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 metier, 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 facade 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: 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... 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