, lead him to his most important series of works named „Qualia“.
As we delve deeper into his life and art with the following Interview, in four parts, we discover an artist who is not just a reflection of his experiences but also a beacon for future artistic explorations who has a real interest that we see Art for what it is.
Part 1: Chronicles of Chronis: A Tale of Art, Crisis, and Renewal
Part 2: Digital Frontiers: Theo’s Exploration Beyond the Canvas
Part 3: Art, Perception, Reality: Deciphering Theo’s “Qualia” Series
Part 4: “Art is Not Fast Food”: Theo’s Reflections on the NFT Era, Artistic Success, and the Sacredness of Creation
Part 1: Chronicles of Chronis: A Story of Art, Crisis, and Renewal
Theo Chronis lived most of his life and went through formal Art training in Greece before relocating in 2015 to the UK to try to reboot his career as an artist. In the first part of the interview, we dive deeper into his story, influences and experiences as an artist in Greece and the UK.
Over the years, how have your personal evolutions and revolutions shaped the thematic concerns of your art?
When I started producing original work, I was still a teenager, my subjects were heavily influenced by surrealism, fantasy and dark art. I was trying to express a kind of edgy sentimentality I guess, and feelings of loneliness, existential angst and rejection, as teenagers do… Then, after a couple of years of rigorous drawing studies, my style evolved to a pure realism, depicting the world around me as I saw it.
I loved tackling all the classical subjects like still lives and landscapes, but most of all the human figure, and many, many portraits. In my 20s, the unexpected death of my father from heart failure was an event that shook me as it happened a month after I was accepted to the school of fine arts.
That was probably one of the reasons I immersed myself into my art studies completely for a long time after that.
As I learned more about contemporary art, I went through a long period of processing tons of information and trying out different things. I experimented with many different styles, mediums and approaches including cubism, fauvism and expressionism, engraving, sculpture, conceptual art & installations and started working with 3D CGI which brought back the fantasy and surreal thematic elements.
In hindsight, I can’t say all this helped me “find my way” but rather confused me: after my graduation, I was in artistic limbo, trying to figure out what I wanted to say and how to say it as I felt rather defeated by the state of the art world. Nevertheless, I started showing the few works I was producing in group exhibitions regularly.
The first artworks where I started finding “my own voice” were paintings and drawings from the period 2008- 2010, in a neo-expressionist style, with bright colours and very heavy impasto, and reminiscent of the Italian Transavanguardia artists of the 80s.
Some central themes of this series are absurdity and the grotesque, death, myth, transcendentalism, sex, existentialism and other weird words.
A couple of years after that, after an unsuccessful meeting with one of Greece’s (and Europe’s) biggest figurative art collectors, I started researching what is essential in painting and soon began working in a different style, following a layered mixed media technique which evolved into my “Qualia” series.
A few years after that, the experience of the Greek crisis made me turn to a narrative focused series of works centred around political, philosophical and symbolist themes, as commentary on the state of the world and the contemporary human condition as I understood it.
Finally, after a 3-year hiatus from my art career due to life circumstances, my more recent involvement with the NFT art scene, the crypto twitter community and the developments of AI art have all reignited my interest in expanding my work in the digital realm and to explore new themes and approaches, with digital abstract work becoming probably my favourite of those.
Can you speak about the influence of your early teachers, Nikos Stefos and Nikolas Christoforakis, and later Tassos Christakis, on your artistic philosophy and techniques?
When I was 19 years old, I studied under the sculptor Nikos Stefos and his students, the painters Nikolas Christoforakis and Litsa Martzoukou in order to prepare for the demanding entrance exams for the Athens School of Fine arts.
As a teenager, I was already confident about my art skills, but after a month of rigorous drawing studies I realised I didn’t really know anything. It was them who took a young cocky person and turned him into an artist.
Through them I learned that humility is a true artist’s quality, and our purpose is to serve the muse instead of chasing after fame and riches. They taught me respect for art history and our cultural heritage.
They took no pity in their critique and through their unwavering expectations pushed me and showed me what was possible with hard work and determination. I would say I owe them a huge percentage of whatever I have achieved artistically.
Tassos Christakis was the head of the studio I belonged to within the Athens School of Fine Arts. ASFA’s structure is studio based: once you enter, you enrol into one out of 8 or so studios for the 5 next years of your studies.
Christakis was a great teacher and an important contemporary Greek artist, and I am lucky to have met him and studied under him. His lectures on contemporary art are things I still reference in my mind whenever I create.
He always encouraged us to dig deeper and not be satisfied with easy solutions, instead approach each artwork from many angles and be aware of the cultural and philosophical implications of every element we touch within our work.
His influence is probably what made me take longer (into my 30s) with developing a personal style but is also what led me to reach greater depths with my work.
In the following years I met a few more amazing people I consider mentors whose influence also helped shaped me as an artist and my work, like the painter Thrafia who introduced me to the magic of soft pastels and the sculptor and theatrical set designer Michalis Lagouvardos to name two.
Did your decision to relocate to the UK stem from challenges in building a lasting artist career in Greece, or a lack of recognition? Was this move influenced by broader cultural factors or personal reasons and how do the opportunities and perceptions of art differ between the two countries?
My move to the UK was a kind of desperate act after living through the Greek crisis. Especially after 2013, the financial situation there was getting worse and worse. The few collectors that had supported me suddenly disappeared.
I was teaching art to make ends meet, and my students didn’t have enough to pay me. The companies I worked for as a freelance 3D artist cut everyone’s pay to half or went out of business. Taxation was brutal and banks laughed at you if you applied for a loan. My wife, who is an architect, had family in the UK so we decided to relocate and start over.
In the UK, I was hoping to be able to reboot my art career but that turned out to be more difficult than I imagined.
That was due to a number of circumstances as well as my personal psychological state at the time.
I felt drained, burnt out, depressed and a total failure. What is more, I had no artistic network in the UK, I lived away from any cultural hotspots and finally, we had a young baby to raise. Of course, I know my entire generation of young Greeks have similar stories to tell from the same period. Even though I did hire a studio for a couple of years and connected with several local artist networks, as well as participating in a few group exhibitions in the UK, in the end it wasn’t really working out.
In 2017 I decided to take a break from pursuing an art career and focus on finding work as a 3D artist in architecture, something I had been doing in Greece as well but mostly as a side-gig to support my art career. On a brighter note, that was when I started experimenting with digital art seriously for my personal work, as, without a studio anymore, I began remixing my unfinished physical works, painting over them in photoshop and playing with visual montage techniques, photo-bashing and 3D elements.
Athens and the UK offer vastly different cultural landscapes. How have the two cultures shaped your perspective and ultimately, your art?
Having lived most of my life in Greece, I am of course influenced by Greek culture, both ancient and modern. My native language is Greek. Athens is, and always will be my city, where my best friends and family still live. Greek myths are a really important part of my subject matter, as is ancient Greek philosophy. I learned to draw using plaster casts of ancient Greek sculptures and lived through the Greek financial crisis of the 2010s.
When it comes to art though, I would say UK modern and contemporary painting and sculpture have influenced me more than Greek equivalents even before moving here. The sculpture of Henry Moore as well as the work of Francis Bacon might be considered legitimate influences in developing my style but I believe I have been more directly inspired by contemporary UK painters like Peter Doig, Cecily Brown, Jenny Saville and other lesser-known artists… Of course, I know and appreciate many Greek artists as well, and some of my biggest inspiration comes from artists of my generation who I know personally, some are even part of the NFT scene like Zach Papantoniou.
Finally, another big influence I don’t talk about often is, of course, music and I would mention the renaissance songs and lute work of John Dowland and equally, the incredible British Prog Rock bands of the 1970s like Yes and King Crimson as major cultural references for my visual work as well.
Part 2: Digital Frontiers: Theo’s Exploration Beyond the Canvas
Theo, with his roots and formal education in traditional painting, has been intrigued by 3D software and visuals since his youth. In this part, we delve into his connection with various mediums, from classic painting to 3D tech and AI, offering a peek into the potential evolution of future artworks.
Your artistic journey marries traditional painting with cutting-edge digital & 3D technology. How do you navigate the tension between physical and digital, and what do you believe each medium offers that the other cannot?
Even before introducing digital processes, I always loved juxtaposing contrasting elements in my work.
I like the challenge of marrying opposing techniques, approaches and concepts into a unified whole. In most cases, this isn’t even visible in the end result but it’s probably the most important factor in getting there. In painting techniques for example, lines and brushstrokes are considered opposing approaches or separate stages of a classical technique. When I’m painting, I usually think “Yes, but why? Why not have both at the same time?” It’s the reason I use drawing materials like charcoal and pastel on top of layers of paint or why many of my works teeter on the verge of abstraction and representation. This tension between contrasts is many times itself the subject.
In my eyes, digital art mediums offer a few things physical cannot or at least not nearly as easily: The first two are infinite perfect copying and motion/animation. With the ease of blending and manipulating core elements (like pixels) coming in as a close third. The implications of these are already starting to become appreciated as ends of their own in the digital art community and especially in the NFT art scene.
On the other hand, I would say, physical mediums offer texture, gravity and overall more tangible, grounded and impactful qualities, which is the main reason most digital painting software tries to simulate physical brushes and painting materials. As a painter who makes his own paints, (oils, pastels and watercolours), I have this borderline fetishist attachment to physical paint qualities.
The main difference between digital and physical art is in the case of the latter, the object and the art are one and the same: e.g. the actual way the paint particles have landed on the canvas IS the art, whereas with digital we are dealing with an artistic idea represented through an intangible medium and accessed – usually- through a screen. I believe anyone who has lived with physical art in their home for a few years can agree it’s a very special experience. it’s difficult to put it into words but I would say physical art objects are something you develop relationships with, like you do with people.
What prompted your transition towards 3D art, and how do you see it as a continuation or departure from traditional art forms?
I was always interested in 3D ever since I was a kid & watched Jurassic Park. In 1998 I had a teacher who gave me a pirated copy of 3D Studio 4, back then it was a DOS application and I started playing around with 3D. That was more or less at the same time as I was deciding to study painting and applying for the School of Fine arts, so my focus went to traditional drawing and painting as those were the skills I wanted to focus on first. After I succeeded and spent a few years in art school, I started experimenting again with 3D and digital art, I think that was in 2004.
My diploma project in 2006 was in fact part painting and part 3D video installation based on a personal fantasy universe I was building. So don’t throw stones at me if I claim I’m both a traditional artist and a digital native.
After graduating from art school, I started working as a freelance 3D artist in commercial fields like Architecture, Theatre sets, Theme parks, Advertising and more. Back then, I saw it mostly as a side gig and a way to support my painting career which was my main focus. That lasted for many years until 2016 when it was necessary to find steady employment and it has become my full-time job since, mainly in 3D Architectural Visualisation.
Through this journey, I developed a decent core 3D skillset and even if I hadn’t considered using 3D in my actual art, it always affected the way I thought about painting.
In 2017, as I couldn’t afford a big studio anymore and without any hopes to show my work anywhere, I started experimenting and playing around with more “artistic” ways to use 3D art and incorporate it into my existing artistic process. To be honest, I haven’t shown most of my 3D work in the NFT space or twitter yet, only fragments of it. But I hope I will be able to in the near future.
3D art combines elements of design, sculpture, animation, photography/cinematography and art direction. It’s a very big subject to talk about that cannot be covered in a short form text. And even if it is at the cutting edge of technology, I don’t think it’s a big departure from traditional art forms. Or to put it better, it can be what the artist wants it to be.
I find it interesting that we haven’t seen a huge artistic exploration of the medium of 3D, even though there is a digital renaissance happening for many years now in the field. I believe that is happening probably because the top 3D artists come from the film, games & VFX industries all of which are very conservative when it comes to art for art’s sake.
I am happy to see traces of innovative uses of 3D art within the NFT movement and I believe we are going to see more of that.
I saw you experimented with implementing AI into your work process but feel you got bored of it very fast. Is that accurate? If so, what do you believe AI lacks that would make it more engaging for you?
After joining the NFT movement in 2021, I discovered AI art through a number of twitter threads discussing the “Lost Robbies” by Robbie Barrat. I saw many similarities with my series of physical works “Qualia” which I had been developing since the early 2010s and was instantly intrigued. I learned about adversarial networks (GANs) and realised the process behind producing such results was very similar to the process I used to produce my own work: in a similar way that the AI engines accepted or rejected a given image I used a method to accept or reject a stage of my (improvised) artwork.
For example, if my work started to become too representational, I would erase parts and make it more abstract and vice versa, if it became too expressionistic, I would add more clean shapes and forms, if it became too even and smooth, I would throw paint or use different materials to create texture. What was really interesting was when I found a website which allowed users to “train” their own AI model on a limited dataset and I entered around 30 of my works.
There was no way to add prompts back then, just images. The results were pretty good and similar to my original work but of course very low resolution, only square format and quite “raw”. At the time I found that was an interesting addition to my digital painting process, and combined with glitch effects it was a great way to introduce randomness to it, in a way similar to the randomness of physical materials: dripping, splashes, scratches, squeegee wipes etc.
I produced around 10 artworks in 2021-2022, starting from the raw AI as a base and then heavily digitally overpainting and manipulating the image until I was happy with them. Some are completely abstract; others are like abstract surrealism. Most were minted on Tezos in 2022 and two of my abstracts on ETH. I feel those works are not very far aesthetically from my physical works in the “Qualia” Series.
Once Midjourney and Stable Diffusion engines were introduced, which use a different approach with LLMs and diffusers I began losing interest. The main reason is GANs were more visual in their approach while the latter use mainly language to “denoise” an abstract composition of noise pattern into an image.
I did play around with them too of course but I felt too disconnected from the process and the result. It’s not so much that I got bored, rather it’s that I have been pretty clear since my time in art school that my main artistic focus is painting and typing words into a prompt box isn’t painting, even though the result might be indistinguishable from it (at least from digital painting).
To answer what AI lacks that would make it more engaging to me I would say: paintbrushes, either real or simulated 🙂
What other creative methods are you interested in incorporating into your art? Are there any specific physical or digital techniques you’re eager to explore more thoroughly?
As I hinted at before, I think the next step for me is to further incorporate 3D art techniques into my existing creative processes and see what happens. I would also love to produce some 100% personal animation work. One other thing that comes to mind is using interactive games engines for my work or even just for showcase & exhibition purposes.
Since 2018 I have been learning and using Unreal Engine at work for architectural visualization projects.
In fact, in 2020, my professional team won an Epic Mega- grant in order to develop an interactive real estate configurator application for Windows touch screens. 90% of that project was my work and I learned a great deal from it, and I have been thinking about innovative ways to apply something like this to a purely visual art context. I am not in a rush anyway. It might happen in a month or in 5 years.
Part 3: Art, Perception, Reality: Deciphering Theo’s “Qualia” Series
In the 3rd part of the interview, Theo dives deep into his “Qualia” series which stands as a testament to his exploration of perception and consciousness. Delving deep into the subjective experiences that define our understanding of the world, this series is a culmination of his artistic journey. Drawing inspiration from the interplay of light and shadow, the tangible and intangible, Theo sought to capture the essence of human experience. The series was born out of a desire to bridge the gap between the seen and the unseen, to challenge the viewer’s perceptions, and to invite them into a world where art and consciousness intertwine. Through “Qualia,” Theo not only showcases his mastery over his craft but also poses profound questions about the nature of reality and our place within it.
Do you consider the “Qualia” series to be your most significant collection of work (either up to this point or potentially in the future)? If yes, why, and what’s your envisioned artistic direction going forward?
I believe it is, at least so far. Qualia is a collection of works that follow a personal artistic process I have been developing since 2009. At that time, I was really preoccupied with the state of painting as a discipline in the 21st century and especially figurative painting. I wanted to understand if there was a way to make it relevant again since the dominant discourse in academia and the art world before 2010 considered it a dead-end art form.
So, fueled by my observations on contemporary art and post-modernism, I set some quite high creative stakes for myself, to basically make painting itself the subject. Similarly, to the pre- Raphaelite artists of the 19th century, my approach was an attempt at figuring out where modernism failed (strictly artistically) and suggest a new paradigm based on eclectic kinships with artists of the past like Arshile Gorky for example.
Another major influence was Stefan Beyst, a Belgian art theory professor and art critic, and his incredible essays on Mimesis, Art and Semantics led to my own research into Aristotelean mimesis, the theory of mind, anthropology, cognition and psychology, always with a focus on how inform my art practice and paint in a more “essential” way. At a more personal level, “Qualia” was a reflection on the pitfalls of creating art, the common art “problems” that artists have always faced in both creating their work and being understood.
I don’t think I have delivered my best work in this series yet, since my art practice was interrupted for a few years, and I haven’t had a big studio since. In 2021, I was happy that I was able to expand this series in a purely digital format, incorporating 3D art, glitch and AI without losing its essence. That was a confirmation in my eyes of the potential of this approach. I was always planning to go even bigger in size and scope and I believe I will soon.
I read that the initial phase of your work starts without a preconceived image. Is there a larger philosophical or existential statement in this approach or why do you let the image evolve organically under your hand rather than planning its visuality and narrative beforehand?
I mentioned “artistic pitfalls” before, and I think this is a good starting point to give an insight on my approach: When we start painting, we usually try to express something, or depict something or evoke some memory, fantasy, experience or emotion. We usually fail. So we try to get good, learn art techniques, we read, we copy the masters, modern and old and at some point we might think we’ve gotten somewhere. We might decide we are ready to create finally!
So, we conceive a composition and make hundreds of preparatory drawings, think and plan every detail of every inch of the work. But it’s not enough, it’s never enough. Even the best artists with perfect technique fail, even if everyone else is blown away by their art. In their minds, there might be a different story because there’s always a distance between what is conceived, imagined in the artist’s head and what is actually there on the painted surface.
So, there’s almost always this discrepancy between artistic intent and result.
Then there’s always an interpretation of the work by external observers, there’s the role of accidents and physical limitations, the role of artistic judgement and, by extension of “academic” technique and its relevance today. Another big “problem” is literature, meaning whether narrative even belongs in the visual arts and at which extent does it turn visual art into, well, literature. Finally, there are other “problems” more particular to painting like what consists of a “study” vs final work and why many times the “studies” are much more powerful works on their own.
What is a “drawing” vs a “painting” and where do we “draw the line” (pun intended) and many more in the same vein. Technical problems of colour vs tone etc.
Coming back to my work, at some point, I decided to take a step back (or more like ten steps back) and consider how can one paint when taking all these problems into account? Can we even paint? So I started thinking, what if I didn’t intend to depict or even express anything? What if I just played around randomly with the art materials accepting accidental painterly marks without any kind of judgement? And just observe what happens on the painted surface. What if I tried to paint something with my eyes closed? With my off hand? What if a random person passing by, started my painting for me? (Trust me these are all pretty scary things for someone who has trained classically as an artist). And so on. And then the next day, I will look at this mess I created and try to make sense of it, to discover hints of an image.
Once I find one, I start “fleshing it out” but not completely. Instead, I keep the same creative approach and gradually build a layered composition with those elements on that thematic foundation. This results in works with varying degrees of chance (or pure expression if you prefer), abstract construction and figuration. Yes, in the end I want to “make a picture” but also to be truthful about what this picture is made of. This dialogue between losing control and taking it back again excites me very much and through the constant back and forth the painting “paints itself” in a sense. It’s a deeply meditative process and that letting go, that restraint, that “catch and release” process (and learning to trust it) was the hardest part for me to develop and get used to.
I believe this improvised, gradual and dialectic way of creating puts my brain in a mental state of pre- verbal and intuitive reasoning similar to meditation, music improvisation or psychedelic trips. It’s a difficult to describe sensation of freedom, of being fully present, acting and reacting to what exists right in front of me and not chasing after a half-conceived idea. I believe this allows me to bypass many of the aforementioned “pitfalls” and capture my artistic intent as it forms in my mind.
I believe the resulting works allow other external observers to communicate with me and each other on a deeper, non-verbal level, perhaps beneath conscious control. Early surrealist art tried to achieve this too, but my historical hot take is it failed because it used language as its main driver and ended up evolving into a kind of -now deprecated- Freudian or Jungian neo-symbolism.
Your approach appears to involve a dialogue between the conscious and the subconscious. How do you see this dialogue playing out in the context of contemporary events or personal experiences?
When you follow such an introspective approach which leans heavily on projection, you tend to stumble upon a lot of personal “baggage”. Thoughts and feelings that I never thought would come out in my art do and many times they are decipherable by others even if partially hidden by the abstract expressionist style. But this is also something that excites me, that game of “oh look what my mind spit out now” which is always followed by a reflection and an acceptance or rejection of this idea as a main theme. With “Qualia”, it’s more about personal experiences than external events, if not exclusively, as this series focuses on the essence of painting and the dialogue with the viewer.
If any emotional reactions to current events of the times are somewhere in there they would be more in the application of paint or the colour choices than in the subject matter and meanings of the works. But that was also the reason why after 3 years of creating in that style, I started planning a different series of works that focused on narrative, meaning and message, aptly called “Monologues”. The introspection was a bit too much admittedly and I needed a break, a different artistic outlet.
But having said that, a more important aspect of these works is that they are not merely a game of “discover the image” or “show and tell”. And they’re definitely not a way to put a one-sided spotlight on my own projections and interpretations or even some sort of “art therapy”. Quite the opposite actually. The starting point might come from my own psyche but through editing, reflection, and multiple passes using my “objective” painting technical skills and a rigorous structuralist approach to composition, they are meant to become a sandbox for the viewer to project their own feelings, images, meanings and interpretations which are always there anyway.
If my work was a lot more specific -subject and narrative wise- the projections of the audience would act as a filter through which communication would be lost and the distance from my own original idea would be greater. But honestly, I envision this body of work as an invitation to all viewers to a profound non-verbal “de profundis” dialogue where together, as imperfect human beings, we can invent new original meanings and reach a deeper understanding of what exists, of what is real. This was one of the reasons this series was called “New Originals” at first, but the name changed to “Qualia” after a while.
Having said that, I like naming my works as a kind of “hook” to get the conversation going. The title is almost always conceived at least halfway through the creation of each work and in recent attempts, after my main platform became twitter, I usually play this game with my audience of asking them to help me name it. It’s usually a great way for me to understand how successful the work has been. But to my eyes, there are a few subjects I obsess with that obviously keep emerging with this style.
Bodies, couples, mythological scenes and creatures, figures that spiral into themselves (ouroboros), the chrysalis as a symbol of becoming, sleeping and resting figures, animals etc. Some works have direct references to Lacanian psychology or philosophical concepts but in general I believe any title by any viewer of the work is as legitimate as my own as the work is truly “complete” only when someone else experiences it.
Aristotle’s theory of Mimesis is centered around imitation and creation. How do you personally grapple with these concepts, especially in a world saturated with images and interpretations and now AI?
I see Mimesis both as an action as well as the passive ability of the human mind to almost interpret images automatically. In short, whenever we derive meaning from an illusion, mimesis is at play. So, it doesn’t really matter whether the art was created using painting, photoshop, 3D or AI, it’s our human brain what enables us to derive meaning from that in the first place.
The problem is that most of the literature concerning this concept, and especially in relation to aesthetics, is quite old as mimesis dominated the philosophy of art up until the late 19th century. From the 20th century onwards the philosophy of art gradually replaced aesthetics (the question “what is beauty” was replaced by the question “what is art”) and mimesis as a dominant theory of art lost its relevance. Also, important advances in other fields of philosophy, as well as psychology and science, created further distance from this very interesting concept.
Coming back to today, I find fascinating the study of mimesis in relation to semiotics, cognitive science and a few psychological theories.
Study of images are of particular interest. An image can be art, but it can also function as a sign depending on its utility. If we think about the difference between an image of something and the thing it represents, we can say an image is basically a sign that doesn’t hold its perceptual promise. That means, if I paint a perfectly believable sphere and then you try to touch it, your hand will be met with a flat surface instead of a round volume. This rudimentary fact is actually the foundation of all art and is how I understand mimesis, on both ends, both from the action of the artist and from the understanding of the viewer who, hopefully, will not get mad at the former for tricking them but instead will enjoy the art.
Also fascinating is studying mimesis in relation to the theory of the mind, cognitive science and anthropology. Humans tend to be very visually dominant; we can see bright colours, and our brains are wired to make sense of patterns, turn them into images and extract abstract concepts and meanings from them, something only a few other animals can do. Over 40 thousand years since the cave paintings of Maros in Indonesia we have evolved figurative art to incredible levels. It is now impossible to look at the Mona Lisa and think “oh this is just some oil paint on an old piece of cloth” but that’s exactly what it is. Without meaning to go too deep into it, I think it is important to explain the difference between the two main philosophical branches of mimesis, the Platonic and the Aristotelean, and why I decided to base my work on the second one: Plato believed mimesis was merely the faithful copying of natural forms.
Because he believed in a higher plane of “true” existence, of which the natural world is a mere reflection, he saw the reproduction of nature as something that doesn’t hold any value, instead, like all illusions, it distracts the mind from the “real” truth. Also, within Plato’s definition, there is no original creation possible through art, and especially through figurative art. Aristotle on the other hand didn’t believe there was a real difference between the natural world and what is beyond that.
He saw mimesis -and art by extension- as a uniquely creative process that takes place within the mind and has to do with the recognition of already known forms in unexpected contexts. Even though not all the volumes of his “poetics” (the treatises where he discusses art) have survived, he is clear about the almost instinctive rush of pleasure humans experience when looking at art, listening to music or watching a theatre play (today we know for a fact it’s hormones like cortisol and dopamine). Aristotle connects this sensation specifically to the recognition of existing forms in the visual arts or the recognition of emotions and archetypal characters in theatre and literature.
And he goes further than that to build a whole theory of artistic creation on that foundation: He claims that through the use of existing known forms as parts, the master artist is able to combine them artfully into a perfect whole, a truly new and original creation that didn’t exist before even as an idea and thus transcend what exists in the world (both the natural and any other kind of world, in stark contrast to Plato who thought this impossible). And this is what in turn enables art to uplift its viewers into better, more virtuous people than they were before experiencing it. Of course, he believed drama (tragedy) and not the visual arts to be the culmination of human creativity, but I will forgive him that one mistake as Greeks very often speak out of their ass :))).
So this understanding of mimesis plays an important role in the process I follow both when creating my work, as well as when showing it to others. After the first creative stage, I try to employ mimesis and recognise shapes and forms hidden in this world of painterly marks and help them become more present. I deliberately aim to keep my subjects in a perpetual state of “forming up”, hinting at existing shapes but never actually getting there because I want my viewers to stay with me in this state of perceptive and intellectual excitement of form recognition. I want them to be able to see hints of an image, hints of meaning and narrative but at the same time be aware they are looking at painting materials, textures, pigments etc.
I also believe when seen from this perspective of mimesis, terms such as “abstract art” or “figurative art” kind of lose their meaning.
And the last piece of the puzzle within this entire process, the one that guides both me as an artist and the viewer towards being “complete” is the strength of the abstract structure and composition which binds everything together into a “perfect” whole, into a new “original” that has never existed before. I use this quite deliberately and while being fully in control, in order to “marry” the randomness, the mixed media techniques and mimetic projections that organically emerge from my work in progress. And for that I must thank the hours I have spent studying and copying (or at least trying to copy) the masterworks of far eastern art, especially Chinese traditional ink painting of the 13th-15th century.
Do you also create in other differing approaches and if not, why?
I have always enjoyed creating in multiple styles as my interests in art are quite broad and I always had talent in intuitively deconstructing and recreating styles and art techniques, even since I was a teenager. It took me a while to find my true voice as an artist which happened with the “qualia” series, almost 10 years after I started studying art seriously. As I mentioned briefly before, in 2014, almost four years after creating exclusively in that style (which I exhaustively detailed above), I felt the need to create works in a different approach and for a different purpose. It was in the midst of the Greek financial crisis, where I had experienced and witnessed a great deal of turmoil both personally and as part of the society, I lived in. So I started planning a series of purely figurative works in a vastly different style from a need “to get some messages across”. They were conceived as large scale figurative contemporary paintings with expressionist elements and a much more “grounded” subject matter. Initially they were a series of drawings but eventually evolved into digital compositions which were supposed to act as guides for the physical ones. But a year later, I moved to the UK, and most of these physical works were left behind, unfinished or never started. So these digital compositions were all that I had with me in the UK as well as some photos of the works in progress from the few I did start. When I first joined the NFT scene in 2021, it was some minor works from this series I started showing, as I believed them to be more accessible to a wide audience. But it turned out I was wrong and since 2021, my “Qualia” works have already been somewhat established in the NFT space, with many of them sold as NFTs. So, with the current “bear market” I seem to have come full circle now, and “Monologues” is what I am currently focusing on for a second time in my life.
Part 4: “Art is Not Fast Food”: Theo’s Reflections on the NFT space, Artistic Success, and the Sacredness of Creation
In this final section, we discuss Theo’s foray into the NFT art space, his perspectives on its current state, the impact of the NFT technology on art and how he maintains his authenticity within this movement. As we conclude, Theo offers a glimpse into his aspirations for his art and the future.
In 2021, you embraced the NFT global art movement. How did you perceive the space in the beginning in comparison to now, what changed and what not?
I belong to the “school of ’21”, the huge group of artists that joined the movement after the famous Beeple Christies sale. At the time I was just amazed at how under the radar this art market and movement had been until then, especially to someone like me who was actively looking for alternative and digital ways to find a market for their art. I initially saw the space as a very weird art market without any rules, completely money oriented and with very little to offer in terms of cultural value and artistic achievement. To be honest I didn’t think much about crypto until then, but I didn’t know a lot about it either. But I could spot the bad actors from a mile away… This was one of the things that made me reluctant to join wholeheartedly and have a consistent presence at first. But eventually, I came to realise this was a real international artistic community and that, along with my small successes and sales and the fact that I was able to build an audience on twitter, made me stay and want to be part of it.
I think this is the most important aspect of this space, that opportunity we have to build a truly fresh global art movement of even many. I think it’s the first time in history such a spectacular gathering of artistic energy and pluralism of opinion, style and perspective has even been possible. And that hasn’t changed a bit. What has changed is of course the overall sentiment: from hyped euphoria blinded by the glitter of digital gold most people (both artists and collectors) crash landed to a bleak boring and banal digital reflection of their everyday lives. But let me tell you this: I’ve read enough history to know, money and patronage weren’t the most important drivers in any art movement or any other kind of movement at any time. The most important factor is and always has been values. And this is the problem here, both in the NFT space and in crypto in general (if we want to call it a “problem”) and where I believe artists and curators need to expand the public discourse within our space if we want this movement to go anywhere beyond money and have actual cultural impact. Having said all that, I am pretty optimistic for the near future, as I believe this space is still in its infancy. Both the technology, the various stakes we have jointly set for ourselves, and the human resource factor are still evolving and in a creative state of flux and it might take a few years more to have a clear picture…
How do you perceive the value of art in the era of NFTs, and how has it altered your engagement with your audience through your Art? Is there a greater need now to craft a narrative around art due to its presentation on social media, or has the emphasis on story in commercially successful art just become more transparent?
For me the true value of art is and always has been its meaning, it’s importance as a milestone, a trace, a footprint or a claw mark in the human race’s journey on the planet. NFTs in themselves aren’t as revolutionary as their evangelists would have us believe.
I’d rather say they are merely… convenient, in a way at least and, frankly, a kind of meta-individualistic- institutionalization in order to control (remove) the truly revolutionary attributes of digital formats, namely that art can now be copied perfectly, for free and infinitely. It’s hilarious if you really think about it.
Jokes aside, as an artist coming from a traditional background, I do find value in NFTs as a cool, but still imperfect mechanism for artists to issue certificates of authenticity for their work, either physical or digital. But that’s what I find “institutional” but in an anarchist kind of way, as contradictory as this sounds (and probably why I am still involved in this space): We all repeat these “rituals” in order to strip our digital art of its fungibility and “make it”. And, indeed, since I joined NFTs, the acts of minting and listing artworks do take up a considerable part of how I have been presenting my work and engaging with my audience, but I try not to focus on just that… I am a person, not a “brand”. Also, social media and web2 still play the most important part even in the NFT movement. For example, I find it difficult to imagine the same space without social media but much easier to imagine it without the blockchain… I’m a heretic I know… the NFT maxis are now pushing my name further down the blacklist as they read this (lol).
To answer the second part of the question, I think both of what you mentioned are both happening at the same time: there is a greater pressure on artists to curate a good, consistent and bullish presence on social media, in order to appear “professional” and hype themselves up so that collectors will consider them a “solid investment”. To some of us who are a bit more battle-hardened, when there’s no backbone behind that act, it appears instantly silly and transparent, but unfortunately, I think most people will believe and project onto the world around them what they already believe and want to see. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s all business after all.
I just personally respect my audience too much to be anything else than myself and I think I’m too old to change that now :).
I’ve noticed your candid, straightforward, and ironic tone on Twitter. It seems like you don’t engage in typical sales tactics. Why do you choose this approach, and do you believe it will either help or hinder your long-term success in the NFT space?
First, I have been in the IRL art world long enough to know chance plays a big role in what we call “success” so I think the safest bet an artist can make is being true to who they are and honest with their audience. Secondly, before joining the NFT space, I had both good and bad experiences with collectors. Most were respectful and friendly, but some believed that because they own your art, they also own you too. These were the ones who usually expected you to suck up to them, so my social media presence is a way to “weed out” these types. Of course, I also like to make jokes for fun on twitter as well as well natured satire of actions and mentalities I see publicly and find to be pompous, toxic and hurtful to many people. But also, to quote Arnold Schoenberg “I can’t laugh as much with something as everyone else because I also know how to take it seriously”.
And beyond personal experiences, I firmly believe it’s important for artists to have the courage to express themselves as they please and especially be free to speak against authority and the status quo. I think it’s expected of them, in a way. Also, wasn’t crypto art and crypto itself supposedly built on this punk mentality of “giving the finger” to “the man” i.e. the banks, the 1%, the financial and other elites and all that crap. So, I believe it’s inconsistent to even talk about “typical sales tactics” and “strategies” in a space with such foundations but unfortunately here we are.
I would like to hope that my long-term success in the NFT space won’t be relevant to what I say but the quality and depth of my work and the perseverance of my continuous high quality consistent artistic production.
How do you reconcile the intangibility of NFTs with your earlier, more tactile forms of expression? Which one excites you more nowadays and where do you see both physical and digital Art headed?
I am still exploring this relationship between NFTs and physical work. I have been pairing older physical works with their NFT counterparts for quite some time now but especially since my recent decision to not use AI any more at all in my work, and instead replace it with fragments of physical techniques and textures, some pieces I am currently working on focus on that relationship specifically. I am flirting with the idea of the NFT and physical as complementary parts of one artwork that doesn’t exist fully in either realm. I think both forms of expression excite me equally as they have different strengths and weaknesses and the fusion between the two even more. I believe NFTs have helped digital art break free from the chains of “industry art” and enter the realm of “high brow” fine art and that is a very welcome development which I am excited to see where it leads. I believe we are still very early in this movement and the true masterpieces haven’t been revealed yet. In a similar vein, physical art and the IRL world can benefit a lot from the positive aspects of NFTs, especially the tech, the authorship and provenance validation they can provide. Finally, the possibilities of combining the two offer huge potential to all artists and I am sure we will see a lot more of that in the near future.
What is artistic success for you? What are your plans and dreams for your career?
When I was in my 20s, I dreamed of working as a full time artist and being represented by a big international gallery. Nowadays I would be content to have a big studio where I could paint and safely store large scale physical works. But something tells me I wouldn’t feel successful even if I had all of the above. Perhaps it’s my ADHD brain blocking all sense of achievement, but I really don’t know what artistic success is.
I can’t say I have any specific plans for my career, I am grateful to everyone who has supported me so far other than to keep on keeping on making art for as long as I can. And I seem to be able to do just that while being completely self-reliant, by paying the price of working in a different field for a few hours every day. It’s not bad and I can say I am happy with the way things are.
Having said that, I could never see art as just a “hobby”, a.k.a. as an enjoyable past time. For me making art is usually hard and when you’re striving for something deep and essential, it can be a very straining ordeal for the mind and body.
Given your extensive journey, if there was a singular message or emotion, you’d like your audience to derive from your art, what would it be?
I am going to be super original here and say “love” HAHAHAHA.
Yeah, no… I don’t think that is even possible as my work is all over the place in depth, style and subject matter. I have worked so hard all these years exactly in order to avoid having it reduced to anything singular (lol)…
But if I attempted to sum up my attitude and philosophy, rather than my art, I would say, I prefer to be interesting rather than “consistent”. I prefer to be a flawed person, who fails a lot, is sometimes dumb and smells in the armpits, but at least is real, rather than “a brand”.
Another thing that could count as my “message” especially to younger artists and collectors is that art is not fast food. It’s not an investment. It is not something you consume and comes out of your butt the next day. It’s not some vehicle to store one’s tax avoidance in. Or a vehicle to ride to the moon on. It is a vortex that sucks you in and spits your bones out the other end.
Any artwork is, potentially at least, something for generations to live with, to become better humans and learn from. A spiritual container of collective meaning that in the future could be an ancient handprint of our current ways. Something important, sacred and legendary.
Treat it as such.