Olympic Talent

Greek artist Konstantin Kakanias takes his watercolors and favorite character to Athens.

Athens-born and now L.A.-based, the artist and illustrator Konstantin Kakanias was once called the "Dame Edna of the contemporary art world." The comparison seems slightly exaggerated, but one can see the point. It is difficult to speak of Kakanias, after all, without referring to Mrs. Tependris, the wacky, larger-than-life character he created in 1990 with pencil and gouache, and the subject of three boldly illustrated, feverishly collected books. The latest, Mrs. Tependris . . . Just Before the Olympic Games in Athens, commissioned by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture exclusively for Greek and foreign dignitaries and timed to coincide with this year's Olympics, began with an idea from the Greek journalist Maria Daliani. She thought Kakanias' illustrations would deliver the perfect antidote to "the angst surrounding the Games. Mrs. Tependris' inimitable tone could add some much-needed humor." The artist wasn't as sure. "I thought it was a joke at first and I didn't know if I should do it. But Mrs. Tependris made me," says Kakanias, who speaks about her as though she were sitting in the next room. "She wanted to be an athlete." And so she became: a pole vaulter in Juicy Couture, a swimmer in vintage Halston, a marathoner in Louboutin.

Before the books Kakanias worked as an illustrator for Barneys, Tiffany's, and Vanity Fair; he even designed fabrics for Christian Lacroix and Yves Saint Laurent. And it was these stints in the fashion world that inspired him to create the colorful adventures of Mrs. Tependris. Her well-dressed figure, with her sharp needle-nose and towering bouffant, is always drawn in profile, which he attributes to his extensive study of Egyptian art. But fashion is not all you need to know to understand the sly humor and social satire behind the illustrations. A degree in Greek revolutionary history and an encyclopedia of contemporary art would also be helpful.

Though Kakanias has become closely identified with this fictional widow of a Greek shipping tycoon, his work goes far beyond Mrs. Tependris. After he moved to Paris at age 18 to study fashion and fine art, Kakanias did moody watercolors, filling them with quasi-mythological characters and Egyptian masked figures. From there he went on to build a series of model homes out of paper, painted inside with scenes of family tragedy. He even delved into performance art when, dressed as a traditional Greek widow, he swept and screamed through a gallery.

But it is the life of Mrs. Tependris that has now firmly taken hold. Like her creator, called by art critic Brooks Adams "a charismatic enigma equally at home in the worlds of high fashion, contemporary art, and café society," Mrs. Tependris moves seamlessly across countries and easily through time. In 1997's Freedom or Death, the first full-length Tependris tale, she joins the Greek Revolution—176 years after the fact. She assumes the identities of Greek war icons and meets Maria Callas and Jackie O in Mykonos for a brief respite from the "dramatic action of the war."

The second book, Mrs. Tependris: The Contemporary Years (with an introduction by Vogue's European editor-at-large Hamish Bowles), chronicles her desire to escape the past and embrace the new, in this case by diving into the contemporary art scene. See Mrs. Tependris as Maurizio Cattelan's fallen pope or Chris Ofili's Virgin Mother. In Just Before the Olympic Games in Athens she is equally committed to bringing home the gold. Inspiration comes while she is on the treadmill; with the Hollywood sign off in the distance, Mrs. T. decides Athens is calling.

"Konstantin's humor is very interesting," says gallery owner Rebecca Camhi, who shows his work in Greece. "He mixes images of Greece's glory days with caricatures of Greece now. Mrs. Tependris walks through Athens in a Pucci pantsuit carrying the sacred Olympic flame, and there'll be a guy with a hairy chest lounging in his underwear as she goes by."

New Yorker Jane Stubbs, a friend and the publisher of his first book, agrees that Kakanias' work contains "a real seriousness that can be misunderstood. What you don't see is the months of intense research Konstantin puts into each project. Through this camp figure of vague ridiculousness, he tries to see through things. He sees the beauty in the beautiful, but also calls the foolish foolish. She allows him to make the truth much less threatening." But as much as he comments on history and society, Stubbs admits that Kakanias is also just having "a great time."

"I know some people think it is a bit too light," says Kakanias. "It might bother me a little, but honestly Mrs. Tependris does not care." The final test of a Tependris piece: Does it make him laugh? Each illustration begins with a drawing that is traced repeatedly, until Kakanias is happy with its execution. The Olympics images, he says, represent his technique at its peak. Still,"If I don't laugh, it's out."

This Tependris book, like the others, ends, "To be continued . . . " "I think she may need a sabbatical at a spa or spiritual retreat, don't you?" says Kakanias. He adds, "But she'll let me know. People have their ideas: 'Mrs. Tependris Writes Her Encyclopedia of Style,' 'Mrs. Tependris at the Gay Pride Parade.' " As for Kakanias, he is preparing to paint the Madrid church where his friend Carolina Herrera Jr. will be married this summer.

It won't be Mrs. Tependris. "I can't. Not in a church. Mrs. Tependris wouldn't let me. And I would not want to get in a fight with her."