Rapt in Color
by Megan Valentine • Curator and Registrar, Alexandria Museum of Art
Despite the fact that he studied painting at the New Orleans Academy and University of New Orleans, James Michalopoulos considers himself a “a self-taught artist who never stopped learning.” His mindset comes through in his work, as he does not treat his subjects with the scholarly pretense of many artists. Rather he incorporates his training and inspiration from artists who came before to create something entirely new. As the son of an architect, he pays precise attention to the detail and structure in each building, but that is never the focus.
Michalopoulos paints for himself, and this comes through in his work. The paintings exude personality and feeling. With his palette knife, James Michalopoulos creates scenes which draw you in and encourage your imagination to wander freely.
Michalopoulos’ paintings captivate you with detail and emotion. His work hearkens back to the impressionist and expressionist artists, depicting his surroundings with expressive color, emotion, and large strokes of his palette knife. Even with the historic connection, his work also reaches forward, incorporating contemporary values which require a constant flood of data through his connection to entertainment, modern culture, and irresistible detail. This flood of data is extended through the titles of his work, which often incorporate made up words, encouraging you to continue probing the work to reach the true meaning of the title. Because of this, Michalopoulos has a unique quality which allows him to appeal to a very wide audience, catching the eye of the newest art viewer and the seasoned art critic alike.
I met James Michalopoulos in 2014 as we were preparing for an exhibition of his work at the Alexandria Museum of Art where I was the recently hired curator. Although I had seen digital images of his work, I fell in love with his paintings the first time I saw one in person. Michalopoulos is one of those artists whose work is experienced in an entirely different way in person than through a digital image. The brush strokes and detail certainly come through in an image, but it is the thick, impasto paint and allure of the painting in front of you that completely draw you in. His gallery in New Orleans almost overwhelmed me at first, as there were so many paintings vying for my attention that I didn’t know where to look first. Each work calls for a long period of examination and appreciation. Even after spending a great deal of time with the works in our exhibition, I continued to find details that I had not previously noticed, giving me deeper appreciation for each piece.
One of Michalopoulos’ more well-known subjects is the architecture of New Orleans. This is not a new practice by any means, but these paintings do not simply depict the city streets. After moving to New Orleans, Michalopoulos spent a period using the city itself as his studio. He carried his supplies on a scooter equipped with an easel. He painted much of the architecture at night, simply because it was cooler, listening to music throughout his painting sessions. This practice comes through clearly in his work, with the loose quality and movement in each scene.
His houses dance and sway with the inherent rhythm of the city, incorporating passion into every stroke. You can’t help but hear the jazz that fills New Orleans streets when you look at one of these homes because they radiate the spirit of the city. While some homes offer a bright, welcoming presence, others loom mysteriously, inviting those curious enough to look further into their depths and ponder what lies within. Michalopoulos is an expert with color, incorporating a varied palette to bring forth the perfect mood to each subject.
His portraits delve into the subject, the dense, color-filled marks exposing much more than the two dimensional image, capturing the spirit of the person. His animals, cars, and still lifes are the same. Each work pulses with an almost undefinable quality, drawing you to it and almost daring you to look further.
Michalopoulos’ style developed further after he began spending his summers in the French countryside. During his summers, he paints the beautiful countryside in an even more abstracted and expressionistic manner. These paintings truly verge on expressionism, evoking references to the landscapes of Van Gogh through their thick strokes, swirls of color, and robust movement. These thick impasto scenes must be viewed from a distance and up close to get the full measure of the work. When viewed from a distance, you experience the full landscape with all its beauty and animation. Up close the painting becomes an entirely new entity, with thick paint and loose swatches of color, creating a tactile response.
When hosting tours of the Michalopoulos exhibition at the Alexandria Museum of Art, I had visitors start at the opposite end of the large gallery from one of Michalopoulos’ more abstracted countryside landscapes. I then had them walk slowly toward the painting without taking their eyes off of it. This action showed viewers the incredible difference that a work can have depending on how you look at it, and the depth of appreciation each viewer had for the painting increased drastically through this simple action. Allow your curiosity and imagination to lead you as you experience the work of James Michalopoulos for yourself. It will lead you to greater depths within each piece than you would think from first glance.
As many artists do, Michalopoulos continues to develop his incredible talent in a variety of ways. He is a prolific painter, creating entrancing paintings from New Orleans and his home in France. He expanded into sculpture a little over a decade ago, crafting whimsical steel works that continue his appreciation for nature. These abstracted figures swoop and sway just as his paintings, radiating with color and personality like the man himself. His smaller sculptures utilize this same movement and whimsy, turning a simple figure into something completely new and intriguing.
Let each work transport you to the world of Michalopoulos’ creation, as it is a journey worth taking.
Michalopoulos, James, Jim Cass, Jennifer Blow, and Ze Daluz. Michalopoulos. New Orleans: Cattywompus Press, 2003. Print.
Stephen Faure, James Michalopoulos: Adventures in Painting, Inside Northside Sept/Oct 2012
 Stephen Faure, James Michalopoulos: Adventures in Painting, Inside Northside Sept/Oct 2012