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Takis Mavrotas: Maritsa Travlos, Ceramics Sculpture 1990-2017

Ceramic art, with its age-old roots and longstanding tradition, continues  to  pose  a  challenge  to  creators  who  wish  to  go  beyond conventional boundaries and articulate a new form of aesthetic expression  with  vitality  and  verve. 

Ceramics  have  proven  to  be  the indisputable witness to cultural differentiations of the groups and communities  scattered  all  over  the  world  throughout  the  ages.  In archaic Greece, pottery had great works of art to show for itself, such as the black-figure vessels, while primarily  from the 5th century BC
onwards it was the red-figure vessels and white lecythoi that were unrivaled  in  elegance  and  completeness,  verifying  the  genius  and spirituality of their creators and highlighting.
The  tradition  of  Greek  ceramics  continued  uninterrupted  over  the centuries, seeking to bridge the gap between the utility of the object and its aesthetic rendering. The perfect plasticity of medieval Cypriot glazed ware (13 th -16 th  c.), as well as the ceramics originating from the workshops of the western coast of Asia Minor and the Aegean islands (17 th -19 th  c.), prove how significant it was. Artistic ceramics were revived in the 20 th  century by the great exponents of modern art, such as Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Chagall, Miro, Rouault and Bonnard; in Greece ceramics were also produced by artists such as Minas Avramidis, Panos Valsamakis, Ira Triantafyllidi, Panos Tsolakos, Eleni Vernadaki, Christos Kapralos, Christina Morali, Yorgos Mavroidis, and Alekos Fasianos, who placed emphasis on the poetry of plastic gesture and the conceptual significance of each work. With their creations, they established new forms of expression, enriching and consolidating the profile and content of modern and contemporary a rt.
Maritsa  Travlos  belongs  to  that  group  of  contemporary  artists which prefers to work with innocence and purity, in the silence of the studio, systematically avoiding publicity. So now for the first time, at the Benaki Museum, after many years of arduous and unrelenting exercise, she is exhibiting more than 500 small and large sculpted  forms  made  of  colored  porcelain,  fired  at  1250-1260 o C, grouped in thematic units that fill out her imaginative installations.
The artist herself realizes, of course, that every large-scale installation demands skill and experience for it to be compositionally and chromatically complete, and to balance and rhythmically shape the final image, as is the case for her large installation at the Benaki Museum of 120 dangling porcelain fish.
With daring and imagination, she has worked with intense colors, which  reflect  the  shining  quality  of  the  play  of  light,  focusing on the harmonious and balanced development of the installation with its vertical lines, creating an unprecedented unique atmosphere. The rhythmically repeated form of the fish, with their in tense and accentuated eyes, reveals Travlos’s  faith in the grandeur  of  nature’s  unsurpassable  beauty,  while  the  horizontal  development  of  the  installation  bespeaks  the  viewer’s  freedom  to feel the movement and the pulse of the fish, like the breeze of the wind. This hinted, potential movement multiplies the interpretational approaches to the work, which dominates the space, revealing the elements that occupy Travlos: light, volume, movement,
color, representational precision and the sense of harmony.
The vast sea is, after all, the inexhaustible source of her creativity.
For more than thirty years, Travlos has been using the painstaking techniques of ceramics to bring her visionary world to fruition. Her colorful creations, dynamic and solid, made mostly of porcelain but not excluding the comparatively fewer stoneware pieces—are inextricably intertwined with visual reality, with both the microcosm and the macrocosm. Her three-dimensional ceramics, entitled Fish, as well as her evocative Sea Urchins, transport us to the magical silence of the sea depths. The ceramist is enchanted by the sea’s mute attraction and colorful charm, its very essence and fathomless depths. Her porcelain forms, though autonomous in form, are always arranged in rows, depicting a world of similar objects, none of which, however, are identical. This repetition stresses the con-
ceptual meaning of each installation, revealing her concern for the final rendering of the image, the material and the texture. With the movement in her installations of delicate schools of fish, she brings to life the sense of eternity, the sense of constant motion and development. These are works with a strong sense of texture and color, of composition and density, of intensity and precision, in the face of nature’s grandeur. Their refined design, the skilful finishing, and
the resourcefulness in taking advantage of new methods of solving technical problems all fortify their elegance and rhythmic vitality.
The descriptive details in every fish or every sea urchin alone can define the work and energize the whole surface. All Travlos’s works are created with incredible pithiness, as if you are standing before a singular and salient painting proposal. For millennia the fish has been a religious symbol. In fact, the word delphos in ancient Greek meant both fish and womb. In addition, the Egyptian goddess Isis was also known as “The Great Fish of the Abyss”, while the Great Mother Guan Yin in China was at times depicted standing on a fish. In Christianity, the fish is the symbol of the life of “revealed divine truths”  and  conceals  many  meanings.  The  basic  characteristic  of Travlos’s fish are the strength of form and the color that remains intense and vivid, bright and alive.
Optimistic and daring, Travlos creates her own world. She always works with a huge palette of vibrant colors, suffusing her creations with the heart and soul of Greece. Translucency and light are the main features of her oeuvre as also is her skill in juxtaposing them harmoniously, as if she is working with mosaic tiles, placing one color next to the other. At the same time, she meticulously controls all the successive processing stages, avoiding the undesired cracks from the contractions and expansions, to be led, after much sanding and delicate finishings, to the final outcome. Her forms are  grouped  in  thematic  units,  each  time  composing  with  care and precision an environment with a unique pulse. Nothing in her work is accidental and a reflective stance unites everything as if she is following the Christian phrase “for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17-18). Therefore, the sensuality of the plastic gesture and her profound knowledge of using clay signal her familiar style and define her position in the development of contemporary Greek ceramics. At the same time, she enriches her work with her ceramic two-dimensional paintings, with intense colors and abstract style along with her few representational seascapes, which remind one of the words of the poet Giorgos Seferis “The sea, the sea, who will be able to drain it dry?”
An exception to the aquatic theme is Portrait of Marianna, stressing the individual characteristics of the young girl and rendering the expressive power of her eyes, the serenity and calm, as if reflecting the innocence of her soul. These are works that convince the beholder that throughout her career the ceramist, without exaltations, with ruminative calmness, internalization, and moderation, sought the meaning of the visible world.
Travlos is no stranger to the structure of large architectural spaces and does not hesitate to intervene in them, at times with imposing ceramic light fixtures and at others with gigantic wall art. In these monumental works, her efforts, personal techniques, conquests and visionary world are justified. With ease and virtuosity she manages in her monumental in dimension compositions to balance the volumes with her solid and studied design, and her frugal and strongly structured shapes. She molds her forms with gusto, without falling prey to decorative impulses and arbitrary shapes, since what she doggedly seeks  is  the  essence  of  reality.  She  is  directly  concerned  with  the meaning of her work and its presentation in space. She is, of course, well aware that the natural surroundings in Greece are so plastically beautiful that it diverts our gaze outwards, towards the unsurpassable  beauty  of  the  landscape,  and  less  inwards.  Yet,  she  attempts to strike a harmonious synthesis of the inner and the outer. Not to mention that ceramics is a demanding manual art, a painful job with many unexpected surprises because of the way high temperatures affect the sensitive materials of porcelain and stoneware, the gleam of the colors and the texture of each work.
Truth of vision and sincerity in conveying impressions are familiar features of her work. She appropriates classic and modern elements without mimicking them, but assimilates what she needs to renew her expressive means. In addition, she is persistently concerned with rhythm in her relief wall paintings, which she creates in an internalized way, carefully avoiding repetition and verbosity, with ascetic chromatic steadfastness and attention to texture, as in the large outdoor ceramic wall in the Athens suburb of Kifissia. Her dense plastic conception with frugal forms, absolutely suited to the general structure of the composition, reveals another side of her work since from autonomous forms she proceeds to a monumental anthropocentric frieze. Figures lose their individual features, as if they are yielding to the force of life as a constant and unalterable essence of reality. Thus, she freely and consistently confronts the universe, bypassing the particular point in time.
Travlos’s ceramic light fixtures do not bore the viewer with repetition, since  no  ceramic  form  is  identical  to  another  and  each  one  separately bears with it a whole world of images, ranging from the flight of bees and butterflies to swimming fish. At the same time, their substance is reinforced by an almost milky golden light reminiscent of candlelight. Light, colors and shapes recreate impressions. Travlos knows  that  experience  is  not  enough;  what  is  needed  is  correctly
exploiting knowledge through experience so that a creator can arrive at an aesthetic result that convinces the beholder of its unnegotiable worth. These are dynamic forms of life’s everyday functions, crafted with special style and superior quality, smoothly integrating with the Greek surroundings. These colorful light fixtures, inspired and inventive, invite a dialogue between the real and the fantastical, expanding the relationship of electric light with ceramics and space itself.
Travlos is conscious of her mission, which she carries out with steadfastness  and  conscientiousness.  She  often  says,  “Porcelain  always remembers.” And so, she creates works whose technical rendering obeys  a  deeper  inner  discipline  and  not  the  ease  of  the  hand  experienced in technique. Indomitable and refreshing, she continually expresses what she feels with sincerity: the beauty of the world and its hidden holiness. Her works are based on moderation, the balance of bright and vivid colors that fill with light and emit an attractive radiance, and the harmony with humankind and its human essence;
although the human form is missing, its presence is felt. She consciously maintains that in life all things are part of a cycle and that, at times, people await the season of sowing and, at others, the season of reaping. To wit, in a monumental stoneware mirror a plethora of forms reveals the human geography of everyday life with figures in multi-colored enamel, which hint that in art no one ever grows old. The huge crowd of brightly colored forms, around the edges of the mirror is characterized by incredible vivacity, boundless expressions and gestures, as if they were “people that speak”.
In fact, the mirror, as an object in itself, has occupied the artist for many years with all the metaphysical and existential questions it provokes, perhaps because she also considers it a means that enables self-discovery. Smaller-scale mirrors  add to this thematic unity, borrowing elements from the sea world, also made of stoneware in an ascetic monochromatic mood. Her ceramics speak through forms made to signal not only their presence but also their essence in time, space and desire. Her ceramics neither explain nor describe, but rather summarize and reveal the artist’s own experiences, her love of the visual, of light and of translucency. Her faith in and love for humankind and art perhaps expresses an act of grace towards life. And art is the infallible mirror that reflects the truth and
throws it back.
The great reformer of Greek ceramics, Christos Kapralos, often said, “I definitely have many commissions, which do not, however, bring me a profit, since I usually give them to myself.” All creators who respect art devote themselves to it with all their might, revealing their own personal truths. From the early ‘90s Travlos has worked ceaselessly with clay in her studio in Aphidnes, with the tireless and inspired ceramists Fotis Lykos and Kostas Papadimitriou at her side. What concerns her is the essence of reality, the clean, strong color that highlights the values of painterliness and, at the same time, good design that highlights the essence of form. Her dynamic personality keeps her from being afraid to tackle simple themes.
Thus, with a sense of humor and a decorative tendency, with mastery and swiftness, she creates her own useful objects, like the Pair of Frogs  and the Pair of Sea Urchins  salt and pepper shakers, lending them spontaneous and attractive grace through their kaleidoscopic colors. Laughter and joy, the other side of reality, are like a ray of light in the self-contained confirmation of life.
Greek and Far Eastern ceramics have taught Travlos the value of usefulness and aesthetics, of the rhythm and harmony of the charm of clay. This multi-form and multi-faceted art continually brings her up  against  the  art  of  her  ancestors:  with  the  spirit,  the  ideal  and its indestructible values, with the meaning of the beautiful and the good. For about thirty years she has lived surrounded by clay and kilns, showing respect for this timeless material that battles with
fragility to earn a place in eternity. She works ceaselessly with passion and determination, giving precedence to research, experimentation, the transformation of matter and translucency. In her hands, porcelain—this  widespread  industrial  material—acquires  artistic substance since its fine grain and smooth texture directly serve her visionary expectations.
Ceramics, for Travlos, are not a craft, but an art; they are the continual, feverish battle between the real and the imaginary, the harmonious symbiosis of sculpture and painting, the optimistic exploration of life, joy and hope.

Takis Mavrotas
Visual Arts Director
B. & M. Theocharakis Foundation for the Fine Arts and Music
Translated from Greek by Thalia Bisticas