Aris Kalaizis

The most essential things lie in that which is concealed

Jan Siegt describes in this artist's‑discussion the Leipzig-based artist Aris Kala­izis as a cryptic paint­er who rebels with form­al sever­ity, against the piti­less decon­struc­tion of our mod­ern age. In this inter­view becomes clear that his start­ing point will be nev­er based on desi­pher­ing or demystification

Aris Kalaizis at the maerzgalerie Leipzig
Aris Kalaizis at the maerzgalerie Leipzig

Siegt: Accord­ing to a com­mon pre­ju­dice which is wide­spread among admirers as well as detract­ors, here in Ger­many we under­stand paint­ing from the point of view of ”real­ism” as if a paint­ing could be dir­ectly based on a giv­en obser­va­tion. May I ask you to tell us straight­for­wardly about the way you under­stand painting.

K: The European paint­ing tra­di­tion in itself shows us, and this is apart from the dif­fer­ent, flat con­cep­tion of real­ism from the 19th cen­tury, that paint­ing is an inven­ted real­ity. Before and after this time this had always been obvi­ous. Wheth­er or not one works fig­ur­at­ively, abstrac­tion or the abil­ity to cre­ate abstrac­tion should be an essen­tial skill.

S: I’m ask­ing since the ques­tion of reduc­tion or of avoid­ing and omit­ting is of cent­ral import­ance. Could you say that the pro­cess of abstrac­tion serves simplification?

K: Well, you could say so, although I need the pur­ity and clar­ity of the back­ground in order to provide a sup­port for the scen­ari­os which are not neces­sar­ily so obvi­ous. What I need is the per­spect­ive order of space, the inter­ac­tion of col­or, which includes the util­iz­a­tion of a strictly lim­ited palette.

S: Accord­ing to this could one say that the per­ceiv­ing obser­va­tion ought to be com­ple­men­ted by a con­struct­ive imagination.

… but a func­tion­ing rep­res­ent­at­ive paint­ing can nev­er exist without abstraction

K: Yes, no ques­tion about it! Yet in your ques­tion you have expressed a gen­er­al mis­un­der­stand­ing, as if there were an almost unbridge­able con­trast between rep­res­ent­a­tion and abstrac­tion. Of course an an abstract image can exist without any form of rep­res­ent­a­tion, but a func­tion­ing rep­res­ent­at­ive paint­ing can nev­er exist without abstraction.

S: These days a lot of people under­stand abstrac­tion to be some­thing removed from real­ity. Just as if the term in itself does not have a rela­tion­ship to life, as if abstrac­tion is based in a sphere of miss­ing con­nectiv­ity. I under­stand that you are of a dif­fer­ent opin­ion and per­haps you could dis­cuss this a bit?

K: Just recently I was at a ter­rible exhib­i­tion, where I noticed an typ­ic­al example of this. In this pic­ture, which was a paint­ing, you could see a garden in the sum­mer­time. There were a con­sid­er­able num­ber of trees with count­less apples and oranges hanging from them. In front of these, about in the cen­ter of the pic­ture, there was a table with some chairs. Lean­ing on this table there was a shovel, and on one of the chairs there were even some garden scissors. 

In this image there was also a man, who seemed to be determ­ined to attack the observ­er, which in this case meant me. Not only did this guy wear a feath­er in his hat, he also car­ried a briefcase, and from that briefcase the title of a book, painted very pre­cisely, was peek­ing out. Although this paint­ing was undeni­ably executed with a sound crafts­man­ship, it was still a bad picture.

Aris Kalaizis "Arbogast" (2003)
Aris Kalaizis "Arbogast" (2003)

S: So you’ve used an example to the con­trary as an explanation?

K: This is because in that pic­ture, and there are many of these ulti­mately dumb pic­tures, things are only being described one after the oth­er without there being a need for this. 
The need to present some things and to omit oth­ers is a mat­ter of the con­scious­ness, or tech­nic­ally speak­ing, a mat­ter of the human pro­cessor. I judge the qual­ity of a paint­ing based on the spaces between objects which seem sig­ni­fic­ant at first glance. 
The space in-between is of the same import­ance and thus demands the same amount of con­cen­tra­tion. The equal rep­res­ent­a­tion of things in the sense of a homo­gen­eous descrip­tion, no mat­ter how well executed, is tir­ing and shows that the paint­er is lim­ited with­in his own méti­er, since he is not able to think on a broad­er scale.

…the qual­ity of a paint­ing based on the spaces between objects

S: This might be con­nec­ted with the fact that some artists see the degree of resemb­lance which their rep­res­ent­a­tions achieve as a criterion. 

K: I agree with you. And copy­ing is a mere mat­ter of crafts­man­ship, which in my opin­ion does not yet have any­thing to do with art. I’m also against a kind of paint­ing which ties its value only to the degree of recog­nis­ab­il­ity. I’m against paint­ing the already exist­ing, against por­traits, against unfiltered land­scape paint­ing, so to speak against the entire palette of the ”sum­mer­time garden.” Wouldn’t it be a skill­ful applic­a­tion, if you manip­u­late the object and thus cre­ate a dif­fer­ent situ­ation, which bears a some­what irrit­at­ing factor. 
Thus, I am able to oppose some­thing and at the same time I’m able to enjoy cer­tain aspects of it. 
This is my con­stant oppos­i­tion, a con­tra­dict­ory search for a scale which unites both the high and the low notes. Just as after my child­hood I always felt the urge to inter­rupt every­body who star­ted to speak with great sig­ni­fic­ance and to say some­thing ridicu­lous; I’ve used this atti­tude later for myself and have applied it in my painting.

Aris Kalaizis "The Ideal Crash" (2002/03)
Aris Kalaizis "The Ideal Crash" (2002/03)

S: It has nev­er been your ambi­tion to rep­res­ent a veri­fi­able real­ity, but it has been your ambi­tion to cre­ate a real­ity which is sug­gest­ive enough in order to make its veri­fic­a­tion unne­ces­sary. Any resemb­lance with the real­ity of your scenes thus seem to be trivi­al. How­ever, I’d like to return to you state­ment accord­ing to which the true work of art is inher­ently an irrit­a­tion, an incom­plete­ness, lying out­side the realm of plaus­ib­il­ity and reas­on. Well, I’ve known you for some time and I know how long you labor over a paint­ing. In oth­er words I’d like to say that a cer­tain per­fec­tion­ism can­not be denied, but doesn’t your state­ment con­cern­ing the incom­plete­ness of a work stand in con­trast to the endeavor to cre­ate a per­fect picture?

K: First of all I believe that there is no such thing as a ”true work of art.” There is only art and non-art. The abso­lute work of art is, of course, a pure illu­sion, mar­velous, and it can­not be achieved by any means what­so­ever. Nev­er­the­less, it ought to be attempted! 

S: Is it neces­sary that one strives for this? 

K: Abso­lutely! You need to want this. If you don’t want this, you have already lost. Over time things are cor­rec­ted anyway. 

S: You have an inten­tion, but what really occurs, arises dur­ing the work pro­cess. And that which occurs determ­ines the fol­low­ing steps. You men­tioned earli­er the equal value of the space in-between, and I’d like to ask you if one could state that paint­ing is a mat­ter of bal­ance with­in the format of a picture.

There is only art and non-art

K: Well, you can­not claim that as a prin­ciple for every paint­ing, and yet I sense the accur­acy of this state­ment. Yes, you could say that paint­ing is a kind of weight lift­ing of unequal shapes, and the paint­er is a dis­trib­ut­or of power between the forces. This is because each painted shape con­fronts me with new ques­tions and it is my task to answer these in the course of the process. 

S: When one views great works of art, one often has the impres­sion that the artist was in a state of unaware­ness at the moment of their cre­ation. Everything that he does seems to be driv­en by instinct, as if the artist were work­ing out­side of reas­on. You once men­tioned.… ”you only have to wait until God immerses Him­self with­in you.” But tell me spe­cific­ally, where is this point, at which you decide how a paint­ing will be driv­en forward?

K: Well, this is a com­plic­ated pro­cess which is dif­fi­cult to put into a nut­shell. In my case the decision as to how a paint­ing ought to be star­ted is a pro­cess which begins a long time before the actu­al painting.

S: Am I cor­rect in assum­ing that you don’t work with the help of draw­ings or sketches?

K: That’s right, I nev­er do. Often this con­cerns unob­trus­ive places which I’m already famil­i­ar with, and which at some point, totally out of the blue, begin to form the basis, the façade for fur­ther work. My start­ing point is nev­er an occur­rence or an event, it is always a place. For myself places are the spaces, the bor­ders, which pro­duce occurrences.

Aris Kalaizis "The Visit" (2001)
Aris Kalaizis "The Visit" (2001)

S: Could you give us an example?

K: For many weeks I walked past one of the many fact­ory yards in the south dis­trict of Leipzig and at first I felt noth­ing of sig­ni­fic­ance. To be hon­est, it is dif­fi­cult for me to give an account of this pro­cess in ret­ro­spect. But in any case, this back­ground, which I have elab­or­ated in the paint­ing ”Die große Hoffnung” (The Great Hope), must have acted as a det­on­at­or. I ima­gined that image with its sur­faces in a purely abstract man­ner, and I then took a photo and took this to my stu­dio. At that time I had no idea of how to con­tin­ue with this work.

S: And then you waited for a composition?

K: I waited? This has to be pro­duced. Only that this is a really long and drawn-out design­ing pro­cess. I com­pare myself to a film dir­ect­or in the per­fect­ing of a single shot, and I know that I can trust upon the fact that dur­ing the paint­ing pro­cess insights will arise, which one has not con­sidered dur­ing the begin­ning stage. There are always two things, com­pos­i­tion and hope, that the final image will be derived through detours. Of course there are sign­posts, and I got lost and arrived at a place to which I did not intend to go. But by now I know that you shouldn’t get star­ted without the famil­i­ar structures.

S: I was about to ask you about the neces­sity of pho­to­graphs, but now I don’t have to any­more. So you puri­fy the loc­a­tion, you make it access­ible and there­fore turn it into an hab­it­able place. How­ever, it seems that your loc­a­tions are scenes from an eer­ie home. The pre­ci­sion of the exe­cu­tion entices one to feel seem­ingly safe. Only later can one sense the unsafe found­a­tion, because this begins to shake. You take two steps for­ward and then one step back…

K: …to the side. But first I would like to go back to the ques­tion you with­drew con­cern­ing pho­to­graphy. Already before the begin­ning of my stud­ies pho­to­graphy was an oppor­tun­ity for me to real­ize my paint­ing. I used pho­to­graphs already at a very early stage in my devel­op­ment, at first by no means as a concept, but rather for reas­ons of imper­fec­tion. I decided to attend the loc­al school and trained in the pro­fes­sion of a photo lab assist­ant, and in order to con­front my inab­il­ity I even­tu­ally made my own prints. 
Then as now I had no know­ledge of the ana­tomy of a dog. But a photo offered me the oppor­tun­ity to impart the appear­ance of know­ledge regard­ing anatomy. 
You can believe me, rep­res­ent­ing objects in a way that com­plies with myself, took me much too long, and I have to admit that I’m quite a late bloom­er. Of course there are also pic­tures that a quick sketch artist provides in a skill­ful man­ner. But that was nev­er my aim! The pho­to­graph offers me the neces­sary dis­tance in order to keep the whole object in my con­scious­ness without hindrance.

S: I have already asked about the loc­a­tion, because it does not only give room for inven­tion, but also because I have the impres­sion it is pre­served as a dis­tinct­ive location.

K: Fant­ast­ic! That is my ambi­tion. To have a loc­a­tion, a stage, where one must feel that some­thing dis­tinct­ive might be about to happen.

S: Although painted, the char­ac­ters of your scenes remain very close to a photo. You don’t seem to be inter­ested in excess­ive­ness or in the over­draw­ing of indi­vidu­al sub­jects, as we know this from paint­ing. Would it be a mis­take to assume that you are not inter­ested in express­ive gestures?

K: You have to con­sider that the pre­par­a­tion pro­cess alone for a single image might be longer than the time peri­od of the actu­al paint­ing. This means: each object, each detail no mat­ter how unim­port­ant it might be is giv­en its assigned place by me. The dramat­iz­a­tion of the image com­pos­i­tion, the com­pos­i­tion of the image plane as well as a meas­ured applic­a­tion of the usage of col­or all require far too much con­cen­tra­tion for me to get involved addi­tion­ally in impulses that arise while paint­ing. That would simply be ask­ing too much of me. I also think that an express­ive nature would not be suit­able for this kind of painting. 

S: Well, we prob­ably could assume that the prot­ag­on­ists of your pic­tures are not just any people, and they thus don’t require a fur­ther over draw­ing of expression.

K: Well, of course they don’t just appear coin­cid­ent­ally in my pic­tures, although all of them are involved lay people from among my broad circle of acquaint­ances as well as from my small circle of friends. For instance you could find a fel­low paint­er, a law­yer, a music journ­al­ist, a go-go girl, etc. The only dif­fi­culty that comes up is first for all of them to over­come the pecu­li­ar cir­cum­stances they find them­selves in and to get rid of their own sub­jectiv­ity for a moment.

S: The the­at­ric­al ges­tures of your char­ac­ters appear to me like ciphers of mod­ern com­mu­nic­a­tion, as if they refer to rela­tion­ships among each oth­er. We have already spoken about the loc­a­tion as an extern­al reas­on. You your­self once referred to your­self as a ”fil­ter” between an out­er real­ity and a designed real­ity. Would you have any­thing against say­ing that your ”fil­ter” might have anoth­er pos­sible coun­ter­part as an intern­al location.

K: Without a doubt. This intern­al loc­a­tion, as you call it, can be, must be determ­ined by me. Once it is determ­ined, the char­ac­ters receive their home.

S: How is it revealed if both loc­a­tions have been brought together?

K: If you are strict enough with respect to your­self, then you already know after a very short time if a paintin­gis devel­op­ing or not. Per­haps this is a kind of decision driv­en by instinct. To know that when you have enough you have to stop. You can hear it in the sound of a ves­sel when you pour some­thing into it. When the tone becomes high­er, then it is sens­ible to fin­ish the matter.

S: This is already our third dis­cus­sion, and I can say with com­plete impar­ti­al­ity that you have always been chan­ging. But one cent­ral theme has always been present up to cur­rent time: the series. You have often worked with series. Does this have to do with the fact that you see each indi­vidu­al image in a con­tinu­ous change, in chan­ging sequences? In this respect I noticed that dur­ing our first dis­cus­sion which took place in 1997 I had already found a par­al­lel to film, which I can see today with an even stronger affinity. 

K: That’s true, I have often worked in series. And if there weren’t this cent­ral sys­tem of paint­ing, the single paint­ing, which is typ­ic­al for the indi­vidu­al­ism and cap­it­al­ism, in oth­er words for single apart­ments, made dir­ectly for those people, who buy it for them­selves and hang it on the wall, if all these struc­tures did not exist, I believe I would work even more in series. The inten­tion to work in series, how­ever, has not always been present at the begin­ning of the work. For instance, when I began with the work in the series ”The Ideal Crash,” I first inten­ded to paint only one single pic­ture, the one of the woman lying alone.

S: What moved you then to cre­ate fur­ther pictures?

K: My drive in the begin­ning was, as it so often is: faith and hope…

S:…to make it better?

K: That’s right. The inten­tion to improve. Thus the second image is cre­ated which refers to the first and the third refers to the two pre­vi­ous ones and so on.

S: Do you remem­ber the order in which they were created?

K: Of course, although I did not paint them in the same order in which they can been seen in the final series. In any case, as men­tioned before, there was an image which mani­fes­ted itself inside me. This is very pecu­li­ar, since it is just impossible for me to explain the ini­tial moment. How­ever, this first image remained in my con­scious­ness as a fixed pres­ence. I sensed that there was some­thing I had to do with this image, to find oth­er images which pre­ceded or fol­lowed it. This is a kind of lengthy, doz­ing nap, in a state of appar­ent calmness and com­pos­ure, when things flour­ish and gradu­ally cre­ate their context

S: The aston­ish­ing ele­ment in the four-part series ”The Ideal Crash” is the con­sist­ent repe­ti­tion of the back­ground of the paint­ing, which up to now I have only encountered in films and pho­to­graphs. I have already men­tioned the cine­mat­ic term of ”sequence” and would still like to ask you more dir­ectly about how import­ant film is for you.

K: To be hon­est I have little know­ledge of film, and there­fore I’m not a pas­sion­ate film enthu­si­ast. Nev­er­the­less I believe that paint­ing and film, as far as I’m con­cerned, are two great inven­tions. I see film as at least equal to paint­ing, where­as the cinema can be a pleas­ant sanc­tu­ary for my jour­ney. I try to find small uto­pi­as there, which put me in a state of awe. The cine­mat­ic sequence, which you men­tioned, serves to keep the space small and yet to attempt to open it to the out­side. Just like I believe in gen­er­al that you don’t need to wander around for a long time in order to find your sub­ject. It is often the small, unob­trus­ive things, which con­ceal the greatness.

S: Inev­it­ably, Kant’s out­line of life comes to mind, to be in one place and search for what is beyond…

K: …not at all like that, because this out­line, no mat­ter how import­ant it may be, is not really based on an involved exper­i­ence. Not hav­ing to go very far, that is what I mean by sift­ing and rum­ma­ging through things on a small scale.

…recog­nize that the clearest form pos­sible is my effort and toil and my joy as well

S: In gen­er­al one can say that the expres­sion of your most recent paint­ings is char­ac­ter­ized by a loc­a­tion, which actu­ally does not need to change, as long as it can dis­cov­er oth­er things. In fact the places of action, which hardly alter, cre­ate a loc­a­tion which becomes more enriched from image to image, a loc­a­tion which is sim­il­ar to a land­scape going more into depth than into breadth. Radi­at­ing from this ori­gin, which seems to have more of a spir­al shape that a circle, the uni­verse of your paint­ings moves. Your paint­ing com­pos­i­tions, as have already determ­ined, need time, a lot of time, and there­fore seem to oppose a post-mod­ern under­stand­ing. I would thus like to ask you suc­cinctly: What does the term speed mean to you?

K: Do you mean that post-mod­ern­ism and a rather hes­it­at­ing work­ing pro­cess stand in oppos­i­tion to each other?

S: Let me state it dif­fer­ently: Have you observed the incred­ible pro­duc­tion out­put of some of your colleagues?

K: Okay, now I under­stand. Of course, to a cer­tain extent one can­not ignore this. One can observe this or that mech­an­ism and one can accept or reject this. But without tak­ing a clear stand, one is lost. When I char­ac­ter­ized myself as a late bloom­er, then this was because it took too long to recog­nize that the clearest form pos­sible is my effort and toil and my joy as well. 

S: And a thought­ful and reflect­ing work­ing pro­cess is per­haps one of your ideals?

K: Sure, this slower, thought­ful observing what you do your­self is cer­tainly my ideal, which prob­ably has an effect on the actu­al paint­ing process.

S: Do you con­cern your­self with the obser­va­tion habits of those people who view your paintings?

K: I’m afraid I do and I believe there are not more that about thirty per­cent who are cap­able of under­stand­ing a pic­ture. This is often very dis­cour­aging, espe­cially since it is very exhaust­ing to paint pic­tures. But the fact that paint­ing plays a very small role or no role at all in the con­scious­ness of most people, is some­thing that I felt even when I was a novice, and there­fore I haven’t been suf­fer­ing great defeats. This fact made me tough at a rather early stage.

S: You require a lot of the observ­er, and there­fore I asked the ques­tion. Even among those people who think they under­stand some­thing about art, art is a mat­ter of taste. Haven’t you ever con­sidered to cre­ate paint­ings which many con­sider to be more pleas­ant and simpler?

K: Of course, I’ve thought about this, since noth­ing is closer to me than doubt. But to lose one’s belief in one­self and his paint­ings, in favor of the major­ity ratio is a high price which I am not will­ing to pay. You have to be clev­er in order to achieve this, but the post-mod­ern play­ful irony, which I’m very famil­i­ar with, was no longer enough for me. At some point one becomes afraid, that one will not be allowed to enter the league of great painters.

…I learned from paint­ings more about life, about eco­nomy, than from all of their guid­ing prin­ciples and ban­ner slogans

S: But surely you hope that your paint­ings will be liked?

K: Besides that, I not only want open the eyes of some people, I also want the close the eyes of oth­ers. You have to under­stand: I find an excess­ive har­mony to be sus­pi­cious. There is some­how a proof of qual­ity in dis­har­mony. This does not mean that this is inev­it­able but it can be the case. 

S: In our first dis­cus­sion in 1997 you men­tioned ”that one can only paint con­vin­cingly, when one’s heart opens up, or in con­trast when one is angered.”

K: Yes, that is involved. 

S: Would you say that the num­ber of aes­thet­ic­ally sens­it­ive people is smal­ler today?

K: I don’t know. These kind of prob­lems prob­ably exis­ted one hun­dred years ago. Just recently I had a funny thought, that the aes­thet­ic sens­it­iv­ity of a soci­ety can be judged by its abil­ity to dress. This surely is pure non­sense and can’t be jus­ti­fied by any­thing, but just look at what is pur­chased today. It doesn’t mat­ter if the cloth­ing is beau­ti­ful or ugly. As long as there is a label on it, people will buy it without any sense for aesthetic. 

S: As a soci­olo­gist it is easi­er for me to claim that people are less crit­ic­al now that in former times, which means they are dir­ec­ted more by advert­ise­ments than by the actu­al product. How­ever, I would like to come back to the quote from 1997, because accord­ing to my inter­pret­a­tion, a prin­ciple theme is expressed, which I would like to call by the term love. But per­haps this isn’t true. 

K: Well, I wouldn’t argue with that. Without love you might as well just stay in bed all day. If a mat­ter with a great sig­ni­fic­ance is rep­res­en­ted so form­ally and mean­ing­lessly, if it was not exper­i­enced from with­in. It will nev­er make an impres­sion and will nev­er acquire a format. Of course, I also know the situ­ation when a work is only executed extern­ally, the heart and love for a thing become lost. Con­versely, a trivi­al thing can call incred­ible cre­ation into being. For instance I recently stood in front of a late Rib­era and it over­came me with its power. From this paint­ing I learned more about life, about eco­nomy, than from all of their guid­ing prin­ciples and ban­ner slo­gans. These are com­pres­sions of an inner joy! Art is always a joy, wheth­er or not I rep­res­ent some­thing cheer­ful or some­thing tra­gic. That is an import­ant factor, you know this as well, don’t you.

Aris Kala­izis, awar­det the art prize of the Volks­banken und Raif­feis­en­banken in 2002, is one of the most cryptic paint­ers of our time. Form­ally strict, he revolts against the mer­ci­less decon­struc­tions of the mod­ern age. He is con­nec­ted wit the New Leipzig School.

(Source: Cata­logue Aris Kalaizis‚Brancard’, 2003)

Foto: © Andreas Döring (2009), Aris Kalaizis

© Aris Kalaizis 2023