Lives of the Artists: Dean Monogenis


Where Land Slides (2009) acrylic on wood panel 14 x 18 inches

My work investigates the incongruous architectural elements in contemporary urban environments. The original impetus behind this exploration, which I’ve been doing for the last 8 years, was the catastrophic events of 9/11 and the impact these events had on our environment, and subsequently, society itself.

Before 9/11 I had been doing a type of portraiture which slowly transitioned into landscape as I became more interested in the surroundings of my subjects versus the subjects themselves.

I’m a native New Yorker and after 9/11, something permanent in my landscape disappeared; it’s as if the urban environment died. I’d never regarded buildings or architecture as more than symbols or monuments to someone else’s ego, memory, or beliefs. But after the fall of the World Trade Center I began to see buildings as organic living things– and in a way–human.

Verdant Shore (2010) acrylic on wood panel 14 x 18 inches

This really triggered something in me. All of a sudden I realized I could make portraits of buildings. But that was only the beginning and really did not touch on the psychology I sought to explore and convey. Interestingly, the post-9/11 period was the beginning of one of the largest housing booms in NYC and the rest of the world. Watching this unfold, and living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at the time, I saw the equivalent of an invasion. Like a mushroom growth or an infestation of a colony of termites.

I found this urban explosion simultaneously engaging and frightening. The fervid development of every last inch of real-estate was essentially creating a new urban reality. Buildings sprouting up all over would often supplant or encroach older buildings. New constructions fused with older constructions. Expansion was everywhere.

Destination Journey (2006) Acrylic on Wood Panel 56″ x 62″

And so, from this urban chaos, it became apparent to me that the choice of what kind of building and where to put it was essentially irrelevant and lacked planning. It was more the result of a practical necessity guided by commercial interests.

At first I hated what I saw but then I began to distance myself and consider it aesthetically. I interpreted the randomness as a sort of parallel to the shanty towns in Jamaica or the favelas in Rio. I took notice of the colors of the building materials; and the structures designed around the buildings like netting and scaffolding.

I thought if there was a way to distill the temporary and all its ephemera, isolating key pieces into a painting, then I would be able to elevate the visual signifiers that speak to this period of transformation.

Farthest Sometimes 20 acrylic on wood panel 40 x 50 inches

I love beauty, and always have tried to find it around me, despite my surroundings. You could say I’m torn down the middle between naturalism and urban life. I have tried to depict these juxtapositions in my work. For example, a glorious mountain range may serve as a backdrop to a new construction condo.  These environments exist in the real world; outside of my paintings.

In a painting, depictions are often idealized and encapsulated. They speak to a utopia or a world in harmony at least on an aesthetic level. I don’t want to paint propaganda, nor do I want to take what for me would be the easy way out and paint distopias or post-apocalyptic nightmares.

My initial reaction to 9/11 was painting buildings with explosions on, in, or near them. But that evolved–quite literally those explosions turned into flowers. I live in a new construction condo myself so how can I hate it? And yet, I look around and wonder how long this unbridled urban expansion can last?

Surrender (2007) Acrylic on wood panel 39 x 48 inches

The conceptual idea of transformation has a firm place in my painting process. Though my work looks highly rendered and the surfaces are very finished, there is an active process of editing that goes on in the making of my work. I usually work on wood or plastic panel and I apply paint mostly by making customized stencils out of tape and frisket. Similar to screen printing, I apply paint in layers to build objects like buildings.

Memento Mori 2008 Acrylic on wood panel 48 x 54 inches

I also paint elements free hand, integrating them with the more graphic elements. I am keenly interested in the dialogue between diverse painting techniques. Because the painted edge and texture are important to me, I often paint things like the sky last. This creates a shallow, embedded quality to the visual elements underneath. It often works well to maximize the visual tension on the painted surface, challenging the logic of what naturally should be in front or behind.

Eloping on Destiny’s Credentials 2008 Acrylic on wood panel 40 x 56 inches

As the picture develops, there inevitably comes a point for revision. This is done by sanding and reworking areas to bring them back to a zero state. Huge areas of the painting can disappear and only traces of these revisions are visible in the end. To varying degrees, I conceal these corrections. This allows me to maintain the precise finished look of the work I aim for–without forfeiting spontaneity and improvisation.

In the end, the surface texture of the painting undergoes revisions as well. I often treat areas of the painting with varying degrees of varnish. I may apply a glossy element on top of a matte background or introduce granulated textures next to flat surfaces to accentuate the interplay of larger shapes within the painting.

Tender of the Flock (2007) acrylic on wood panel 43″ x 60″

There are unfinished building projects around the corner from me in East Williamsburg. Already vegetation and animal life have taken residence there. Some might look at this and see degradation but I see another vestige of my core philosophy, that we are constantly in a state of change. There is an undeniable entropic force at play in nature and it challenges our modern, human perseverance.

The combination of old and new materials and the stark contrast in line and color have become key elements for me to communicate the ongoing transformation of life. I would like to find beauty and peace in the world I live. And so, like a zen gardner, I can subtly coax the world around me into something meditative and worth pondering.

The work of Dean Monogenis can be found on his website. His paintings can also be found on Collette Blanchard Gallery and Walter Maciel Gallery.

This autobiography is part of the Escape into Life Lives of the Artists project.