Paul Anagnostopoulos breathes new life into the Greek vase in his debut solo show, When Heroes Fall, at the Dinner Gallery. Painting mythological scenes with queer subtexts onto terra cotta pots from Greece, he explores 21st-century gay romance in a fresh way. Although the exhibition includes several paintings, the two vases in the back room are its standout works. These painted terra cottas are rife with rich allegory to unpack — whether you’re LGBTQ+ or not.
The first vase explores romantic loss in three images. While Anagnostopoulos is familiar with the ancient convention of painting vases on two sides, he felt this left too much empty space on the vessel. Instead, he opted to decorate the vases with three distinct paintings that can be viewed in the round.
The first subject is Ganymede, Zeus’s gay lover and cup bearer. The predominantly black silhouette, with yellow highlights, is an homage to Ancient Athens’s black figure style. Water that Ganymede pours from a pitcher connects this image to the next two vignettes. In one, two men wrestle in shallow water; in the other, a nude man wading in the water discovers the head of Apollo.
Anagnostopoulos’s reference to Ganymede is a symbolic warning. Just as Zeus relied upon Ganymede to give him the divine nectar he was missing, relationships can become fraught when we rely upon the other to give us the magic ingredient we lack ourselves. Inevitably, what starts out as generosity soon degenerates into a power struggle as the commitment is tested. This imbalance is symbolized by the painting of the two men wrestling. Poignantly, one is bearing the weight of the other. In the last image, a nude pink figure comes upon a head broken off from a statue of Apollo. This scene represents our capacity after breakups to find what was missing on our own. How can we meet our own needs instead of relying on someone else to bear our weight? The work’s title, “See You in the Undertow,” refers to how we get pulled into the codependent psychodynamics with our Ganymedes, just as surfers get pulled into the ocean’s undertow, instead of learning how to fill our own cups.
In the second vase, the artist draws upon mythology to propose a more successful formula for gay love. The first image in “Follow You Into the Sun” portrays Dionysus. The second scene features two wrestlers embracing, in contrast to the conflict shown in the other vase. A fragmented bust with yellow flowers is depicted in the last vignette. The title suggests turning toward the warmth and light.
Whereas Ganymede introduces a cautionary tale, Dionysus allegorizes a winning strategy. More than just the god of wine, Dionysus was also the deity of theater and was known by the Λυσιος epithet: “The One Who Sets One Loose.” Dionysus was understood to induce ecstasies in his devotees that loosened the grip of their traumas. This first image asks how a gay relationship might be structured to share this sacred catharsis that releases the pain of the past. The wrestlers who embrace sensually in the second scene pose the question: How can queer couples develop and maintain an ecstatic sexual relationship as their love story unfolds? In the final vignette, yellow wildflowers blossom on the fragmented head. How might fragility and joy coexist?
In these two vases, Anagnostopoulos presents innovative metaphors to gay men seeking love. Perhaps this dichotomy between Ganymede and Dionysus can be illuminating to individuals who don’t identify as queer men as well. It’s a welcome respite from so much gay art that is essentially beefcake with a pretentious cherry on top. As Hollywood continues to struggle to put forth gay characters and gay stories with any actual depth, it’s worth a trip to Chelsea to engage with these truly unique vases and the model they suggest for a successful gay love life.
Paul Anagnostopoulos: When Heroes Fall continues at Dinner Gallery (242 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 29. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.