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.