Alumni artist creates tropical installation for Cornell Tech

Artist Peter Gerakaris , BFA ’03, set out to create a warm welcome for visitors to Cornell Tech’s construction celebration on Roosevelt Island with his installation, "Tropicália," opening June 16 at Gallery RIVAA , where Cornell Tech staff have had a part-time presence since last winter.

Gerakaris played off the idea of Roosevelt Island as a kind of exotic locale, largely unknown to most New Yorkers, for the installation commissioned by Cornell Tech.

With tropical climate zones and environmental concerns in mind, he used fluorescent painting techniques and nascent printing technology to generate mixed-media murals for the 1,700-square-foot exhibition space. Based on his paintings, the large-scale, high-resolution digital prints on vinyl can be viewed through stereoscopic ChromaDepth glasses that allow 3-D color effects to appear.

In what he called an "analog to digital back to analog" process, Gerakaris "cut and pasted and remixed" the work on site starting June 8. Passersby could see Gerakaris at work on the installation, which also features a selection of paintings, works on paper, an audio installation and large-scale graphic window displays facing Main Street.

"Hopefully, this sets the aspirational tone for ongoing cultural interventions on the island," Gerakaris said. "If my math is right, the mural imagery totals about 1,000 square feet. This is honestly the largest amount of pictorial material I’ve ever created for one site."

For the RIVAA installation, he used a knife to "cut out certain key elements from the printed material for the baroque visual effect of segments exploding and expanding beyond the borders, like a giant wall collage."

The site-specific installation wraps around corners and extends onto the floors of the gallery, and is intended to reveal different meanings and layers on each viewing. It was curated by artist Kendal Henry, director of the Percent for Art program, which commissions public art throughout New York City. Gerakaris collaborated with composer-producer Trevor Gureckis on a soundtrack that incorporates everything from jungle sounds to percussive polyrhythms and Afrobeat music.

"The title riffs off Brazilian music," he said. "The audio is a mixture of ambient sounds from a trek in the Guatemalan jungle, collaging in musical tonalities I’ve collected from travels to various environments," including the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa.

Inspired by his upbringing in rural New Hampshire and extensive travels with his parents, both artists, Gerakaris’ art focuses on "the intersection of culture and nature," he said. "Tropicália" reflects this in its "botanicals filtered through a pop-media kaleidoscope."

"Before I could even walk I was holding a pencil, crawling around my father Dimitri’s drafting table," he said. "And Cornell played an integral role in nurturing the idea of having a well-rounded background. What’s the point of having technical chops if you don’t have any meaningful ideas or substance to communicate? It was an incredible incubator for learning how to think critically on one’s own."

He credited art professor Stan Taft’s painting courses with his "awakenings about the physiological and psychological effects of color, and color perception on the emotional experience of art," he said. "He had us do all these incredible color studies in class with paint mixture, glazing techniques and varnishes. Color awakens something deep in the mind and soul."

Gerakaris also cited an art and politics class with Susan Buck-Morss "that actually dealt with ideas of revolutionary public art. As an undergraduate, that really prepared me for a higher level of philosophical discourse of art and aesthetics" before graduate school, he said. He earned an MFA from Hunter College in 2009 and remains connected to Cornell, leading art tours for College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP) alumni in the city.

Originally on a digital media track as a fine arts major, he decided to focus on painting during a semester in AAP’s Cornell in Rome program.

"I had a computer meltdown," he said. "I realized, I can drop this painting and pick it up and repair it... however, I still love engaging technology whenever possible, and combining analog and digital modes. Ultimately, my process has to involve the human touch, which paradoxically nurtures what I find so magical about art: the intangible."

"Tropicália" is on display June 16-July 31 at Gallery RIVAA, 527 Main St. on Roosevelt Island. A public opening reception is Saturday, June 20, from 6 to 9 p.m.

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