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The Satirist

Culture Watch
Her Past...(New York living room), 2001, from the book "Mrs. Tependris: The Adventures of an Art Collector."

By Ted Loos

The Los Angeles-based artist Konstantin Kakanias has some very fashionable friends: the legendary designer Diane von Furstenberg, inventor of the wrap dress; Vogue’s man-about-town Hamish Bowles; shoe maestro Christian Louboutin. It’s not surprising since Kakanias started his career in the field, drawing and developing fabrics for Yves Saint Laurent in the 1980s.

But his relationships with those famous folks—about which he could not be less boastful, only mentioning them as an afterthought—is particularly strong because he now exists in a separate realm, one of fine art that frequently depicts the world of fashion with a gimlet eye. He’s enough removed from it to see it with some perspective.

The basis of Kakanias’ art is the draftsman’s pen. And the creation sprung from that pen that has truly taken on a life of its own is a character called Mrs. Tependris, a fashion-obsessed society lady of a certain age who is both terrifying and hilarious. Imagine a Greek version of the late dynamo Nan Kempner, but with superpowers and karate moves.

“I’m a good satirist and critic,” says the genial Kakanias, 52. “Mrs. Tependris is satire. The best critic makes people laugh. And it’s an homage at the same time.”

Introduced almost 20 years ago and chronicled in The New York Times’ style magazine, she has endured and thrived in several books and videos, existing to remind everyone of the ridiculousness of fashion—and why we need that over-the-top element in our lives.

“She’s your aunt,” says Kakanias, who likes to point out the fact that we all know someone who’s at least partly like Mrs. Tependris. “She’s a lady I used to see as a child, picking up her daughter but dressed up in couture. I wanted my mother to be like that, but she was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. She has many syndromes of modern society—but on steroids.”

You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Mrs. Tependris battle, beat and then befriend a giant spider, who then gives her a ride on his hairy back to an ultra-chic fashion show in the loopy video Tependris Rising (it’s on YouTube).

Kakanias’s own journey—somewhat less dramatic than his creation’s—has taken him from his native Greece to stints living in Paris, New York and now Los Angeles, where he lives with his husband, a designer for Band of Outsiders. (There was also a year on a Greek island, which sounds idyllic, but Kakanias says it was “the worst year of my life.”) His time in France helped him hone his illustration skills, as he worked for French newspapers and magazines.

He settled on Los Angeles in the late 1990s partly because of the vibrant art scene, a decade before it was widely recognized as having such creative vitality in an area other than the film industry. “The first reason was the weather,” he adds. “The second was the art. I really felt it was superior to New York.”

But wherever he is, his artistry comes back to the basics of the drawn line. “As a child, I started drawing,” he says. “I hated school very passionately. I have made my living with drawing since the beginning. I don’t really know how to make a living doing anything else.”

Kakanias has leveraged that talent into many media, sometimes making ceramics, videos, paintings or sculptures. They’re not always as upbeat as Mrs. Tependris either, the artist says: “I’m torn between the dark and light. It’s always something between tragedy and comedy—it’s very Greek.”

These days, Kakanias toggles between commercial work—he recently did a video for Diane von Furstenberg since, as he puts it, “I have a tendency to work with friends”—and projects that please just him. “I’ll do a mobile, an installation. I have no problem with any kind of expression,” he says, adding with a laugh: “It doesn’t mean I do them well.”

He’s too modest. Ceramics are one area he has enlivened with his wit and his line. Like the ancient potters, Kakanias knows that a pot or a plate is not only a useful everyday tool, but also as an ideal surface to draw on. “I’m less interested in the form than in the painting,” he says.

Last year, Gray Gallery in Los Angeles put on a show called “Jet Set,” featuring two series of plates depicting world-traveling, bon-mot-dispensing, feathery chickens—perhaps bird versions of Mrs. Tependris—and it’s a concept that Kakanias first explored in a set of ceramics for his friend Christian Louboutin. A blue chicken named Meredith says, “Darling, don’t touch my hair.”

To get a sense of how busy the artist is, one need only read this sentence from The Wall Street Journal’s Marshall Heyman, who chronicled that gallery opening: “An entire set of plates costs around $50,000, said Mr. Kakanaias, who is about to start work on an animated film with the perfumer Frédéric Malle, as well as design a party in Morocco, launch a bathing suit line for Orlebar Brown, develop a fabric line with the interior designer Michael Smith and prepare a drawing show for his gallery in Los Angeles.” You know, a regular Tuesday.

Kakanias’s European erudition—and his playful ability to riff on it—comes through even on a plate. “I did one set based on Plato’s ‘The Symposium,’” he says, an appropriately Greek topic. “But it happens in a hair salon. The real ‘Symposium’ happened in a living room, so it’s not that far off.”

Whatever the medium, stories drive every piece. “I’m never abstract,” he says. “There’s always a narrative in my work, with psychological situations.” So what’s next for him?

The artist has an ambitious plan, at least in concept: “My next aim is to combine these two worlds: pure art and pure fashion. I’ve had to stop working in one to do the other, but it’s time to put the two together.”

Kakanias isn’t sure how he’ll manage that fusion, but given what he’s achieved so far, many of his fans will be watching with great expectations. Even the hard-to-please Mrs. Tependris might approve.

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