As the New York artist prepares for a solo show in Brussels, ARTEEZ uncovers the influences and events shaping his architectural landscapes.
“The events of 911 rocked my world. What I realised was that buildings could be seen as people, with a life cycle from conception to death. From then on, all buildings became interesting to me.”Dean Monogenis
Listening to the artist Dean Monogenis is like diving into the pages of a book that’s impossible to put down. Each spoken chapter reveals a diegesis worthy of any enthralling coming-of-age narrative. In the same way, the architectural paintings he creates featuring real and imagined landscapes provoke an intense yearning to explore the idealised settings they portray.
Based in and around New York (the location is given away by a steady, East Coast accent), Monogenis chats openly about his early years in Queens where he was born in 1973, how he grew up in Manhattan, attended art school in Chicago before returning to Brooklyn where he finds himself today. In between, he has travelled widely, something he relishes and a passion probably owed in part to his Greek heritage. His story begins with grandparents who left the small Aegean island of Nisyros to settle in the borough of Queens. His financier father and mother, a psychologist who attended Columbia University, moved to Manhattan when Monogenis was nine years old. With evidently more awe than fondness, the artist recalls being forced to grow up independently in the city, left to ride the subways alone to his school back in Queens.
“I used to take the IRT no.6 out to school. It was scary for a kid, I was always being mugged! but I was inquisitive about the things I would see on these journeys. I saw a lot of graffiti on billboards with peeled-back posters and advertisements. I noticed all these little cartoon drawings in white chalk. Later on I bought a pin of a baby and realised that the characters I’d been seeing were by Keith Haring”.
The experience nurtured a childhood curiosity about what art could be. “It was on a visit to the Whitney when I saw a painting by Kenny Scharf called When the Worlds Collide that I started to think about how this work could be allowed as art” he explains. Monogenis also recalls a lucky childhood friendship. “I knew someone who lived next door to Calder. The artist would cut up used coffee cans and make toys for my friend. These and works like Cirque showed me a real playfulness in his art.”
Monogenis visited galleries from an early age, sometimes with his father. “He liked figurative painting, he was a fan of Hopper and Charles Sheeler… I attached myself to the level of clarity and exactitude I saw in Sheeler’s works”.
Despite a mutual interest in art, Monogenis admits that becoming an artist was not a choice supported by his parents. “My grandparents had arrived in America as immigrants and worked as a waiter and secretary. My Dad had a critical eye on what you were supposed to do, something ‘stable’ as my parents saw it. I had no support when it came to choosing art as a career. That was difficult for me”.
At seventeen, Monogenis enrolled at Skidmore, a liberal arts college in Upstate New York but left after a year and a half. With the undaunted conviction of youth, he drove out to Northern California for a year. While there he applied to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“Going through that process, I understood the history of the school. Some of the teachers were from the period of the Chicago Imagists. It helped me figure out that I didn’t want to make abstract paintings. Instead, they represented what I did want which was to learn to paint“ he explains. Yet the still life, nude drawing and academic focus didn’t fit with the artist’s ambitions. “I wanted to paint from my imagination, from pop cultures or cartoons” he recollects.
Philip Guston’s representational paintings from the seventies were hugely relevant to Monogenis and the young artists. So too was Peter Saul, whose iconoclastic art and predilection for going against the current had a profound influence on the students. “He cracked me open” enthuses Monogenis. “Some of the professors had commented that my art was too commercial, but Peter told me to be myself going out in the world”.
After graduating in 1996, Monogenis returned to Williamsburg. “When real estate in Manhattan became too expensive in the nineties, there was a big wave of artists, musicians, and writers who moved out towards Brooklyn to find commercial space to live in – often illicitly! When I first moved to Williamsburg, it was an edgy art community and people didn’t have a lot of money.”
Fast-forward to today and the area is the beating heart of New York’s art scene with over sixty galleries staking their presence. In 2014, Olivier Babin’s Clearing moved to a 5,000-square-foot former truck repair depot in the borough and Luhring Augustine Gallery opened a second space on Knickerbocker Avenue. As demand for property rises, rents are inevitably higher which, says Monogenis is pushing artists further east to Ridgewood, Sunset Park or Gowanas.
“Artists need a community to create ways to help one another, to have their work seen together, be able to stand in the face of larger things happening in a collaborative way. I like the intensity of a real artist community”.
The studio he shares with his wife, the Spanish artist Pepa Prieto in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighbourhood occupies one of the quarter’s traditional warehouses which were converted into studios around 2000 (the sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard is just around the corner). “It’s very vibrant and remains community-spirited, it’s a good place to be”.
Moving from Chicago back to New York, Monogenis worked for a clothing company in Manhattan’s garment district.
“Joining EDMC gave me a reason to return to New York. I was doing photo shoots, photographing people, working with make-up artists. And I was still painting. It got me thinking about how I could shift into doing something seriously”.
The paintings informed by his daily environment, based on digitally manipulated photos of friends and circus performers achieved early success.
It was after leaving when he was waiting tables at Diner on Broadway in Brooklyn that he got his first break. One of the regular customers was a gallerist at Farrell Pollock Fine Arts. The portraits Monogenis showed at the gallery sold out.
Figurative paintings made way for interior scenes and exterior landscapes, but what happened next changed the artist’s view on the world forever.
In 2001, Monogenis witnessed first-hand the catastrophic events of 911. “The World Trade Center was built in the same year I was born. I remember the process of architectural displacement as the ground was dug out so deep and wide. The soil was moved to the shore of the Hudson to create Battery Park City. As a kid I used to skateboard in the plaza on the Embankment”.
Two years prior to 911, he had worked as a DJ at Windows on the World on the top floors of the North Tower. With a deeply personal attachment to the building, its devastation, he says “rocked his world”.
“On the morning of that day, I had been staying in Manhattan. I saw the smoke and fire as I walked against the flow of human traffic back to my studio in Williamsburg. The second plane hit as I continued home. Through the windows of my studio, I watched the Twin Towers collapse”.
“In a very surreal sense, that finality and passing brought with it a feeling that the dying was done. What I realised was that the buildings could be seen as people, with a life cycle from conception to death. From then on, all buildings became interesting to me”.
Monogenis found the ensuing government response both deplorable, yet strangely normalising. The rampant development under the Bloomberg mayoralty resulted in widespread transmutation of the urban landscape. His own reaction to the tragedy was fundamental to his artistic rationale. “I wanted to own this thing that had happened, to resurrect something positive and new out of it. I had to work out what to say as an artist”.
It came together in 2003. New, colourful building materials, like insulation and netting appearing out of the greyness of the city caught his attention.
“I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of old and new structures during the construction phase. The city had an odd, temporary quality to its visual arrangements. Buildings looked skeletal, the bare bones remains of the office blocks and residences they had once been. With the fall of the towers, nothing felt stable in my universe”.
The construction sites and memory of the Twin Towers gave Monogenis the reasons he needed to create work which resonated with the events going on in his life.
With a few exceptions, architecture figures universally throughout his body of work. Be it an interior of a swimming pool, urban canals, patios, oasis-like shelters, unfinished or residential buildings, Monogenis readily lifts and repositions these man-made subjects against the grounding beauty of nature. Big skies, cloud formations, distant islands or rocky outcrops preoccupy stylised compositions. Other natural motifs sit amongst graphic grid systems and palm tree apparitions or floating, tree-like clouds support structural carcasses. As unconventional as they appear, his sleek, considered environments reassure through the precise lines and angles which pull them together. “I create a different way of seeing” he affirms.
One example which features in his upcoming show in Brussels this month is Portrait of a Famous Building (2019) which frames New York’s Lever House against a rugged, mountainous backdrop in Gstaad. “It’s one of my favourite buildings in New York City and one of the few you can see in its entirety from across the street.”
On a smooth Dibond surface, Monogenis poetically fuses the two opposing elements, reinforcing the effect by a green monotone palette (except, that is, for a few windows lit in yellow which hint at the life inside).
Describing the architecture of New York as cavernous and canyon-like, it’s clear how the city in which he was raised has informed his artistic odyssey. In the nineties in Williamsburg, Monogenis recalls how the fire department would be called in to investigate the safety of property. “Some of the buildings would be condemned” he says. The Gretsch Building, built in 1916 as a musical instrument factory which today is home to many artists and celebrities, was one of them.
“Places would be decked in orange and green extension cables which were plugged into street lamps to provide electricity when the main supply was cut. The image of these colourful lines linking a building to something beyond its boundary stuck with me”.
The cables would eventually appear in Monogenis’ paintings as fine, semi-circular ‘strings’. Serving as visual devices like the stripes, broken glass, arrows, scaffoldings or other motifs which punctuate his compositions, they exist to solve a compositional problem.
“They create energy and movement to draw the viewer’s eye to a different place. The strings also refer to how a building communicates beyond the pictorial plane, or between two buildings”.
A chance encounter in a lift in the early 2000s when Monogenis moved back to Manhattan provided a new impetus for his work. A leaking radiator caused during the renovation of his Chelsea apartment required some remedial work to his neighbour’s ceiling. Monogenis fixed the leak, re-plastered and painted. That neighbour was Sean Scully. Monogenis worked for the next eight years as the Dublin-born artist’s studio assistant, producing designs such as Wall of Light Cubed from 2007, a gigantic installation which sits in the sculpture park at Château La Coste in Provence. The stained glass nave window in Girona cathedral is also his design.
“In 2013, I did a work called Myrtle Beach. I was picking up a friend before heading back to New York. The beach is lined with high-rise condos and I was interested in the juxtaposition between these towering dwellings and the prime South Carolina coastline. The background in this painting is quite unique. I introduced geometric pastels using vertical and horizontal lines to demarcate the fictitious form from the real landscape. In this painting, you can see the Scully influence.”
In a poignant link to his heritage, Monogenis’ paintings were first shown in Europe in 2012 at Xippas Gallery in Athens. This latest solo exhibition presents nine new works at the gallery founded by Renos Xippas and Albert Baronian in the Belgian capital’s Ixelles quarter. The idea for the show arose when Monogenis revisted a small painting made during a stay in Saint Lucia in 2013 called Remedy.
“The painting came back to me and had a personal connection” he explains. “It was an unscripted opportunity to look back and contemplate, it gave me some breathing space to consider how to take my work forward”.
Depicting a cove, it inspired this latest series of enlarged, frontal views in the show. Unusually, it makes no explicit reference to architecture. What instantly relates it to Monogenis is the striped linearity applied to the water in the middle ground of the composition. Set within the angular geometry of a mountain range, its impression is both escapist and strikingly unorthodox.
Monogenis describes his paintings as composite images created from references he finds on the internet or from personal travels. Before the Getty Fire 2020 portrays the eponymous museum, near where he and his wife were staying when the fires began.
“What unfolded was traumatic for so many people. Rather than taint the memory of the place with the ensuing devastation, I wanted to pay tribute to the building so I painted it at night, lit by the moon.”
One senses the importance and respect Monogenis holds for the buildings he paints.
With works primarily on wood panel, the artist uses tape to achieve a precise visual aesthetic. He has also done sculptural work and in 2014 produced City Pillars for an outdoor art exhibition on Randall Island. The group of seven rectilinear forms hovered just above the ground representing the boroughs of New York City and the East and Hudson rivers. In 2017, he famously wood-chipped nine paintings to create an installation at Walter Maciel Gallery in Los Angeles. With a humorous gesture, the remnants were arranged next to an acrylic on wood panel entitled Long Gone 2017. Whatever the medium, connectivity remains at his core.
Delving into the places Monogenis paints is to journey near and far, between reality and fantasy, urbanisation and nature and the architectural mythos of the past, present and future. As modern day landscapes evolve, Monogenis remains constantly in our time.
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