Aris Kalaizis

An Introduction to a Painter's Oeuvre

Paul Henri Camp­bell describes in his text the numinouse in the work of Aris Kala­izis. Besides, he lights up in view of the ori­gin, the work­ing pro­cess of the Leipzig painter

The mater­i­al, out of which the paint­er Aris Kala­izis from Leipzig (Ger­many) cre­ates his works, is hard to handle. His mater­i­al is numin­ous; or maybe, put dif­fer­ently: he works with the imma­ter­i­al­ity of bound­ar­ies, bor­ders, and thresholds. And by prob­ing the lim­in­al joints of real­ity, he dis­cov­ers fig­ures and forms that come to us from a sub­lime domin­ion. Although often attrib­uted to the New Leipzig School of Paint­ing, the Ger­man-Greek paint­er Aris Kala­izis belongs to a cat­egory of his own. His paint­ings are nar­rat­ive in nature: their acute ten­sion arises from the junc­tion between two scenes that is presen­ted to the behold­er. This tran­si­ent state that is the threshold between a past moment and a future situ­ation, arres­ted in a single image, is the great theme of this Greek paint­er from Germany.

Aris Kala­izis was born in 1966, as the son of Greek polit­ic­al exiles in the Soviet occu­pied East Ger­many, that is: in the former com­mun­ist state today merely known from the pages of his­tori­ography, the Ger­man Demo­crat­ic Repub­lic. In my brief intro­duc­tion to this fas­cin­at­ing paint­er, I will only dis­cuss three dimen­sions of his work: its secret, its prax­is, and the bio­graph­ic­al gen­es­is of its vision.

Aris Kalaizis | Nocturne | Oil on wood | 24x32,5 in | 2012
Aris Kalaizis | Nocturne | Oil on wood | 24x32,5 in | 2012

The Mys­tery Inher­ent in Human Choice

Vari­ous com­ment­at­ors on Aris Kalaizis' work have noted its close prox­im­ity to film, mak­ing one import­ant dis­tinc­tion: that the paint­er is only present­ing us with an indi­vidu­al scene, the film has been paused. While cine­ma­to­graphy achieves its art with a rap­id suc­ces­sion of events and actions, Aris Kala­izis isol­ates only one detail, one cap­tion, the moment that counts, the moment that could account for all the miss­ing scenes. Let us for instance take a look at Inter­fer­ence of Angels (2009). The scene freezes the fall­ing motion of a fig­ure, and trans­forms it into a linger­ing, abso­lutely stat­ic object of reflec­tion. Cer­tainly, this is a prin­ciple effect­ive in many paint­ings. But what move­ment exactly has been arres­ted? Is it the exist­en­tial dis­may in the face of these fig­ures? The Before and After of this scene is a rad­ic­ally altered real­ity. The scenes pre­ced­ing and scenes fol­low­ing this moment belong to a dif­fer­ent order in their qual­ity of exper­i­ence: it is as though we'd com­pare the for­gone calm to the after­math of a nat­ur­al dis­aster. Noth­ing is the same; everything has changed – the very line sep­ar­at­ing the past from the present is being brought before us in this paint­ing, the flu­id pas­sage is hap­ping in our ima­gin­a­tion, as we are behold­ing the can­vas. These turn­ing points are the hall­mark of Aris Kalaizis' art.

In his Poet­ics, a very dif­fer­ent nat­ive of Arca­dia, Aris­totle, avowed that peri­petia or plot-turns ought to be the pre­dom­in­ant and emin­ent focus of the artist. Only by way of plot-turns is a story set into motion: plot-turns bring about a tem­por­al qual­ity, intro­duce a sense of time between indi­vidu­al actions. How believ­able, how plaus­ible the dif­fer­ence of one action to anoth­er really is, is decided by the nar­rativ­ity of inter­spaces. And Aris Kala­izis makes these plot-turns not only to the sub­ject of his paint­ing, but to its cen­ter. By paus­ing the rap­id sequence of filmic images, he singles out that one moment at which the sig­ni­fic­ant trans­form­a­tion takes place; and by loc­at­ing these one scene with­in the expanse of the can­vas, he arrests it for us, the behold­ers, so that our indi­vidu­al back­stor­ies may spark from this scene. In an inter­view, the paint­er once said: “In my view, places are the spa­tial realm, the con­fin­ing spaces, with­in which events may emerge. Without this space and the lim­its that turn space into places, we'd have no action.” The decis­ive moment inher­ent in the dra­mat­ic turn of events, the sequest­ra­tion of the Before from the After, a twist at the blink of an eye, the fidel­ity to this decision as a ges­ture of expres­sion – this is what pro­duces the qual­ity in this painter's work.

Some­times his freezes plot-turns that are not so much marked by the arrest of phys­ic­al motion, but instead bring us face to face with a moment­ous real­iz­a­tion, the insight­ful moment of truth. It is offered up to us as a dra­mat­ic tableau, like in Lost 22 (2012). As much as we may feel that some­thing has come to break­ing point in these scene, it's dif­fi­cult to put our fin­ger on what exactly it is. What has come to fruition, remains open in its ques­tion­ab­il­ity, stands before us as an open ques­tion. Aris Kala­izis hands over this ques­tion in all its open­ness to the onlook­er. Ambi­gu­ity, the rejec­tion of giv­ing defin­it­ive answers, doc­u­ments the won­der­ful respect that Kala­izis has for his audi­ence. Kala­izis takes this audi­ence ser­i­ously: without offer­ing any fur­ther com­ment­ary, he takes a step back from the world that he cre­ated, in order to make space for the ima­gin­ary worlds envi­sioned by the behold­ers of his work. For it is the world of the behold­er that trans­forms this frozen scene into a dra­mat­ic cos­mos. What led up to the scene that is presen­ted in The Inner Exile (2011)? What will be its consequence?

And thus the Chinese vis­it­ors of the Guang­zhou-Tri­en­nale 2011 stand enchanted and bam­boozled in front of his paint­ings that have been shipped from Europe to China, as these vis­it­ors have been trans­por­ted into a world that is theirs and yet so unlike their own, a world invit­ing them to find their own mean­ing and inter­pret­a­tions for. Regard­ing the work of Aris Kala­izis, a Dutch journ­al­ist from Ams­ter­dam, oth­er­wise known for his calm reti­cence, wrote: “It is charged with a strange fero­city, a cli­mate of acute sensuality.”

The Prax­is of Radi­ance and Form

The work­flow of this paint­er is by no means marked by nervous hyper­pro­ductiv­ity. Instead, Aris Kala­izis com­bines mul­tiple meth­ods when devel­op­ing his pic­tures: 1) an inner sense of empti­ness that makes him recept­ive to his inner eye; 2) the patience to redis­cov­er and relo­cate this numin­ous feel­ing in real places, objects, and fig­ures; 3) he builds up a mod­el of his vis­ion in the pro­fane real­ity of his atelier or out­doors; 4) the pho­to­graph­ic doc­u­ment­a­tion of this mod­el, for which he often employs an army of build­ers, car­penters, super­nu­mer­ar­ies, and pro­fes­sion­al act­ors; 5) ref­er­en­cing those pho­tos, he devel­ops the can­vas ver­sion of his vis­ion; 6) the labor­i­ous real­iz­a­tion of the paint­ing in oil. The com­plex and extens­ive cas­cade of his work­flow only allows him to pro­duce a small num­ber of paint­ings per year, maybe five or six. This small num­ber of works per year indic­ates how highly Kala­izis val­ues and hon­ors the cre­at­ive prin­ciple act­ive in the pro­cess of artist­ic pro­duc­tion. Cre­ation is of course also skill and toil, but there is also an ele­ment in it that can­not be pro­duced or deman­ded whenev­er it is required, a para­mount mys­tery that must be patiently waited upon and then care­fully weighed once encountered. Act­ing upon the fleet­ing appar­i­tion of that mys­tery with the skill, cun­ning, and patience of the crafts­man, is the root of Aris Kalaizis' art.

In this cre­at­ive pro­cess, espe­cially the third stage shows how ser­i­ous this paint­er is about his inner eye. His inspir­a­tion begins by turn­ing away from the impres­sions that the out­ward phys­ic­al world offers to us, in order to turn back to these impres­sions later more decidedly, after hav­ing encountered that which is with­in us. In an era dom­in­ated by an over­bear­ing flood of media images, Aris Kala­izis is an insight­ful ascet­ic who cau­tiously cul­tiv­ates the skill of intro­spec­tion. Empti­ness – men­tal as well as emo­tion­al, but also an empti­ness of sight – is how this paint­er attains the clair­voy­ance needed to envi­sion the wealth of poten­tial cre­ation. As soon as the mood is right, as soon as this strange glimpse of plenty has illu­min­ated the ret­ina of his inner eye, he enters into an intens­ive phase of plan­ning out fur­ther steps that may lead him closer to the final product. In the fol­low­ing phase, Kala­izis seeks to give his vis­ion a tent­at­ive mater­i­al real­ity by con­struct­ing a life-size mod­el. Build­ing a mod­el how­ever is not a mar­gin­al event, but is an essen­tial part of his aes­thet­ic pro­cess. It involves elab­or­ate scaf­fold­ing, fake walls, ceil­ings, hard­wood floors, fix­tures, props, light­ing, act­ors, and cos­tumes. In pre­par­ing the mod­el that lead to the paint­ing Homegrown (2011), for example, it was neces­sary to con­struct a large basin in an aban­doned fact­ory, which was flooded with water one foot deep. After then pla­cing an air­craft engine and a full length rotor blade into basin, the act­ress Andrea Sawatzki was asked to take her pos­i­tion in the scene. The mod­el for Past Pres­ence Regained (2010), which shows Chris­ti­an Berkel (Inglouri­ous Bas­terds), was set at a private lake close to Leipzig: a wooden cab­in float­ing on a raft, a bridge was built from the shore, the sur­round­ing trees were cropped, white cyl­in­ders were fixed on the water sur­face, and finally the act­or was asked to bal­ance on a second raft, while the paint­er took mul­tiple pho­tos. This pro­cess of course requires a great deal of logist­ic­al coordin­a­tion, when for instance the root of a tree is needed to be trans­por­ted into the second floor of a build­ing, or when deep ditches need to be dug, only to fill them with arti­fi­cial fog and light, or when anim­als or anim­al car­casses are to play a role in the painting.

In the pro­cess of build­ing mod­els, Aris Kala­izis gen­er­ates a pho­to­graph­ic invent­ory for his oil paint­ing. He uses the pho­to­graphs as memory devices, arran­ging and rearran­ging what they show, when he devel­ops the final com­pos­i­tion. Thus, this out­wardly act­ive phase is fol­lowed by a peri­od of patient assess­ment – and finally of the out­wardly serene phase of paint­ing, dur­ing which the only move­ments are made by his hands.

What is the his­tory of these hands? What is their story? Who do the hands of Aris Kala­izis belong to? Where do they come from? Whence their skill?

Aris Kalaizis | The Empty House | Oil on wood | 16x24 in | 2012
Aris Kalaizis | The Empty House | Oil on wood | 16x24 in | 2012

The Bio­graph­ic­al Gen­es­is of Vis­ion­ary Moments

In the begin­ning, an escape. Still chil­dren, his par­ents flee from the Greek Civil War (1947−49). Their odys­sey leads them into the Soviet occu­pied sec­tor of Ger­many to Leipzig, where Aris Kala­izis is born in 1966. It is maybe hard to weigh what the kind of early exper­i­ences the tur­moil of such a child­hood may bring forth. Insight, sure enough. Always sub­con­sciously to sense the frame­work of things is hanging crooked upon the walls of life where every­one else prim and prop­erly seems to know the right angles. Doesn't the story of this young immig­rant fam­ily in com­mun­ist East Ger­many resemble a voy­age between Scylla and Charyb­dis? Isn't the iron­ic pas­sage of his­tory really iron­ic­ally strange: the nat­ives of arca­dia try­ing to settle their roots under an Ger­man sky, escap­ing a war only to find them­selves at the fore­front of a cold war, in a com­mun­ist land, forever feel­ing that their own pos­i­tion does not stand par­al­lel to that of the great many, slowly under­stand­ing that the Marx­ist uto­pia that was the prom­ise of their new pat­ria was erec­ted upon sand, and that it will topple down or be brought down, but that it cer­tainly will fall – and then: that the ques­tion of who they are, what their iden­tity is, will begin anew? This is his voy­age. This is the pas­sage of an artist towards the fra­gile under­stand­ing of self, each frag­ment gained by let­ting go of a few oth­er shards, a rest­less voy­age, a rite of pas­sage that ever quite settles with its new initiation.

The bare basics of this painter's bio­graphy indic­ate an intens­ive and pro­longed search for the self. Who am I, who passes through all these cir­cum­stances in which I am involved and dis­en­gaged at the same time? The con­stant ques­tion of Who am I, which is tied to the name Aris Kala­izis, but always remains only par­tially answered … this Who am I, how­ever, will not res­ult in some sort of defect, but bring about a crit­ic­al and attent­ive sen­sori­um. And from this vigil­ant sens­ib­il­ity stems the unspeak­able mel­an­choly in his work that is sus­pen­ded between sor­row and hope, between loss and gain of self, like the strings of an Aeol­ic harp. In the case of Aris Kala­izis, how­ever, the term mel­an­choly by no means is tan­tamount to resig­na­tion; instead, it denotes the degree of his pro­found depth, his keen sense that what is to be seen on the can­vas mat­ters. Mel­an­choly has per­meated his feel­ing, is the very mode of exper­i­en­cing real­ity – not dis­en­chanted, dis­il­lu­sioned, dis­ap­poin­ted mel­an­choly, but a hope­ful grav­ity that severs irrel­ev­ancy from that which is of sub­stance. And this shade of mel­an­choly is what intro­duces the revolt­ing mod­ern­ity into his art­work – to nev­er settle with fab­ric­ated cer­tain­ties, to nev­er bow before unwar­ran­ted claims to truth, to nev­er pay respect to fas­ti­di­ous demon­stra­tions of con­fid­ence, but always to have the cour­age to show the vul­ner­able fra­gil­ity of the uncer­tain self.

While some artists cov­er up this denuded authen­ti­city of the uncer­tain self by veil­ing it behind con­ven­tion­al sym­bols obsequiously inher­ited from art his­tory, by hid­ing behind antiquit­ies, behind the romantic medi­ev­al­isms, or behind the stiff grandeur of the renais­sance … while many deflect their exist­en­tial, cre­ation­al imper­fec­tion with a false cel­eb­ra­tion of tra­di­tion, Aris Kala­izis does the oppos­ite: He attempts at giv­ing only expres­sion to that, for which he is able to vouch for with his own exper­i­ence. His paint­ings are there­fore inves­ted with the inwit of his exist­ence. They are gal­van­ized by the bio­graph­ic­al cap­it­al of a human being who has handed down his life to art.

(Source: Ostrage­hege Magazine 1/2013 No. 69)

©2013 Paul-Henri Camp­bell, Aris Kalaizis

Paul-Henri Camp­bell was born 1982 in Boston.The Ger­man-Amer­ic­an author stud­ied Clas­sic­al Greek and Roman Cath­ol­ic Theo­logy at the Nation­al Uni­ver­sity of Ire­land and at the Goethe-Uni­ver­sity in Frank­furt am Main, Ger­many. Cur­rently, he is com­plet­ing his PhD at the Jesuit Col­lege Sankt Geor­gen in Frank­furt am Main. He writes poetry and prose in Ger­man and Eng­lish. Since March 2013, he is a mem­ber of the edit­or­i­al board of one of largest poetry magazines in the Ger­man lan­guage, DAS GEDI­CHT. Pub­lic­a­tions include ›mein­wahn­straße‹ (2011); and three books of Eng­lish and Ger­man poetry: ›duk­tus oprandi‹ (2010), ›Space Race‹ (2012), and ›Am Ende der Zei­len. Gedichte/​Poems‹ (2013).

© Aris Kalaizis 2024