Reflections on Eleftheria Lialios’ recent retrospective at the Chicago Cultural Center
by Bridgitte R. Montgomery
I remember when Eleftheria Lialios first showed me photographs for her upcoming retrospective at the Chicago Cultural Center. It was last spring, in a crowded café across from the Art Institute of Chicago. We were perched on petite barstools, talking about the art scene and the city, and with a sudden burst of energy, her warm, mature expression suddenly transformed into one of a precocious teenager. She pulled out a little white napkin and said that she had something to show me. She grinned and postured herself as she quickly unfolded it. Inside was a stack of tiny photographs: the memoirs of thirty years of her life. This fall, I was astonished to see that stack of little photographs transformed into several rooms of large transparency installations, light boxes, and an impressive exhibition of experimental 8”x10” photographs.
Eleftheria “Freedom” Lialios is an international artist: she’s a filmmaker, a photographer, and is experienced in making photographic transparencies and using them in installations. Appropriately, Lialios’ first name means “freedom” in Greek, which is what many of her friends call her. From immigrant scholar to political artist, Lialios made her art world debut in the late 1970s and has gained notoriety ever since. Born in 1956 in Ioannina, Greece, her family—Greek refugees from Albania—migrated to Canada and then to the United States, where Lialios completed her undergraduate degree at Wayne State University. Early in her career, she won numerous awards and grants, including the prestigious Fulbright Scholar grant in 1986.
Before pursuing an MFA in photography at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, her extensive training in psychology, sociology and anthropology were her bridges to the art world. Eleftheria developed a keen awareness of the artistic possibilities of filmmaking and photography after her sensitive work counseling Vietnam veterans and making a video documentary of primates at the Detroit Zoo.
Her retrospective at the Chicago Cultural Center includes a variety of photographic methods: black & white and color formats, experimental hand-produced formats like multiple exposures, gel work and projected slides. A memorable prop trend is notable in the fiber-based print, “Self Portrait in Plastic, 1” (1978), where Lialios portrayed herself in the nude, ominously reaching out of a cocoon of thick plastic. In “Self Portrait in Plastic, 2” (1978), she is curled up within the plastic. These images remind the viewer of the invisible and visible shrouds of limitations that we either want to transcend or feel trapped behind. Lialios also uses mannequins as props. The fiber-based print “Making Men” (1979), is a clear shot into an assembly-line mannequin factory where arms, legs, and torsos lie deserted. This work alludes to the idea that daily life is a manufactured and mechanical existence.
In the photograph, “Jackie and I” (1984), Lialios superimposes herself into a found photograph standing between two wax figures of Jackie Onassis and John F. Kennedy. Dressed in pillbox hat and 1960s attire, Lialios appears as a blurred and somewhat ghostly image.
Referring to the mechanics of photography, Lialios asks the viewer to consider an alternative reading of her photographs that veers from the objective, literal, historical conception.
Layering techniques are used in her 46”x48” cibachrome transparency, “The Waves of Children” (1990), in which trees colored red and white are layered above rows of small schoolchildren. This large transparency is mounted among several other hanging transparencies that can be viewed from all sides. Lialios says one of her intentions is to suggest the importance of political and cultural memory that is documented within a photographic medium and frequently conveyed through transparencies.
She often asks viewers to consider the photograph as a three-dimensional object, an effect she emphasizes with a transparency hung in space with light projected through it. This creates a projection of the image on the wall. She describes this projected image as a faint memory that deviates from the objectivity of the photograph.
Lialios confessed that as a young woman, she was inspired by the writings of Simone de Beauvoir and continues to make use of this influence. Additionally, Man Ray’s passion for experimenting with alternative printing techniques, such as oversized and unusual photographic presentation, has greatly influenced her. Walker Evans’s work continues to interest her as well, with its documentation of life and intrinsic political commentary. Lialios’ social and political interest comes through in her work as she addresses issues of familial control, religious control, and governmental influences, and the need to bring these issues and images to light for the viewer.
As well as displaying her installations and photography, The Chicago Cultural Center screened three of Freedom’s most significant works on film: Autobiography of a Greek Woman, Part 2 (1991), I Had a Dream Last Night (1998), and If I Profane (2002) (all 16mm with optical sound). What impressed me about Eleftheria Lialios’ work on that spring day in a little crowded café, was the sensitivity expressed in each one of those tiny photographs folded up in the napkin, and the realization that this teacher was giving us alternative ways to interpret photography and historical imagery.
Associate Adjunct Professor Eleftheria Lialios has been teaching at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago since 1988.