The Historic New Orleans Collection is asking you to take a seat. On a stoop. And next to an artist. Their series “Stoop Stories,” which is held inside the 520 Royal Street space, started in May and will continue until September with artists like Gina Phillips, Hannah Chalew, and Krista Jurisich — just to name a few — heading to the stoop ready to talk.
The premise is clear-cut. There is a three-hour time frame when you can go in, sit on the fabricated stoop the Historic New Orleans Collection built, and you have a conversation with the artist that’s holding down the stoop for that hour.
On May 11 the ambiguities of shapes and the connection between movement and perception were on my mind, so I took those questions to the stoop — with painter and sculptor James Michalopoulos as my conversational partner.
Having arrived in New Orleans in 1981, Michalopoulos took to the streets and began with sketches of artists and of houses and street corners. His portrayal and portraits of shotgun houses and Creole cottages always strike me as having a Cheshire quality — the windows of his painted houses possibly watching us as we walk by or the balconies he paints laughing at the sweet devilry (or maybe not so sweet devilry) of the French Quarter. As Michalopoulos explains, “…my style is an abstraction of the figurative. I like color, volumetric shape, and graphic lines.”
It was these lines — which in Michalopoulos’s work, I find ask the viewer to reexamine what one defines as a line — I wanted to discuss.
I’ve often mentally fawned over the fact that so much of human-made materials are based off a square or a rectangle — houses, desks, floor boards, pianos, books; I mean the list goes on and on — yet, in nature one rarely encounters these straight, defined lines. Instead, we get movement through curves, shapes with no names, and a flow that I also find in Michalopoulos’s paintings.
“Things have an apparent existence,” Michalopoulos says, “and then they have perhaps another level of existence. A lot of what we perceive to be so is not actually so.” That idea unfolded after Michalopoulos and I started to micro-analyze what we see in nature and how it could be interpreted as possibly “square” or “rectangular,” depending on how the viewer looks at it. “It is a true to us,” Michalopoulos says, but that of course does not mean our perception or view is true in the fundamental sense.
We have sensory mechanisms when we look at an object, but our viewing and interaction with a physical entity that means something to us carries more than we can see. For Michalopoulos, when he stands before a house, he sees and perceives the sagging balcony, the dilapidated shutters, the peeling paint, and the crooked windows in an inimitable manner that he then gets to translate into colors, shapes, and I’d argue, even language for the rest of us to view and interact with. “For me, the opportunity isn’t standing before something; [it’s] that I become present to something beyond its surficial qualities,” Michalopoulos says. He wants to get into the “diaphanous nature” of what he observes because when we get right down to the science of it, a line is much more than a line.
Like everything we see or hear or feel, a line is a vibration in space filled with unseen material; yet, it appears as something solid. There’s more than literally meets the eyes, and a great artist can make that invisible nature somehow present in their work. Perhaps that is why Michalopoulos’s giclees make our eyes feel like they’re coated with a fisheye lens, or why his paintings sway as if each stroke of paint holds color and wind. He uses movement of his hands to create something still; although, the playful nature in some of his work resembles dancing.
Sometimes Michalopoulos has an agenda about an expression; other times, his agenda is to allow the circumstance to inspire him and for him to inspire that circumstance.
As our conversation and Michalopoulos’s “stoop time” came to a close, the words of Anais Nin came to my mind. “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” Nin said. So the next time you wander through the French Quarter and compress the view of the sweating and sunburn tourists, the timeless glow of the gas lanterns, or the bursting colors that alter with each step, maybe know that you’re seeing yourself as much as you’re seeing what’s in view.
You can learn more about James Michalopoulos by visiting his website or heading over to his gallery at 617 Bienville. “Stoop Stories” will be taking place at The Historic New Orleans Collection on Saturday, June 15 from 1:00 to 4:00 PM. The artists in session will be Carl Joe Williams (1:00 – 2:00 PM); Judy Cooper (2:00-3:00 PM); and Max Bernardi (3:00-4:00 PM). For a full listing of “Stoop Stories,” check out The Historic New Orleans Collection website.