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).