Aris Kalaizis

Focused Contingency

The Ber­lin journ­al­ist Tom Mus­troph describes 15 years after the wall came down in his essay the Leipzig paint­er Aris Kala­izis and his hunt for images, the time in the GDR as well and his love to soccer

Aris Kalaizis | Fargo I | Oil on canvas | 55 x 69 in | 2002
Aris Kalaizis | Fargo I | Oil on canvas | 55 x 69 in | 2002

Aris Kala­izis is a mas­ter of the enig­mat­ic. Part of his mas­tery lies in his abil­ity to lull the view­er into a sense of secur­ity. The details of his paint­ings are taken from every­day life. They appear harm­less: a con­crete wall, a patch of grass, a piece of wood­land, semi-trans­par­ent glass panes, and between these objects nor­mal people. From these ele­ments, Kala­izis, just like a demi­urge, cre­ates worlds that we seem to know and believe to pop­u­late. Yet they exhib­it an intens­ity, an aura, even a cre­ation of the secret and the threat­en­ing, which we think we have erased from our every­day life – and which con­front us here in the guise of the banal. Broad Street No. 100 (2005), for example. A lobby of an office build­ing. A secur­ity guard stands in front of an elev­at­or. His hand points roughly in the dir­ec­tion of the elev­at­or. Per­haps he is show­ing someone the way, ges­tur­ing for someone to go on. At second glance, the view­er real­izes that the secur­ity guard is study­ing his hand. What is he look­ing for in his hand? Per­haps he wants to read his own palm. Does he miss the gun which his hand had held? Did someone steal it from him…and he still can­not believe it? What about the fig­ure on the left? The view­er sees only a leg, two feet, an arm. The fig­ure appears limp. Has the life been drained from him? Does this person’s state have some­thing to do with whatever the secur­ity guard is miss­ing? Is this a crime scene? Where is the cul­prit? The scene, the place where the events must have occurred, is deser­ted. No clues are left behind on the floor, which is abnor­mally clean. Reflec­tions shine on the wall. Are they signs? 
Is it pos­sible to recog­nize some­thing in the reflec­tion? Uncon­sciously, the view­er steps into the pic­ture and tries to ana­lyze the rela­tion­ship between the fig­ures and to find mean­ing in the objects. You can do this for a while but will not arrive at a final con­clu­sion. On the con­trary, you will grow only more con­fused, for you will sus­pect that everything you inter­pret in the places and in the rela­tion­ship between the fig­ures comes from you, the view­er. As the view­er of Kala­izis’ stage-like com­pos­i­tion, we see that which we want to see and that which we fear to see. 

The paint­er him­self refrains from describ­ing his pic­tures and explains con­vin­cingly that he is not after fin­esse. “My work is of a form­al nature”. The com­pos­i­tion is con­trolled by form, not by the sub­ject mat­ter, not by sta­ging.” But why do Kala­izis’ paint­ings call the view­er to engage in the act of deci­pher­ing? And why, above all, do they expose the viewer’s attempts to decipher as sys­tem­at­ic­ally futile but at the same time call for these attempts again? Why is this pro­cess triggered so massively by his works, and not by those of any oth­er painters?
In Kala­izis’ works we find ambi­gu­ity, a play on reflec­tions and recip­roc­al illu­sions, a mean­der­ing erosion of the fun­da­ment­als of that which we con­sider to be safe, just as Thomas Pyn­chon mas­ter­fully expressed in his works. In order to under­stand the lay­ers of Kala­izis’ works, I find it neces­sary to recall a series of encoun­ters with him.

Encounter I

In the begin­ning, it was an assign­ment. A call from the edit­or­i­al depart­ment: “Go to this new gal­lery in Char­lot­ten­burg and look at this. A young paint­er from Leipzig is show­ing his work there. He’s going to make it big someday.” A freel­ance journ­al­ist doesn’t ignore this kind of advice from an edit­or – after all, since the mid-nineties the Leipzig School has reached world­wide acclaim. And so on the way to Buck­ow – Brecht’s Buck­ow, that is – for a week­end get­away, I make a quick stop-over in the Quick­sil­ver Gal­lery. A quick stop-over?

A group of paint­ings, some still lying on the floor, some only tem­por­ar­ily labeled – the exhib­it Bran­card (2003) will open on this even­ing – grabs the viewer’s attention.

Fargo II | Oil on canvas | 55 x 69 in | 2002/03
Fargo II | Oil on canvas | 55 x 69 in | 2002/03

Con­crete ground, waist-high con­crete wall, a chain-link fence on top of it. On the ground are two people, who have just fallen, their hands held out as if to pro­tect them­selves. A man quickly rushes as he steps over them. He still has the entire width of the can­vas Fargo II (2002÷2003, 55 x 69 inch) to cross. The eyes of the woman lying on the side­walk attempt to catch the eyes of the flee­ing man. Does she want to read his mind by look­ing into his eyes? Is she send­ing out a warn­ing not to approach her? Her com­pan­ion, who is lying next to her, is look­ing out of the pic­ture and in the dir­ec­tion in which the man is hur­ry­ing. What could he pos­sibly see there? A threat? A vic­tim? The cause of the cata­strophe? Is the flee­ing man a hero? A crim­in­al? An under­cov­er policeman? 

A dif­fer­ent scene The Great Hope (2002): Again con­crete ground. A green brick wall of an indus­tri­al build­ing. A steel door. A man sit­ting on the ground with his back against the door. Pre­sum­ably a tramp. He throws an orange plastic bag to a woman whose short black coat, which she has thrown over her white under­gar­ments, unveils her instead of cov­er­ing her. It’s a call for atten­tion, an offer of pro­tec­tion, at the same time a pro­pos­i­tion. Imme­di­ately the con­di­tions of des­ti­tu­tion and impov­er­ish­ment, in which both fig­ures find them­selves, become apparent.

Brecht’s lovely Buck­ow – the cozy week­end – at once this is all for­got­ten. My girl­friend, still sit­ting in the car, hadn’t slipped my mind – I wanted to run upstairs and have a quick look – but she’d have to wait. For more canvases are call­ing for my imme­di­ate and abso­lute atten­tion. Fargo I (2002), for example. It does not explain the source of con­fu­sion in “Fargo II”, as one might assume con­sid­er­ing the title, nor is it a pre­curs­or to Fargo II; rather, it is much more a dif­fer­ent epis­ode, a vari­ation of the theme. The view­er recog­nizes three prot­ag­on­ists, although in dif­fer­ent cloth­ing. Two of them crouch on the ground, mech­an­ic­ally seek­ing shel­ter behind the waste-high con­crete wall. One, stand­ing upright, gazes into the dis­tance, his eyes fol­low­ing the point­ing fin­ger of a new fig­ure. A threat, a sud­den change in the con­di­tion is felt. How­ever, one can­not dir­ectly observe the change, but instead must read it in the faces and the pos­ture of the stand­ing fig­ures. We have a choir in front of us, a kind of ancient choir who looks over the wall of the city and announces to those remain­ing in the Agora what approaches them, what threatens them, what might pass by them. Only the choir does not sing. Its form­a­tion, in which indi­vidu­al­ity was non-exist­ent, has dis­solved. Excite­ment has quieted the choir; it has dis­ban­ded into indi­vidu­al fig­ures. What these fig­ures see has imme­di­ately taken con­trol of their bod­ies, has entered their bod­ies, and car­ries out each struggle. We are the wit­nesses of all of this and we try to make sense of it.

Buck­ow has been lost in a dis­tance; what should one do in a lovely coun­tryside, overly depic­ted by admirers of Brecht, who has been inter­preted a mil­lion times and over dec­ades of theat­er per­form­ances? In com­par­is­on, min­is­cule is the time span that the view­er devotes to these barely dry canvases, which is in itself min­is­cule in com­par­is­on to the time that the paint­er spends in front of a paint­ing. One feels com­pelled to devote an equal amount of time deci­pher­ing motives, lines, the story of its com­ing into exist­ence, and con­stel­la­tions for each paint­ing. Buck­ow can wait. 

Kala­izis, so it emerges, paints movies. He nev­er cop­ies them. For example, where in his Fargo paint­ings is the snow of North Dakota, which is the sign of all-encom­passing loneli­ness in the film of the Coen broth­ers, and which con­nects at the same time in its all-encom­passing nature each dis­par­ate life in a hos­tile-friendly way? The painter’s snow is con­crete, chain-link fences, and enclosed lawns. At least in Europe, in Leipzig, where the lawn auto­mat­ic­ally ends at a chain-link fence. 

Just as Kala­izis does not extend the film onto the can­vas, his paint­ings are not still movie pic­tures taken from the flow of time. They are too pure, too con­struc­ted for that. There is no crack in the con­crete. There are no cigar­ette butts, no cola cans, no dead birds lying on the ground. The real­ity is not real­ist­ic; rather, it is abstract. 

This first impres­sion becomes stronger dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tion. The paint­er, who is busy hanging his paint­ings for the exhib­it, explains that he cre­ates primar­ily from his imme­di­ate envir­on­ment. How­ever, he reduces the abund­ance of details, which he finds on the way from his apart­ment to his stu­dio, to a few ele­ments. Leipzig’s pic­tur­esque decayed fact­ory archi­tec­ture is no longer recog­niz­able. The scenery comes across as cool, clear, and staged. Some­what artificial,”plain in an Amer­ic­an way”, as one likes to say in Europe.

The design pro­cess takes place slowly, reveals Kala­izis. First he goes on the search for pic­tures. He hunts down forms and then cap­tures them with his cam­era. He then sep­ar­ates and sorts his “catch”. Finally he chooses a pho­to­graph that con­tains noth­ing but the bare essen­tials. He declares it as the base of his con­struc­ted fantasy and hangs it above his bed. And he pon­ders. And he dreams. And he sleeps. In his mind he exper­i­ments with visu­al axes, light rela­tion­ships, col­ors, the rela­tion­ship between sharp and soft forms. A con­stel­la­tion, which will often become pop­u­lated, emerges rather uncon­sciously. But not by per­sons – that’s where the view­er often mis­in­ter­prets the paint­er; rather, by forms. They resemble per­sons: for example, a friend, a crit­ic, a col­league, his gal­ler­ist, his wife. How­ever, it’s not about per­sons; it’s about ele­ments, torn from every­day life, isol­ated and kept in his mind as schemata, which he later brings into the con­text of a paint­ing. Their pres­ence in the paint­ing allows them to be for­got­ten as pure form. But maybe one is still too influ­enced by Brecht, by fig­ures placed in struc­tures of power, who are prot­ag­on­ists of orders with their flesh-filled prin­ciples, and who are not just forms.

Encounter II

A second meet­ing, shortly before Kalaizis' first big show Uncer­tain Pur­suits (2005, Mar­burg) is marked at first by a more per­son­al exchange. We real­ize that we are almost the same age, that we both loved soc­cer earli­er in our lives – we always stuck with the small teams, the rebels, the ones without money (Chemie Leipzig and Uni­on Ber­lin). Yes, we prob­ably were even at cru­cial matches in the same city, in the same sta­di­um, only on dif­fer­ent sides. We both exper­i­enced East Ger­many, grew up in East Ger­many with all the secur­it­ies which no longer exist and with all the lim­it­a­tions which were imposed on us – and a few new ones have taken their place, but I will leave this dis­cus­sion out of this cata­logue. Aris Kala­izis grew up the son of Greek emig­rants, the son of chil­dren who were brought to East Ger­many by par­ents who feared for their lives dur­ing the Greek Civil War. Although integ­rated, they were rep­res­ent­at­ives of anoth­er cul­ture, a cul­ture that oth­ers often secretly admired, a cul­ture which could not truly exist. How­ever, it exis­ted through memor­ies, and – they dis­covered after 1989 – the cul­ture as they lived it in East Ger­many had dis­tanced itself from the nat­ive Greece, which had changed over time. One is apt to retrieve this pos­i­tion of the uncer­tain, the intro­ver­ted, the secret­ive con­tem­pla­tor in the work of the son of the emig­rants. How­ever, this would be con­sidered too determ­in­ist­ic, for it under­stands man in his com­plete and con­tra­dict­ory mold­ing and sees the artist as the skel­et­on of the social structure.

Memento | Oil on canvas | 31 x 43 in | 2004
Memento | Oil on canvas | 31 x 43 in | 2004

We talk some more about movies: Fargo of course; The Mat­rix with its inter­lock­ing of time and space; Dav­id Fincher’s Sev­en with its dis­mal alleg­or­ies; and Memento, Chris­toph­er Nolan’s thrill­er, which Kala­izis talks about excitedly. Auto­mat­ic­ally we get to the top­ics of gaps, uncer­tainty, and ambi­gu­ity. Good film dir­ect­ors define the uncer­tainty, which they leave to their view­ers’ wild inter­pret­a­tion. As do good paint­ers. The ambi­gu­ities in their work are how­ever not omis­sions; rather, they are con­tin­gen­cies, double mean­ings, over­lap­ping rules. Kala­izis describes hes­it­antly how he con­structs his pic­tures, how he looks at visu­al axes, incid­ence of light, and per­spect­ives. Every detail, wheth­er a stone or a blade of grass in the back­ground, wheth­er a crease in the cloth­ing or the figure’s pos­ture, is the res­ult of a strict think­ing game. 

The intens­ity of every detail is based on the intens­ity of this activ­ity. It is charged with an abund­ance of determ­in­a­tion, which invites us, the view­ers, to find our way into the depths. 

Encounter III

It is rare to wit­ness the work of a con­tem­por­ary artist in the mak­ing. The art mar­ket – a neces­sary instru­ment for the live­li­hood of paint­ers and the gal­lery infra­struc­ture – sep­ar­ates the paint­ings and hides them from the pub­lic eye. Espe­cially the earli­er works, most of the time rarely pub­lished, some­times bash­fully hid­den, some­times trans­figured to a legend, elude an invest­ig­a­tion. Ret­ro­spect­ives are there­fore essen­tial, even if the word sounds lofty to an artist not even 40 years old (at that time), who moreover hasn’t even been in busi­ness for a dec­ade yet. The show Uncer­tain Pur­suits (Kun­sthalle Mar­burg, 2005) showed a paint­er influ­enced by the flesh, by the sub­stance of things. A young artist impressed by the force of a Fran­cis Bacon, but who also wanted to exper­i­ence paint­ing the monu­ment­al nature of flesh, that of humans and of anim­als, himself. 

The art stu­dent launched into dis­em­boweled anim­al cada­vers and detached human body parts. How­ever, he does not rev­el in orgies of blood and organs. Already in 1995, Kala­izis, incor­rupt­ible, sorts objects accord­ing to sim­il­ar­it­ies in col­or and form and presents them clin­ic­ally on an ana­tom­ic­al altar Trip­tych Title as yet unknown to the artist (1995). In doing so he places emphas­is on con­trast as a cre­at­ive ele­ment. The mont­age remains vis­ible as a mont­age, espe­cially when Kala­izis sep­ar­ates his paint­ings into dip­tychs and trip­tychs. Uncer­tain Pur­suits also intro­duced an artist who learned at the Leipzig School – where else? – to dis­trust the illus­tra­tion pro­cess. His works are com­posed from the most var­ied sources. Dec­or­at­ive designs, antique let­ter­ing, ele­ments from pat­tern charts, vign­ettes and the afore­men­tioned raw pieces of meat are super­im­posed in his works from 1999/2000. They are the expres­sion of a uni­ver­sal search for mean­ing. With a fine stroke, out­lined human bod­ies are con­fron­ted with illus­tra­tions from sci­ence, pop­u­lar sci­ence, and kitsch. Kala­izis stud­ies ath­letes’ bod­ies, refer­ring to the Deutsche Hoch­schule für Körperkul­tur, the Leipzig School of Sports, which achieved inter­na­tion­al stand­ing in the sev­en­ties and eighties.

A key work of this time Prac­ti­cing for the mas­tery (1999). Four dif­fer­ent lay­ers of paint­ing come up against each oth­er: the real­ist­ic por­trait of a stark naked moth­er with her child; the dis­colored, almost washed-out back side of a man; a spot of dirty gray that seems to extends from the hand of this man; and a light ray, which travels through the oth­er objects and con­nects them, but also changes itself. “Prac­ti­cing for the mas­tery” is a self exam­in­a­tion. It con­trasts the moth­er-child fig­ure with the incess­antly isol­ated every­day life in front of the can­vas. How­ever, the sil­hou­ette of the paint­er grows into the space that con­tains the moth­er and child. He is present in the space, while his arm reaches with his paint­brush into the stu­dio and stoic­ally per­forms his neces­sary task. 

We have met three of Kala­izis’ schools: the nar­ra­tion of post­mod­ern cinema that is split in time and space; the monu­ment­al nature of flesh of a Fran­cis Bacon; the lay­er­ing of paint­ings of a Sig­mar Polke. Jusepe Rib­era must also be men­tioned. Kala­izis admires the Span­ish Baroque painter’s dra­mat­ic fig­ure con­stel­la­tion, the struggle for a way out of a dis­mal begin­ning, and the imme­di­ate prom­ise. For Kala­izis, the pas­sion of the Baroque trans­lates into mel­an­choly. Each per­son struggles alone, looks inside him­self, wheth­er it be the man thrown out of the house in The House (2005) or the five fig­ures in The hour of the inim­it­able rev­el­a­tion (2005). In each per­son is hope, in each is apprehension. 

Has Kala­izis now been “explained”? I hope not, for the greatest activ­ity is to allow your­self to be cap­tured by the paint­ings and to find your way into them every day all over again until you, the view­er, have done justice to the activity.

©2006 Tom Mus­troph | Aris Kalaizis

(Source: mono­graph ‚Rub­ba­cord’, Ker­ber-Ed. 2006)

Tom Mus­troph, freel­ance author lives in Ber­lin and Palermo

© Aris Kalaizis 2024