Aris Kalaizis

Where the Shadows Dwell

The New York art-crit­ic Car­ol Strick­land stamped in 2006 for the first time the term of the Sot­toreal­ism. In this essay she gives explan­a­tions to sev­er­al paint­ings of New Leipzig School paint­er Aris Kalaizis.

Lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hol­low Men” seem tail­or-made to describe the effect and achieve­ment of recent paint­ings by Aris Kalaizis:

      “Between the idea

And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow.”

Kala­izis’ ima­gin­a­tion occu­pies this hazy middle ground between fic­tion and fact, motion and iner­tia. His images shuttle between idea and real­ity, and, always, between these polar­it­ies falls the shad­ow. Get­tersby (2007) demon­strates this approach. On the left a disheveled man emerges from a lit cor­ridor, an emblem of arres­ted motion. He seems to come from the ordin­ary world of the har­ried com­muter, rush­ing to catch a train. But in the midst of this famil­i­ar scene, Kala­izis injects the bizarre: the sil­hou­ette of a man, stand­ing still, as if behind a scrim, suf­fused in lur­id, hot-pink light. His shad­ow lit­er­ally links the two fig­ures, form­ing a vis­ible con­nec­tion as their elbows almost hook up.

The shad­owy appar­i­tion is partly con­cealed behind Kala­izis’ trade­mark graf­fito, which is itself fraught with ambi­gu­ity. The scrawled lines, resem­bling a flower or but­ter­fly, are a mark of self-expres­sion and a sym­bol of nat­ur­al beauty, but they also rep­res­ent an aggress­ive act that defaces the pur­ity of a wall. This pro-and-con vacil­la­tion is a hall­mark of the Ger­man-Greek painter’s body of work. Noth­ing is ever purely one thing or the oth­er. Every detail gen­er­ates its oppos­ite. Yet there is nev­er a Hegel­i­an syn­thes­is, only a con­tinu­ous dia­logue between the polar­it­ies. Kala­izis objects to the audi­oguides that are so omni­present these days, attached like barnacles to vis­it­ors’ ears at museum exhib­i­tions. He prefers to think for him­self, and he aims to entice his view­ers to do the same. But he doesn’t want to make it easy. For this reas­on, he often gives non­sensic­al titles to his works, with made-up names like Get­tersby or Psemata offer­ing no clue or entry point into a work’s meaning.

Aris Kalaizis | Bahren | Oil on canvas | 63 x 79 in | 2007
Aris Kalaizis | Bahren | Oil on canvas | 63 x 79 in | 2007

What may seem like will­ful opa­city is a chal­lenge. And the paint­ings are so seduct­ive, it’s impossible not to accept the chal­lenge. By com­bin­ing the seem­ingly nor­mal with the overtly abnor­mal, he grabs your atten­tion and draws you into the drama of the image. The scenes hov­er between the famil­i­ar and the unfa­mil­i­ar. They’re so fraught with mys­tery, it’s impossible to res­ist the call to decipher the clues and seek an explan­a­tion. Yet Kala­izis frus­trates this urge. No mat­ter how dili­gently one col­lects the pieces, one can nev­er assemble a sat­is­fact­ory mosa­ic that gives a clear pic­ture. The mean­ings are always mul­tiple, in con­stant flux. 

Take, for example, Bahren (2007). A woman whose expres­sion is neut­ral stands in a pond, fully dressed, her shirt unzipped to par­tially reveal her breasts. Right away, we’re in Kala­izis ter­rit­ory, for this half-con­ceal­ing, half-reveal­ing motif is a favor­ite ploy. Although the water is dark, she’s illu­min­ated by bars of light from a car’s head­lamps, which form a con­strain­ing cage around her. 
Stand­ing beside the car on shore is a clothed man look­ing off into the dis­tance with an abstrac­ted expres­sion. There seems to be no emo­tion­al con­nec­tion between the two, yet the fact that the car is in this isol­ated loc­a­tion at night leads one to believe it’s a lov­ers’ lane. The candle-like flowers of a chest­nut tree are shaped like an erect phal­lus, which lends a fur­ther fris­son of sexu­al­ity. Carved ini­tials on a tree trunk nearby could be lov­ers’ testi­mo­ni­als, but an ambigu­ous image that resembles an upside-down skull is also carved on the tree.
This couple, who do not seem to be coupled but rather uncoupled, are sur­roun­ded by the lush green­ery of nature, anoth­er con­trast to the ster­il­ity of their non-rela­tion­ship. In the back­ground, light breaks through dark clouds, but wheth­er it’s the light of dawn on the wan­ing light of sun­set is unclear. Bahren sug­gests a com­plex nar­rat­ive but refuses to settle into a coher­ent story. It’s like the yin and yang of con­stantly inter­pen­et­rat­ing and inter­pos­ing oppos­ites. Much is vis­ible, but much more invis­ible in the tale of these two people.

…com­bin­ing the nor­mal and abnor­mal in tableaux that radi­ate ten­sion and conflict

The Green Room (2007) shows how charged is the space between fig­ures and between fig­ures and their sur­round­ings. An adult woman stands nude on one side, envel­oped in a glaze of green paint and framed by ver­tic­al and hori­zont­al lines, like a doll in a gift box. Expres­sion­less, she’s as pass­ive and stat­ic as a statue. On the right is anoth­er of Kala­izis’ pre­ferred motifs, the Dop­pel­gänger. A young, nearly nude, girl stands, hold­ing the hand of her double. One fig­ure looks towards the adult, as if anti­cip­at­ing matur­ity, while her twin looks down and away, as if back towards child­hood. You feel the girl is on the threshold of sexu­al matur­ity, half desir­ing entrance into the adult world and half cling­ing to the inno­cence of the past.

The Green Room | Oil on canvas | 63 x 79 in | 2007
The Green Room | Oil on canvas | 63 x 79 in | 2007

Although the child and adult are isol­ated spa­tially and make no eye con­tact, Kala­izis links them through pictori­al means: a non-object­ive swoosh of black paint forms an inverse curve to the scrolled curve of a leath­er sofa that extends between the girl and the woman. A line of gold paint begins in the woman’s space and trans­forms from straight to curved as it extends to the shoulder of the Dop­pel­gänger, who’s envel­oped in the same eer­ie green light as the woman. The view­er is left to fill in the blanks.

This insist­ence on do-it-your­self inter­pret­a­tion defines Kala­izis’ approach. It’s as if he wishes the view­er to brood over the images as much as he has in com­pos­ing them. His pro­cess of evolving a paint­ing has been told before: how a spark of an idea seizes him, based on an observed land­scape or loc­ale. He pho­to­graphs this embryon­ic set­ting and lit­er­ally places the pic­ture over his bed, to dream on it for weeks or months until a scene gradu­ally emerges in his inner vis­ion. He then pop­u­lates the loc­ale with fig­ures and details, pared down to those con­sidered abso­lutely essen­tial to trans­mit the spir­it of the place.

Although his craft is metic­u­lous and he can paint illu­sion­ist­ic scenes with vir­tu­osic exactitude, he has no desire to imit­ate real­ity. The set­ting is merely a launch­ing pad for his flights of fancy, which go both high into the realm of the ima­gin­ary and deep into the uncon­scious, where fears and anxi­ety live. Per­haps for this reas­on, his paint­ings often seem charged with men­ace, shiv­er­ing hints of the inexplicable.

It’s dan­ger­ous to try to catch a fall­ing knife, but that’s just what he attempts, com­bin­ing the nor­mal and abnor­mal in tableaux that radi­ate ten­sion and con­flict. The out­come is always uncer­tain, yet it’s this irres­ol­u­tion that’s so grip­ping. And which makes pro­longed con­tem­pla­tion of his work so rewarding. 

…like the soul of drama, it radi­ates con­flict, con­tra­dic­tion, and contrast

Anoth­er writer whose sens­ib­il­ity the works share is the Brit­ish play­wright Har­old Pinter. His plays are so mul­ti­valent and elu­sive, they’ve giv­en rise to the adject­ive “Pin­ter­esque,” defined as “ full of dark hints and preg­nant sug­ges­tions, with the audi­ence left uncer­tain as to what to con­clude.” The same might be said for Kala­izis’ The Double Man (2007).
In a dim room, a fig­ure (a self-por­trait of the artist) is fully clothed, tying his tie and look­ing upward, stand­ing beneath a bright hanging lamp. On the oth­er side of double doors stands the artist’s double, a half-clothed fig­ure who defies real­ity, in that he’s sus­pen­ded in mid-air, seem­ingly on a shad­owy plane that points to the clothed fig­ure (and links to his shad­ow). The ghostly fig­ure leans for­ward, look­ing down (anoth­er oppos­ite!) and hold­ing what looks like a valise over his head. Behind him looms a colossal shad­ow, like a statue of Atlas with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
The ensemble sug­gests the phys­ic­al and spir­itu­al sides of human­ity, with all their con­trast­ing qual­it­ies like cer­tainty and con­fu­sion, extro­ver­sion and intro­ver­sion, soci­ety and solitude, joy and des­pair, light and dark. The shad­ows and fig­ures, as well as the voids and solids in the pic­ture, seem to have equal weight. The paint­ing is both empty of con­clu­sion and full of pos­sib­il­ity. Like the soul of drama, it radi­ates con­flict, con­tra­dic­tion, and contrast.

The Allies (2007) illus­trates how Kala­izis uses paint­erly devices to push and pull the eye through the twists and detours of his visu­al lan­guage. The over­lap­ping straight and curved lines lead you through the sur­face of the paint­ing, like a map to the hid­den treas­ure of its mean­ing. But the sur­face is also an arena for thwart­ing this lin­ear pro­gres­sion. It twists the map of your mind from what you think you know to what’s unknown and unknow­able. The path to enlight­en­ment is nev­er straight­for­ward. Its tra­ject­ory always involves doub­ling back through murky, shad­owy ter­rain in the search for meaning.
In this paint­ing, the artist shines a harsh spot­light on his uplif­ted head, imply­ing his own attempts at see­ing clearly and reach­ing for illu­min­a­tion. Behind him are two isol­ated, ali­en­ated fig­ures in ambigu­ous poses. A man wear­ing a jack­et and dark glasses regards the wall of a gar­ishly lit cubicle, turned away from a woman who inhab­its the oppos­ite corner of the stall. She looks down, her hands out­stretched as if in entreaty. She’s scantily clad and her face is impass­ive, yet the slump of her head con­veys sad­ness, a plea to which the man is obli­vi­ous. Straight lines entrap the two and, illo­gic­ally, she’s mirrored at the rear but the man has no reflec­tion, as if he’s invisible.

…Enga­ging the view­er to think, feel, react, and respond to his canvases is the dif­fi­cult task he sets for himself

Kala­izis, like the Eng­lish paint­er Fran­cis Bacon, employs the archi­tec­ture of a scene as a fram­ing device, mak­ing form fol­low func­tion. His lines seem to con­tain the human beings who inhab­it the space, oppress­ive and threat­en­ing. With­in the shared space, the fig­ures appear stat­ic, mel­an­choly, vaguely frightened, and drained of energy. Com­mu­nic­a­tion between them is non-exist­ent, as if they’re mired in sep­ar­ate spheres and rect­angles. The paint­ings, while set­ting up an atmo­sphere of brist­ling, psy­cho­lo­gic­al ten­sion, con­ceal the cause and the out­come of the intense situ­ation portrayed.

The Morn­ing After (2006) is almost like the open­ing scene of a police drama – or the wak­ing con­tinu­ation of a night­mare. A young girl clothed in under­gar­ments stands hold­ing tightly to a woman, seem­ingly her moth­er, who’s fully clothed and ram­rod straight, eyes closed and face betray­ing no emo­tion. The girl seems fear­ful, a sup­pos­i­tion strengthened by the pres­ence of a man kneel­ing in the fore­ground, with a stricken expres­sion on his face. He regards his hands like a guilt-haunted Lady Macbeth, although no blood is vis­ible on his fin­gers. The two females are framed in green light, and this green shad­ow spills onto the man. The walls altern­ate between slabs of soft lav­ender, acid­ic green, and a strong “white” light eman­at­ing from a refri­ger­at­or that spot­lights the man. The refrigerator’s glow seems unearthly, like a spec­tral aura of mystery. 

…Ugli­ness is some­thing which abso­lutely needs to be added to the idea of beauty

In this paint­ing, con­trast reigns supreme: con­trast between the two con­joined fig­ures and the lone man, between their upright stance and his kneel­ing pos­ture, and between their shad­owed pres­ence and his prox­im­ity to the source of harsh light. “Ugli­ness is some­thing which abso­lutely needs to be added to the idea of beauty,” Kala­izis has said. And here he’s cre­ated an object of beauty out of ter­ri­fy­ing ingredients.

In the Night of Silence | Oil on canvas | 51 x 59 in | 2008
In the Night of Silence | Oil on canvas | 51 x 59 in | 2008

In the Silence of the Night (2008) is a mas­ter­ful example of a scene with famil­i­ar ele­ments that radi­ates an aura of the uncanny. A drive­way in the fore­ground leads to a wooden build­ing lit by a harsh glare – per­haps of head­lights? The door is res­ol­utely closed, imply­ing hid­den secrets, but a rect­an­gu­lar win­dow of blue light is open. A young girl sits on the out­er edge of the win­dowsill, her upper body partly con­cealed by a trans­lu­cent, white cur­tain. She looks down as if unaware of any­one approach­ing, and the gauzy white fab­ric makes her seem like a wait­ing bride. One has the impres­sion she’s both inside and out­side at the same time, poised on the edge of some adven­ture. Leipzig paint­er Kala­izis is adept at invent­ing images of trans­ition, where fig­ures seem on the brink of some moment­ous under­tak­ing but, at the same time, are con­gealed in des­per­a­tion or stasis.
The lus­cious col­or har­mon­ies in this image and the sen­su­al allure of the richly painted, over­hanging spruce tree attest to Kala­izis’ tech­nic­al skill as a paint­er. Yet even though cap­able of ren­der­ing a photo-real­ist rep­res­ent­a­tion of real­ity, he’s nev­er con­tent merely to repro­duce the seen world. 

…cre­at­ing his own ver­sion of real­ity where the shad­ows dwell

Rather, he aims to uncov­er what’s unseen. And the way to access this bur­ied domain is through allegory and fantasy. He blurs the bound­ary between the real and unreal, cre­at­ing his own ver­sion of real­ity where the shad­ows dwell. This will­ful manip­u­la­tion makes his art very demand­ing. It’s up to the view­er to dig beneath the sur­face, based on clues embed­ded in the image, like an arche­olo­gist look­ing for a hid­den civil­iz­a­tion. One can put the frag­ments togeth­er into a pro­vi­sion­al inter­pret­a­tion, although the irra­tion­al reflec­tions and illu­sions nev­er jell into a fixed message.
Always, in his art, the col­ors, shapes, zones of light and dark, fig­ures and their poses, sim­ul­tan­eously inter­sect, over­lap, and stand in con­trast to each oth­er. Just when one feels on the verge of deci­pher­ing a nar­rat­ive, its con­tours of mean­ing melt into shad­ows. Com­fort and cer­tainty are not his goals. Enga­ging the view­er to think, feel, react, and respond to his canvases is the dif­fi­cult task he sets for himself.

Carol Strickland
Carol Strickland

©2008 Car­ol Strick­land | Aris Kalaizis

Car­ol Strick­land, Ph. D., born in 1946, is a freel­ance art crit­ic who writes for a num­ber of sev­er­al news­pa­pers and magazines. She is the author of "The Annot­at­et Mona Lisa (2007), a book on art his­tory and archi­tec­ture, among oth­er pub­lic­a­tions. Strick­land lives and works in New York City.

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