- Cryptic, giant: "The Engine of the Earth" (detail), by Chris Kardambikis
Myths and legends, whether the Great Flood or the Fall of the Titans, are integral to working societies. A creation story seems to be both a source and product of communal solidarity. Given that, it takes serious creative ambition to go ahead and just make one up. In From Out of This Planet Earth, now on view at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, artist Chris Kardambikis has done just that.
Throughout the course of eight moderately large mixed-media drawings, grounded mostly in tertiary greens and lavenders but with deep blues and reds interspersed, the viewer sees only the highlights of this new Creation. Mostly he infers what sequence he can through the recurrence of some peculiar god-creatures; recognizable mythic and religious imagery, like sacrifice through physical mutilation; and such matter-of-fact titles as "The Birth of Herakles and the Departure of the Cosmic Hermaphrodite."
Unusually numerous limbs and eyes, and godly androgyny, are present (the Cosmic Hermaphrodite looks exactly like it sounds). So is the culturally ubiquitous importance placed on birth and rebirth and great journeys. "There's just as much give and take in my work between Greek, Egyptian, Mayan, Judeo-Christian and Comic mythologies," said Kardambikis in an interview.
That last reference is important: The artist's illustrative style is true to such super-heroic origins. In one piece, elaborate systems of cranks and levers and cryptic, giant boxes that could have been lifted from a '60s issue of The Avengers make up the so-called "Engine of the Earth." The fact that they coexist undisturbed with Kardambikis's curving, sinuous rock formations and brightly colored, tightly repeating geometric patterns testifies to the artist's skill with integrating disparate formal elements.
Beyond the exhibit's main body of eight drawings are three additional components, all comparably more static. In the series of five Atlantis Study pieces the artist constructs what look like set pieces for a further narrative. Perhaps Kardambikis has even more of a personal appendix of lore than he lets on, suggesting a Henry Darger-type eccentric with tomes of stashed-away storytelling. Or maybe he just knows how to tease an eager viewer loathe to give up tangible narrative potential.
The other two series, Celestial Map and Planets, respectively, provide more of this concept development. The first is a group of six ink-jet prints, Photoshopping zodiac cycles and the ever-present linear patterns in with comic-book landscapes and spacecraft, configuring and repeating imagery in diverse color and shape relationships. The second is a nine-piece, identically scaled, silk-screened portrait series of each planet in our solar system, as well as the sun, named in both English and ancient Greek. Ornamental-aesthetic liberties are taken based on the planets' particularities, like a red printed pattern that defines the rings of Saturn.
For the number of thematic and formal elements that converge in From Out of This Planet Earth, Kardambikis keeps a tight rein on rudiments like shape, color and composition. Background hues seem chosen to subtly reflect their scene's emotional quality, and the mainstay scenery of gadgetry and stalagmites bleed into flat decorative grids, or double as framing for individual scenes in the narrative. Pictorial clarity trumps the patchiness of the story, which itself exemplifies the artist's statement's idea of mythology as "malleable and participatory." Overall coherence takes a back seat, but only to open up those neural pathways to that potential for participation, and to point out that the most lastingly relevant stories aren't etched in stone. They're written in sand.
From Out of This Planet Earth continues through June 21. Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. 412-361-0873