When he was 19, William E. Jones went to Greece to meet a man in his 70s named Alexander Iolas. No longer a household name, Iolas had been a hugely influential dealer in his day (in 1952, for instance, he gave Andy Warhol his first solo show). The encounter was more a brush than a collision: Jones knew he wanted to be an artist but, at the time, he wasn’t quite sure how to take advantage of his connection to such a connected man. Yet, the young Jones at least had the wherewithal to shoot a few rolls of film.
Twenty prints from the ‘Villa Iolas’ series (all works 1982/2017) line the gallery walls at David Kordansky, illustrating the Greek’s sprawling Athens redoubt in its prime. Iolas was a dealer, not a collector – he saved the best stuff for his clients – so the examples decorating his home (which include Max Ernst, Yves Klein, Niki de Saint Phalle and Paul Thek) tell more about their owner than would the usual blue-chip trophies. Villa Iolas was designed like a museum; the walls are clad in marble and some rooms seem furnished only with art. In a couple of shots, such as Matta, René Magritte, Greek Vases, the objects listed in the title recede into the lived-in clutter: a stuffed book case, either well-thumbed or a well-dressed set. There are the unfashionable finds, too, like Byzantine Icons, Gold Door or, in a back courtyard, a set of antiquities bracketed by marble columns. The quotations of classical sculpture – bronzed muscles, chiselled brows, pale flanks – that make their way into contemporary art, as a kind of ballast, are all pictured here. Takis depicts a sculpture by the eponymous contemporary Greek artist: the body of a male youth, truncated at neck and knees, brandishing an erection; the piece riffs on the libertinism famously enjoyed by the ancients. Elsewhere in the house are actual antiquities – the remains of a crouching Aphrodite, some fragments in contrapposto.
Jones’s warm-toned and grainy prints preserve the sense of mortality that attends golden ages and golden youth. Fall into Ruin (2017), a half-hour video slideshow over which Jones narrates his and Iolas’s histories, marks the passage of time. The piece is comprised mostly of photos Jones took in 2016 on his second trip to Athens. There are tourist sites at first, then a long sequence of artefacts: the usual sutured and bare-assed stone youths propped-up in museum rooms made melancholy by Jones’s recollections. Before long, Jones’s camera turns to the city: a cherub on a lamp post splashed with pink paint; a dirt lot where a building has been torn from its neighbours. This is what we came for: Jones’s project marks, if not quite anticipates, our present fascination with the Greek troubles – the Euro and refugee crises, austerity and documenta – and a modern Athens whose streets enjoin the interlopers with the tag: ‘Enjoy Our Ruins!’ (referring, bitterly, to the new ones).
Five years after he and Jones met, Iolas died of AIDS. He was a famous man that Jones barely knew, but whose life, perhaps for this reason, lends its arc to Jones’s own story: the last slide in Fall into Ruin shows Iolas in his garden, between two columns, while Jones has found his voice as an artist. The dealer’s estate languished in chaos after his death: plans to turn the villa into an official Alexander Iolas Museum foundered and the grand house became a ruin all of its own. The last half of Jones’s video comprises snapshot after snapshot of once carefully decorated rooms blasted with spray-paint: columns lie broken; the cladding slumps off the wall in piles. Now, with the mess and sass of a vandalized villa and a box of faded negatives, the artist knows just what to do.
Main image: William E. Jones, Fall into Ruin (detail), 2017, HD video still. Courtesy: David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles and The Modern Institute, Glasgow
First published in Issue 190