Aris Kalaizis

Detour as a Route to Unity and Order

In this essay the New York based art-crit­ic Car­ol Strick­land stamped the term of the Sot­toreal­is­mus in rela­tion to Leipzig School paint­er Aris Kala­izis for the first time. In addi­tion, some inter­est­ing inter­pret­a­tions to the amer­ic­an paint­ings are in it

Aris Kalaizis, Keyville, Oil on wood , 23 x 35 in, 2006
Aris Kalaizis, Keyville, Oil on wood , 23 x 35 in, 2006

“’Tis the good read­er that makes the good book,” accord­ing to the Amer­ic­an writer Ral­ph Waldo Emer­son. The same is true of good paint­ings. The more com­plex and multi-layered the paint­ing – res­ist­ant to a quick, easy read­ing – the more it requires a vigil­ant respon­der. After con­tem­pla­tion and reflec­tion, the paint­ing blos­soms in the mind. This evoc­at­ive qual­ity makes encoun­ter­ing of Leipzig based paint­er Aris Kala­izis’ so exciting.

It’s no won­der each paint­ing opens up new worlds to the care­ful observ­er, for Kala­izis con­structs his com­pos­i­tion using mul­tiple mod­al­it­ies. Like a set design­er, he chooses each object judi­ciously. Then he arranges them in the pictori­al space, so the objects, fig­ures, and space between them vibrate with intens­ity. Like a screen­writer, he con­structs a tableau fraught with drama and intern­al con­flict, infus­ing the scene with ten­sion. With the eye of a per­fec­tion­ist dir­ect­or, he cal­ib­rates all ele­ments for max­im­um visu­al impact. And, of course, like a con­sum­mate paint­er, he wrings the most effect out of col­or, line, shapes, and form. He cre­ates unity and order from pig­ment and struc­ture, but always with the incip­i­ent threat that this equi­lib­ri­um is about to fall apart.
Kala­izis’ meth­od begins with an inner vis­ion – an ini­tially some­what vague idea which he later attempts to explore dur­ing the course of his work. He searches for an actu­al scene, like a stage on which he can set his fantasy, then he pho­to­graphs this back­drop. Act­ing as a fil­ter between real­ity and his own inven­tion, he pur­i­fies the back­ground, elim­in­at­ing unne­ces­sary detail and emphas­iz­ing ele­ments of the “script” which are to char­ac­ter­ize the newly cre­ated paint­ing. In the pro­cess, he dis­cov­ers sur­prises, which affect the scene as it evolves.

…form, col­or, and struc­ture as a seedbed

His goal dur­ing this lengthy pro­cess is not to imit­ate the appear­ance of sur­face real­ity but to use form, col­or, and struc­ture as a seed­bed from which his abstract concept can grow. If a paint­ing veers towards expli­cit rep­res­ent­a­tion, he makes it more elu­sive, pre­fer­ring to re-shape his inten­tions. The real­ity he rep­res­ents is nev­er real­ity as it actu­ally exists but a new, con­struc­ted real­ity. “I’m not inter­ested in see­ing what is,” Kala­izis says. “I’m more inter­ested in what could be.”

As Kala­izis gradu­ally ima­gines a story in his mind, it often requires fig­ures to act out the nar­rat­ive. He then pho­to­graphs people, whom he’ll trans­late into char­ac­ters in his scenario. 
He cap­tures a slice of life by freez­ing a moment lat­ent with sig­ni­fic­ance into stas­is. But the sur­face calm belies the upheav­al beneath. It’s like an inno­cent fin cut­ting through an azure, trop­ic­al sea, con­ceal­ing a killer shark as it circles its prey. 
The effect of study­ing a paint­ing by Kala­izis is like adding a third dimen­sion to a two-dimen­sion­al pic­ture. The view­er is ripped out of pass­ive obser­va­tion into act­ive par­ti­cip­a­tion. It takes an alert view­er to evoke and pos­sibly com­plete this implied nar­rat­ive interpretation.
The paint­ing Keyville (2006) illus­trates the power of his art to engage the view­er. The scene has the unset­tling qual­ity of a piazza by de Chirico, teem­ing with unset­tling allu­sions, a sense of men­ace, and enig­mat­ic asso­ci­ations. Here an enigma is the lit­er­al ful­crum of the paint­ing, for an orange scarf lies aban­doned front and cen­ter. Above it dangles a tele­phone off the hook, as if the wear­er of the scarf exited with great haste. Was she too dis­tressed by news she received on the tele­phone to hang up? Was she called away by emer­gency? Was she abducted?

…the real­ity he rep­res­ents is nev­er real­ity as it actu­ally exists but a new, con­struc­ted reality

Brack­et­ing either side of the cent­ral void are a statue of a sol­dier hold­ing a rifle, poised as if for action, and a seated man, obli­vi­ous to any danger. Warm col­or links what seem to be three sep­ar­ate sequences (divided by ver­tic­al bars). The red­dish curve on the left side leads to the rose-colored plinth on which the statue stands to the inver­ted curve of the orange scarf, point­ing towards the same hue of the wooden bench on which the man sits, as immob­ile as a statue.
Both con­tent and struc­ture pose elu­sive ques­tions: is the miss­ing woman a vic­tim of viol­ence, which both the stone sol­dier and the unre­spons­ive man were power­less to pre­vent? The view­er pon­ders: what events pre­ceded and fol­low this scene? A cal­cu­lated incom­plete­ness is the reign­ing strategy, which sucks you into the painter’s world, plunging you into uncertainty.

On Ger­trude Stein’s deathbed, the writer posed the ques­tion, “What is the answer?” Her reply: “What is the ques­tion?” For Kala­izis, too, ques­tions are more import­ant than answers.
Even Kala­izis’ land­scapes have an abstract, puzz­ling com­pos­i­tion that invites inter­pret­a­tion. The Olentangy River II (2005) seems a peace­ful autum­nal scene, the dis­tant trees and their reflec­tion rendered with vir­tu­osic skill. Then you notice the con­crete points of a boat ramp, poised like sharp dag­gers above the water, under­cut­ting all serenity. The strange, rud­der-shaped con­crete mass float­ing in the fore­ground also injects a note of con­tra­dic­tion, set­ting up a dia­lectic between the nat­ur­al and the man­made world. The first response is a sigh. The second is a shudder.

Broad Street No. 100 | Oil on wood | 18 x 24 in | 2005
Broad Street No. 100 | Oil on wood | 18 x 24 in | 2005

Kala­izis is a paint­er of polar­it­ies. He pokes and prods, awaken­ing your ima­gin­a­tion to respond to his. In Broad Street No. 100 (2005), anoth­er tele­phone receiv­er dangles, this one in a phone booth in which a body slumps, its head out of sight. Is the young man sleep­ing, drugged, or dead? Beside the occu­pied stall, three empty, sterile booths extend. A uni­formed police­man, his face a sin­is­ter mask, looms in the fore­ground, posed like a stal­wart pil­lar of author­ity. But upset­ting the taut equa­tion of cell-like ver­tic­al forms is the image of the police­man star­ing at his hand in dis­taste like Lady Macbeth, examin­ing his fin­gers. You’re com­pelled to ask, “What’s going on?” 

… a paint­er of polarities

Rub­ba­cord (2005) goes even fur­ther into a realm of irra­tion­al­ity. Tur­bu­lent clouds form a vor­tex above a set of stairs that seem to go nowhere, while a purple sea laps at its base like a rising tide. Set into a con­crete wall is an orange rect­angle dis­play­ing a sen­su­al, nude body of a woman. Her head is cut off, reflec­ted upside down on the wet pave­ment. The paint­ing con­trasts hard and soft sur­faces, straight lines and curves, anim­ate and inan­im­ate forms, mobile and stable masses. Reflec­tions and shad­ows in this stormy scene appear non­sensic­al. The paint­ing is devoid of human­ity but brist­ling with mystery.
Kala­izis’ bravura hand­ling of paint deserves men­tion. He’s a maes­tro of con­crete. In most hands, con­crete is a mute, matte – even bru­tal – sur­face. When Kala­izis paints it, his brush­strokes del­ic­ately streak the walls with soft, pas­tel zips, subtle as a Mor­ris Louis stain painting.

One clue to the painter’s lat­ent mean­ings resides in recur­ring imagery. Like Alfred Hitch­cock mak­ing his sig­na­ture, cameo appear­ance in each film, this per­son­al icon­o­graphy pops up again and again. A favor­ite motif is the fig­ure of a woman with an orange head­scarf, dressed in black, car­ry­ing a black purse. The fig­ure, based on Kala­izis’ wife Annett, appears in The Ohio Hotel (2006), her back to the view­er, her gaze aver­ted, and her purse held in a vul­ner­able pos­i­tion. Oppos­ite her, facing the view­er, stands a fer­al-look­ing man bran­dish­ing a base­ball bat. Kala­izis bisects the space between the two fig­ures (prot­ag­on­ist and ant­ag­on­ist?) with a threat­en­ing shad­ow, cast by a huge tree on a lur­idly colored build­ing. The man stands behind a wave-like shape of black that looks like furry asphalt, while the woman walks on a field resem­bling a purple sea. Noth­ing quite makes sense, but you feel the woman is in danger. The view­er is impelled to fill in the blanks.

A Afternoon in Upper Arlington | Oil on wood | 18 x 24 in | 2005
A Afternoon in Upper Arlington | Oil on wood | 18 x 24 in | 2005

An After­noon in Upper Arling­ton (2005) is sim­il­arly dis­quiet­ing. The title indic­ates day­time. Yet the purple light and dark­ness, illu­min­ated by a bright lamp clutched by a thug­gish-look­ing man, para­dox­ic­ally sug­gest a night scene. An open briefcase – as if its con­tents have been plundered – lies on the ground next to the man, whose eyes are con­cealed. Mys­tery shrouds the scene, yet the bright ball of light seems a beacon of clar­ity. Its post is lit­er­ally a staff on which the man leans for support.
The paint­ing recalls Kala­izis’ 2004 paint­ing, Die Lich­tung (2004), trans­lated as The Enlight­en­ment. The painter’s daugh­ter stares into a Don­ald-Judd like arrange­ment of light cubes, as if search­ing for the answer to life’s mys­ter­ies. Die Lich­tung can also be trans­lated as a clear­ing in a forest, which sug­gests the charged cent­ral space in many of Kala­izis’ works. It’s like an open-ended van­ish­ing point, a clear­ing where the sub­ter­ranean mean­ings might dwell in a burst of light.

Kala­izis’ mys­ti­fy­ing paint­ings share sim­il­ar­it­ies with the sur­real­ism of Mag­ritte, as when he paints semi-real­ist­ic pictori­al space but pop­u­lates it with illo­gic­al, dis­turb­ing con­tent. The House (2005) is almost a tour-de-force of real­ism, with beau­ti­fully rendered trees and a mas­ter­ful, full-length por­trait of a man, in revery, lean­ing against a beech. Then Kala­izis twists this tran­quil scene in anoth­er dir­ec­tion, first with his graf­fiti scrawl of a flower on the wall of a small house, then with a nude woman’s body spot­lit in a murky, blue win­dow, as if she’s a siren sub­merged in an aquar­i­um. Long­ing and loneli­ness suf­fuse the scene.

…“To make a detour is one of the main qual­it­ies in my work.”

Just when a paint­ing seems “calm and friendly,” Kala­izis says, “I like to open the closet with the pois­on pills.” And just when you think you’ve got his drift, he zig-zags off in a new dir­ec­tion, say­ing, “To make a detour is one of the main qual­it­ies in my work.” Steeped in ambi­gu­ity, the paint­ings prom­ise to reveal what they con­ceal. But, even with care­ful scru­tiny, their mul­tiple lay­ers of mean­ing are inexhaustible.
Per­haps a new term is more use­ful than either real­ism or sur­real­ism to describe this work. Instead of “sur” mean­ing “above” or “over,” “sotto-real­ism” is more appro­pri­ate. “Sotto” (“below” or “under”) refers to the secrets bur­ied beneath the sur­face lay­er of the story, behind the form­al ele­ments of col­or, line, fig­ur­a­tion, and composition. 

To unearth an explan­a­tion for what’s hap­pen­ing in the quirky world this paint­er cre­ates, you have to drill down. His land­scapes and city­scapes are more like dream­s­capes – spa­tially dis­or­i­ent­ing, idio­syn­crat­ic, and bizarre. Often the archi­tec­ture is oppress­ive, soul­less; the fig­ures seem inert, ener­vated, and isol­ated. Instead of con­front­ing each oth­er and com­mu­nic­at­ing, they’re trapped in sep­ar­ate spheres, a pos­i­tion rein­forced by the grid-like backgrounds.
An example of this ice­berg strategy – in which 90% of the story is invis­ible – is The Hour of Inim­it­able Rev­el­a­tion (2005). The paint­ing por­trays vari­ous people around a bare table. It has the oddity of a Balthus scene or Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, because, while four of the fig­ures are fully clothed, a nude woman sits impass­ively in their midst. The fig­ures share the pictori­al space, but they seem dis­con­nec­ted and dis­af­fected, like man­nequins. Their faces are dead­pan, giv­ing the scene a chilly air of anomie, like a film-noir mood of mel­an­choly. The title sug­gests some epi­phany, as in Caravaggio’s paint­ing where Jesus reveals him­self to his dis­ciples at Emmaus. But with the women (two with identic­al faces, anoth­er incon­gru­ous note) allied on one side of the paint­ing and men on the oth­er, the only rev­el­a­tion implied is a played-out war between the sexes. The fig­ures exude ambi­gu­ity, which is rooted in some drama erupt­ing underground.

Much atten­tion in the art world is cur­rently focused on what’s being called the “New Leipzig School of Paint­ing,” fostered by the Leipzig Academy of Visu­al Arts and its pree­m­in­ent instruct­or, Arno Rink, under whom Kala­izis has stud­ied. These paint­ers, it’s been said, are re-invent­ing real­ism, cre­at­ing fig­ur­at­ive works with nar­rat­ive con­tent and a con­tem­por­ary slant.
It’s com­monly said that, since the 1960s, avant­garde West­ern art schools aban­doned tra­di­tion­al teach­ing meth­ods stress­ing the craft of paint­ing, includ­ing draw­ing from the mod­el, study of ana­tomy, and mas­tery of per­spect­ive. In Leipzig, the cur­riculum con­tin­ued to teach these skills. In Kala­izis’ case, he doesn’t use his superb tech­nic­al abil­ity for purely descript­ive ends but to cre­ate a hybrid art, mer­ging the best of the old and the new.
Since the advent of mod­ern­ism, artists out­side the Iron Cur­tain pur­sued a dizzy­ing pace of exper­i­ment­a­tion: abstrac­tion – in which authen­ti­city, emo­tion­al expres­sion, and form­al­ism were supreme, then min­im­al­ism, pop art, con­cep­tu­al art, per­form­ance art, install­a­tions, and – more recently – new media art such as digit­ally-manip­u­lated pho­to­graphy and video art. 

… requires noth­ing less than full engage­ment from those who view his work.

Kala­izis bor­rows bits and pieces from vari­ous con­tem­por­ary art trends. But he adapts them to his explor­a­tion of recog­niz­able sub­jects, dis­tor­ted to make the famil­i­ar unfa­mil­i­ar and end­lessly evoc­at­ive. He works from the per­spect­ive of a film dir­ect­or, using all the tools in the painter’s arsenal.
As in per­form­ance art, or the dis­par­ate array of objects in an install­a­tion, Kala­izis’ work demands par­ti­cip­a­tion of the audi­ence, in order to inter­pret the uncan­nily beau­ti­ful world he por­trays. His pas­sion and ima­gin­a­tion ignite the viewer’s curi­os­ity, so the observ­er is forced to become a co-cre­at­or and decoder. Kala­izis cites Thomas Bernhard’s credo: “The most essen­tial things lie in that which is concealed.”
What’s included in Kala­izis’ paint­ings is, of course, sig­ni­fic­ant. But the empty space, too, is almost palp­able, equally import­ant as the objects. The scen­ari­os are rife with pos­sib­il­ity: “My pas­sion is to find a loc­a­tion, where you have the feel­ing that some­thing could arise which has nev­er exis­ted before,” as Kala­izis has said. With his strong sense of design, he con­structs sol­id space from inter­sect­ing ver­tic­als, hori­zont­als, and diag­on­als. Yet something’s always a bit off, irra­tion­al – like a safe place for unsafe ideas.
Regard­less of how men­acing some of the works seem, the demands they place on the view­er to resolve their mys­tery spring from con­fid­ence in human poten­tial. Kala­izis’ art is not easy. He doesn’t “dumb down” his ideas. The work is rig­or­ous, hard-fought, and hard-won. He requires noth­ing less than full engage­ment from those who view his work.

The rewards are com­men­sur­ate with the effort. Kala­izis hopes that sight as well as doubt will bloom, like the bright flower that reappears in his paint­ings, into insight. It’s a heavy bur­den for a paint­ing to bear, but Kala­izis has said of his art: “Much has been gained if it is able to make a life worthy of affirmation.” 
We may nev­er resolve the con­tra­dic­tions and arranged oppos­ites inher­ent in his paint­ings, but if they make us feel and think, if they stir us up and force us to for­mu­late our own answers to his ques­tions, they’ve suc­ceeded admirably.

Aris Kalaizis and Carol Strickland (NYC, 2007)
Aris Kalaizis and Carol Strickland (NYC, 2007)

©2006 Car­ol Strick­land | Aris Kalaizis

Car­ol Strick­land, Ph. D., born in 1946, is a freel­ance art crit­ic who writes for a num­ber of sev­er­al news­pa­pers and magazines. She is the author of "The Annot­at­et Mona Lisa (2007), a book on art his­tory and archi­tec­ture, among oth­er pub­lic­a­tions. Strick­land lives and works in New York City.

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