Despina Stokou: Plenty to Say

Collage of 4 recent works by Berlin-based Greek artist, Desina Stokou (All images Copyright Artist)

In the art world, one of our faults is the incessant rush to compartmentalize all new artists by comparing them to similar artists. This duty is often undertaken with ritualistic fervor.

Only once a body of work has been tethered to the works of other artists can we sit back, take a longer look and try to critique the art for what it really is rather than confine it within the standards of other artists. While some of these references can be flattering, rarely does an artist appreciate the names of colleagues being the first words uttered upon initial viewing of his or her art. Forgers aside, of course.

We repeat this process every time, almost subconsciously. Every reviewer on the planet does this. No exceptions.

Likenesses and immediate recognition aren't necessarily evil, especially these days when too many dealers and collectors are dry-humping so much bland, easily accessible, formulaic work by prolific young stars who produce art that is polite, pretty and far more similar than it is different. Besides, artists have long worked together in genres, studios and movements. Artists collaborate. The works talk to each other and all that chatter, or so we are told.  Unique? Why bother anymore if familiarity and inclusion are nudging the outliers off the cliff?

When the work in question is loud and distinctive and has clear references to iconic artists, the pigeon-holing process is especially violent. Enter the screaming works of Despina Stokou, a young Greek artist based in one of the expressionist capitals of the art world, Berlin.

The most obvious reference points are the word painters dating back to the 70s as well as Jean Michel Basquiat and Twombly. Amongst more current artists, Bochner, Wool, Murillo, Emin And Hare come to mind. There, we said it, but in Stokou's case there's much more to discuss.

While Stokou's work has room to grow, there is already compelling evidence that she is a thinking person's artist much like the widely-acclaimed Jean Michel. Her works need not take a back seat to anyone and is difficult to frame. Whether it's her brazen wit, her compositional expertise or the rare ability to effectively use text both as communicative device and aesthetic object, there's clearly a future worth watching here. And she's still smiling, or is that an ominous smirk? Probably both. Stokou is only 36, a puppy by master's standards but already solidly mid-career in her technical development. What she may need to mold, or harness, is her critical processing. The art market is small but it has a long memory. It bends to criticism, much of it warranted, but it eventually snaps. We get the impression Stokou couldn't care less what critics say.

Leaving questions half-answered is not a bad thing for any young artist. Something tells us that Despina Stokou -- beneath the street punk grunge angst -- is very aware of the process of professional art career development. Attacking the inside from the outside almost always works in the oft masochistic art circuit. Her heart-on-sleeve, in-your-face outbursts are punctuated by a bright, almost hitherto abandoned color palette in many art centers. The textual content oscillates between carefully constructed statements and stream of conscience rambling, from impulse and intuition to systematic design. While not yet matching Basquiat's breadth of content material, she gets infinitely closer to matching his levels of emotion and wisdom than most of her contemporaries, the most obvious being current darling Oscar Murillo who once shared a hairstyle with JMB but very little else.

Stokou is not shy. She states her case and never cowers. Her brand's talking points include the dazzling, the bright and wacky but there's plenty of social angst that gives her work a relevant back bone. Like many artists over the past few decades, she can't resist those unapologetic swipes at the art industry. At least she works hard on her canvasses and lets them evolve, leaving us to graze the surface or delve deeper. This is a refreshing relief, quite unlike the copy-cat minimalists who also mock the art world but then attack the society's basic concepts of effort and talent while saying absolutely nothing of substance of their own in the process. Conversely, Stokou has plenty to say. No surprise that a roll-up-the-sleeves artist and consummate multi-format communicator like Stokou would make less than subtle back-handed references to some of her contemporaries. Sometimes artists pull those punches or pick different fights. In Stokou's defense, she's not making any criticisms that aren't widely shared.

It's easy to conclude that David Ostrowski's minimalist marks are lazy, or that Martin Creed's Turner Prize-winning Work No.227 (the room with the light switch) was disingenuous, or that Oscar Murillo sold out to the very caste system that he confronts throughout his work. The Euro vs. America snark is predictably boring, but that's a small matter that's easily ignored. Stokou's biting criticism certainly demonstrates her wit and her commitment to the current market. At least she stops short of burning American flags or defacing MacDonalds logos, neither of which serve any purpose in art. Ask Piers Morgan how that turned out for him!  

If there's to be any rub against a stellar artist with so much potential like Stokou, perhaps it's her overreaction. She seems to go out of her way to point out her disdain for certain types of lazy contemporary art yet errs to the other extreme by trying too hard, thereby losing her authoritative punch amongst unnecessary clutter. While her canvasses are lusciously dense, sometimes she's at her best (such as her show at Derek Eller Gallery) when she pulls back to let the negative space work for her and allow the viewers some space to process for themselves. These works are more focused, stripped down to singular ideals not unlike the word artists of the 60s and 70s that paved the way for the likes of Basquiat, Wool and Stokou's generation. Beyond the obvious aesthetic appeal, the works are also highly entertaining.

Where word-using artists like Krueger, Baldessari, Naumann, Wool, Holzer and Emin concentrate(d) on a single profound word or phrase, artists like Basquiat, Sean Landers, Terrance Sanders and now Despina Stokou blast out interwoven thoughts. Uniqueness arises not from the method but from new sources. Sanders concentrated on legal and race issues. Basquiat explored race but also science, class struggles, bohemia, star searching and the trials and tribulations of early adulthood. Stokou chooses her own contemporary targets. There's nothing particularly unique about the abuse of our environment, or male-female relationships, one-percenters, capitalism, materialism, imperialism or any of the other isms. The difference is that she names names. We won't give everything away since Stokou's work must be viewed live to be  appreciated. Suffice to say the paintings need to be read more than observed. Due to her technique of applying, smudging, erasing and reapplying, plus the use of collage and cut outs, internet viewing of her work is insufficient.

Many artists have profound statements to make. Stokou reads more like slam poetry. She creates complex bodies of content, not titles. Major focus points are rarely random even though she doesn't seem to allow even her most idle thoughts to slip away if there's an inch of space left within the frame. Stokou, like Basquiat and Emin, exposes herself.  The requisite social conscience is there, but her dialogue seems more personal than mere arms-length judgment. She reacts to issues rather than spout headlines. There's also an acknowledgement that, now in her mid-30s, Stokou and other rising artists can no longer deflect problems as mere byproducts of coming-of-age. She's a grown up now; the sincerity of her outcries will follow suit if her intent is to make a difference by offering solutions. The art world and the world at large can do without more idle complaints. We need solutions.

Despite the lengths she'll go to demonstrate that she relishes her rebellious, outsider stance, Stokou is in fact smack in the middle of the 21st century neo, post or post-post-neo call-it-what-you-will expressionist movement, the educated, street-smart gritty grungers who appeal to those like us who aren't sold on the minimal formalists who offer nary a scribble of  originality.  While her body of art to date is already very compelling, her work will continue to mature as she creates a canon to remember.

We're not sure if we'd call Despina Stokou's work painting. For us it's even better in many ways, representing the guts of an artist slashed onto walls for us to dissect, learn and converse. - Ed.


All images © Copyright Despina Stokou and her representatiing galleries including Derek Eller Gallery and Galeire EIGEN + Art
Additional Information and Sources:
Stokou is also Editor in Chief and Contributor at BPigs, a Berlin-based website for artists: