The tired, weather-worn buildings that housed longterm patients at Goldwater Memorial Hospital since 1939 are gone. With a bird’s-eye view from the Tram, Roosevelt Islanders see that fresh soil has been dug up on the world-class technology campus that Cornell University will build. Fittingly, to celebrate its official groundbreaking, the university commissioned "Tropicália," an installation by Peter D. Gerakaris, an artist whose reputation is also world-class, if of much shorter duration.
Gerakaris, a New Hampshire native whose father is an artist-blacksmith and mother a photographer, is also a Cornell alumnus (2003) with a master’s in Fine Art from Hunter College (2009), and is admired for his innovative, pop-botanic style. His earlier work has been acquired for permanent collections in places as diverse as Gabon, Hong Kong, Cleveland, and Portland. Last year, his "Rappaccini Origami Terrarium: A Site-Specific Installation" filled windows at Bergdorf Goodman’s high profile Fifth Avenue store, beckoning strollers inside.
Working with curator Kendal Henry over the past week, Gerakaris has transformed Gallery RIVAA, filling traditional viewing areas into a mind-expanding arena of visual fascination and surprise. According to the university’s announcement, Tropicália is a “bellwether for the university’s presence by fusing art, technology, place, and community” on Roosevelt Island.
“Aside from the Nature-Culture dynamics and global themes that frame most of my work, the project is meant to be experiential,” Gerakaris told The WIRE, “People will naturally come to their own conclusions and bring their own associations, all of which are valid. My job is to make the work stimulating enough to encourage multiple visits; I strive to layer my work such that numerous meanings are revealed over time.”
Earlier, smaller-scale works from Gerakaris’ "Mask Series," mounted on the gallery’s columns, cue the 1,000-square-foot groundbreaking installation, seeding its core theme. His ambitions for the work are large: “The mask paintings invert the notion of a mask by projecting our inner psyche on an exterior meant to conceal. By conflating an abundance of disparate cultural icons into one aesthetic, I aim to construct ‘global masks’ for our era.”
It’s no small task, and the 1,000-square-foot measure misleads by underestimating its visual adventurousness. Tucked inside the sprawling work are unexpected vistas seen only from certain angles, organically inspired combinations and expressions meant to tease the eye and play with the imagination. For a fuller perspective, ChromaDepth 3-D glasses that are provided coax the art to lift off the walls.
Gerakaris work has been described as kaleidoscopic, but that hardly explains what visitors will see at RIVAA. “These hand-generated oil paintings,” the first step in creation here, says the artist, “are complex optical amalgams, woven of conceptual threads that synthesize nature-culture themes with a more personal cosmology.”
But even a thousand words will not come close to approximating the picture. A factor in "Tropicália"’s eye-popping versatility is Gerakaris’ digital scans of his original paintings, which are tossed together like a visual salad and enlarged, using industrial printing techniques, before papering RIVAA’s walls with the resulting murals. The artist’s passion for vivid color enriches the space from any angle.
Facing the street, as passersby have noticed in recent days, "Tropicália" flirts with the eye, drawing them in. The effect has only increased as the installation expanded.
“I’ve come to appreciate how the gallery space serves as a creative beehive external to the future campus site. Secondly, I’ve found the community to be incredibly friendly, diverse, and international – like a microcosm of the melting pot that is NYC,” Gerakaris observes. “I even learned the Island was once home to Kofi Annan and many other U.N. diplomats, so I see tremendous potential in merging Cornell’s and the community’s global perspectives.”
As its future home is undetermined, seeing "Tropicália" during its groundbreaking exposure on Roosevelt Island may be an art lover’s last good chance to enjoy it. Says Gerakaris, “A dream scenario would be to adapt some (or all) of the Tropicália vignettes for the future campus, and even possibly other sites on the Island in need of further ‘placemaking’ or aesthetic intervention” – but who knows.
"Tropicália"’s opening reception is today (Saturday, June 20) from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. at Gallery RIVAA, 527 Main St. It will remain on view until July 31. Gallery hours are Wednesday and Friday 10:00 a.m.-noon, 1:00-4:00 p.m., and 6:00- 9:00 p.m. and weekend days from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Artist’s web site: petergerakaris.com
Artist’s Instagram feed: instagram.com/petergerakaris