Aris Kalaizis

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: The Struggle Against Photographic Vision

Dr. phil. Tom Huhn teaches aes­thet­ics and philo­sophy at the School of Visu­al Arts (NYC). In his essay he leads us the New Leipzig School – paint­er Aris Kala­izis into the break place between pho­to­graph and painting

Aris Kalaizis, Detail: Twins (2008)
Aris Kalaizis, Detail: Twins (2008)

Leipzig paint­er Aris Kala­izis’ recent works push hard against the cent­ral unavoid­able fact of our cur­rent visu­al life: the per­plex­ity of try­ing to look at things and at the world with some­thing oth­er than pho­to­graph­ic vis­ion. View­ing these paint­ings we watch as this fact becomes the per­vas­ive issue of Kala­izis’ work, appear­ing at once in both their themes as well as across their sur­faces. The paint­ings seem to imply that the medi­um of pho­to­graphy not only too often reduces the world to noth­ing but seem­ing inform­a­tion, it also, thereby, flat­tens exper­i­ence to the over­all look of the photograph.

But why might any­one, and in this case Kala­izis’ paint­ings, protest against pho­to­graphy? What is pur­portedly so dan­ger­ous about pho­to­graphs; can’t we simply ignore them or even just prag­mat­ic­ally take whatever we find of use in them? One answer is that the premise of pho­to­graphy effects a back­ward, sweep­ing implic­a­tion: because pho­tos repro­duce the world homo­gen­eously and gen­er­ic­ally then the world that lends itself to such repro­duc­tion must already be homo­gen­eous and generic.

Pho­tos thus assault the thought that whatever there is to see must be a made, con­struc­ted thing, in oth­er words, an image. Thus the pho­to­graph­ic ‘image’ is a kind of oxy­mor­on, for the pho­to­graph begins as a thing deny­ing the arti­fac­tu­al nature of its image. This com­plaint is not simply that the hand of the paint­er, draughts­man, or engraver is absent from the pho­to­graph, or that the pho­to­graph­ic appar­at­us some­how sub­sti­tutes for this (or even that one objects to the look of the pho­to­graph), the objec­tion is rather that this very absence some­how becomes the pho­to­graph­ic pre­requis­ite for the value of its pur­por­ted image.

What the pho­to­graph offers, strictly speak­ing, is not an image at all, but an agglom­er­a­tion of image-like com­pon­ents which, togeth­er, give the illu­sion of being an image. This is what Roland Barthes fam­ously dis­covered and named the punctum of every pho­to­graph: the wound of its hav­ing had excised the pos­sib­il­ity of being a true image. Still, what makes nearly every pho­to­graph com­pel­ling is just this ventriloquist’s illu­sion. Like the dummy on the lap of some­thing real, pho­tos seem to speak – ima­gist­ic­ally even – but the ori­gin of that which allows them to appear so real to us always lies else­where, away from us and unre­cov­er­able. Pho­tos are thereby at once uncanny but nearly always banal.

Kala­izis’ paint­ings work most insist­ently on and against just these two ele­ments of pho­to­graph­ic images: the uncanny, or, that which seems so insist­ently mean­ing­ful, and, the banal, or that whose mean­ing seems so flatly obvi­ous. Nearly any of the most recent paint­ings can serve as demon­stra­tion. Pen­tagrass (2006) will work just fine. The wax­i­ness of the Hazmat suits worn by the three fig­ures is an allu­sion to the fate of flesh under the régime of the cam­era whereby flesh takes on the prom­ise of a vis­cos­ity, sheen, and a ready yield­ing­ness (has flesh ever prom­ised so much as when it appears in a photograph?).
But this wax­i­ness cuts at least two ways: one is toward the illu­sion of pre­served life­like­ness in the flesh of waxed fruit. The oth­er is toward the waxy appear­ance of the flesh of human corpses. The device of the Hazmat suit allows Kala­izis to emphas­ize what is else­where a far more subtle appear­ance of waxy flesh in many of his oth­er paint­ings, for example, the two pair of Nike and Psemata paint­ings. Pentagrass’s left fore­ground – from which the per­spect­ive of the paint­ing pro­ceeds – con­tains the chalk out­line of a murder vic­tim. Note how one of the Hazmat fig­ures has a foot on the head of the out­lined vic­tim, as if to sig­nal a dis­reg­ard for and com­pli­city in the destruc­tion of the drawn fig­ure. The hose, appear­ing from the left and encirc­ling the three fig­ures like the ser­pent of the Lao­coon group, enters the paint­ing by decap­it­at­ing the chalk fig­ure. The hose also func­tions as a nar­rat­ive of fig­ur­a­tion and pho­to­graphy, for the fig­ures them­selves altern­ately struggle with and against it. The hose might also rep­res­ent the con­tinu­ity of the tra­di­tion of drawn and painted fig­ures – no won­der the hose must be treated pho­to­graph­ic­ally as itself some­thing tox­ic. Altern­ately, the hose might carry the anti­dote to that tra­di­tion, or, per­haps it is being dragged, how­ever reluct­antly, into the new tra­di­tion that is pho­to­graphy. In sum, giv­en the chalk out­line of a corpse (though even the corpse is absent), whatever neces­sit­ates the Hazmat suits, the deathly-flesh appear­ance of those same suits, the allu­sion to the Lao­coon group, etc. we might say that the death­li­ness of the pho­to­graph­ic image is here pre­cisely over­de­termined. The ques­tion to ask then is what life, kind of life, or even lively impulse makes these appear­ances of death so press­ing. That is, and to put it psy­cho­ana­lyt­ic­ally, how should we char­ac­ter­ize whatever the life impulse is that struggles so unre­mit­tingly against the mul­ti­pli­city of death­li­ness in this painting?

We could go after Kala­izis’ encounter with pho­to­graph­ic vis­ion anoth­er way: by way of the gap or fis­sure that seems to struc­ture each of his paint­ings. One over­arch­ing gap is the lacuna that exists in each of the painting’s nar­rat­ives. The gaps yawn on both sides of the events depic­ted: in Pen­tagrass the moment depic­ted leads some­place utterly unpre­dict­able and, import­antly, unfore­see­able. But so too does the moment­ary image of the paint­ing arrive from some­place inex­plic­able and rather unima­gin­able. It is not so much that the paint­ing alludes to a break in the nar­rat­ive of which it is a vital moment, as it is rather that the paint­ing gives a nar­rat­ive charge, an illu­sion of nar­rat­ive, without any of the integ­ra­tion neces­sary to com­pose a nar­rat­ive. One might best describe this effect as “nar­rat­ive-like”. We could say that each paint­ing par­takes of the “as if” qual­ity, each could func­tion as if nar­rat­ively, though strangely without any ele­ment that would have the nar­rat­ive con­geal. In just this way Kala­izis’ paint­ings mim­ic – but to an extreme that no single pho­to­graph could achieve – the con­vic­tion of the real­ity of the nar­rat­ive seem­ingly appar­ent in every photo.

The paint­ing titled Bahren (2007) offers an example of this sphinx-like nar­rat­ive riddle: what pos­sibly could have promp­ted the arrival of the semi-nude woman knee-deep in a pool of water illu­min­ated by auto head­lights; and so too, what might next hap­pen? The nar­rat­ive fis­sure with­in each of Kala­izis’ recent paint­ings might also be acknow­ledged in the real­iz­a­tion that it is impossible to dis­cern wheth­er the com­pel­ling event has just occurred or is instead just about to occur. The sad­ness, indeed the mourn­ful qual­ity of these paint­ings, is recog­ni­tion of their inab­il­ity to suc­ceed narratively.

A paint­ing such as Deaf­con No. 1 (2006) even makes light of this pho­to­graph­ic absence of nar­rat­ive con­tent in the midst of a sub­stant­ive nar­rat­ive con­vic­tion: here the self-por­trait fig­ure illu­min­ates a wall fully blank with mean­ing. The fig­ure leans for­ward toward the wall expect­ing to find some mark that might redeem his conviction.

And yet the three door­ways of the paint­ing imply that the view­er is more likely to find a way through the wall than encounter some mean­ing­ful mark. Such a mark (non­pho­to­graph­ic!) would – pre­cisely by thwart­ing our for­ward pro­gress through the implied trans­par­ency of the wall – instead pro­duct­ively con­found us. So too in The Allies (2007) does the self-por­trait fig­ure again have hold of a light fix­ture, but in this case the paint­er tilts it dir­ectly into his face.

Peer­ing into the light here shows that light itself is to be inter­rog­ated – per­haps for its com­pli­city with pho­to­graphy – rather than taken for gran­ted or used as the means by which some mean­ing might be brought into exist­ence. It is as if the light holds some secret of its own mean­ing­ful­ness, of how it is able to illu­min­ate and bring meaning.

©2009 Tom Huhn | Aris Kalaizis

Tom Huhn, Ph.D. in philo­sophy , was born in 1957, and is the chair of the Art His­tory Depart­ment and BFA Visu­al and Crit­ic­al Stud­ies Depart­ment at the School of Visu­al Arts. He is the author of "Imit­a­tion and Soci­ety: The Per­cistance of Mimes­is in the aes­thet­ics of burke, Hog­ar­th and Kant" (2004) among oth­er pub­lic­a­tions. Huhn lives in New York City.

© Aris Kalaizis 2023