Aris Kalaizis

Miracles, Angels and Demons

A dis­cus­sion between Eleni Galani and Aris Kala­izis about angel, the mean­ing of idols as well as the term of the Sottorealismus.

Markus Baaden, friend, model and angel
Markus Baaden, friend, model and angel

Galani: You was born in Leipzig. Today you are asso­ci­ate with the New Leipzig School. How did you start painting?

Kala­izis: I am a late starter; I began to design rel­at­ively late, at the age of six­teen. Until that time, I was dream­ing to become a rock star, unfor­tu­nately I nev­er learned to play a music­al instru­ment- air gui­tar wouldn’t give much per­spect­ive. This was an import­ant peri­od of my life, until I began ask­ing ques­tions about life and art. Then I felt art could give answers to those questions.

Galani: Your paint­ings are fig­ur­at­ive; they appear photo real and seem to nar­rate a story each time. Also you give titles to your paint­ings. On the oth­er hand, I under­stand that you prefer not to offer com­ment­ary on your work. Is the job of the artist always “to deep­en the mys­tery” (instead of try­ing to explain it)? *

K: When you are at a res­taur­ant, you don’t ask the chef what a dish tastes like, you dis­cov­er it for your­self. Some­times con­tem­por­ary artists put them­selves in front of their work and try to explain it. That makes no sense, it is a non-artist­ic atti­tude, because it implies that art­works are not strong enough to stand alone without a writ­ten inter­pret­a­tion. His­tory of art shows that import­ant art­works last in time, they out­live the inter­pret­a­tions giv­en by their cre­at­ors. On the oth­er hand, artists who inter­pret their art­works do not help the view­er to take ini­ti­at­ive. Per­haps the need for inter­pret­a­tion has been imposed on us from TV, which has invaded our minds by sub­sti­tut­ing our ima­gin­a­tion, and the role of senses. Fur­ther­more, people read less today thus depriving them­selves of a very import­ant tool for thought. This is also true for the movies: explan­a­tion is offered to the view­er a pri­ori, pre-giv­en answers fill in all the blanks. The reas­on why I do not pro­pose inter­pret­a­tions for my art­works is then simple: I address the adult, the intel­lec­tu­al viewer.

…when you are at a res­taur­ant, you don’t ask the chef what a dish tastes like

G: You have lived and worked in Leipzig for most of your life, but both your par­ents were immig­rants of Greek ori­gin; Have you ever vis­ited Greece or exhib­ited your works there? Are there any ties (people, rel­at­ives, fel­low artists or feel­ings, places, images, read­ings –books-) that relate you to this country?

K: Yes, my par­ents came to cent­ral Europe from north­ern Greece in 1949 dur­ing the “paido­mazoma” after the Greek civil war. I have been con­cerned with the issue of my ori­gin for sev­er­al years now, hop­ing that someday I will feel ready and mature enough to incor­por­ate all these feel­ings into a worthy paint­ing. Cer­tainly, I vis­it Greece almost every year. Greece is not only the coun­try of my par­ents; it is also the coun­try of my heart. Unfor­tu­nately I have not exhib­ited my art­works in Greece so far, frankly, I would love that more than any­thing! I have rel­at­ives who live in Greece, an aunt of mine lives in Thes­saloniki with her son ‑my cous­in John Kal­mazid­is with whom we met again recently after a long time here in Ger­many. He is the coach of the greek women's vol­ley­ball nation­al team. A few days ago the Greek team struggled against the Ger­man team here in Ger­many. I am very proud of him.

G: You have often men­tioned in inter­views that in your early years you have been influ­enced by the Baroque paint­er Jusepe de Rib­era and the Brit­ish artist Fran­cis Bacon. Can you men­tion any oth­er sources of inspiration?

K: Ref­er­ences / artist­ic influ­ences are par­tic­u­larly import­ant at the begin­ing of one’s car­reer. At first they offer a sense of ori­ent­a­tion- we learn a lot from them- but in the end they become a bur­den, we should free our­self of them and let them go. Fur­ther­more, we should always (not only at the begin­ning of one’ s career) be open to new influ­ences and stand­ards. Life is basic­ally a mat­ter of emo­tion, we have to keep our mind act­ive and keep our interest alive for everything import­ant, wheth­er this is a major exhib­i­tion in a big museum, or small sur­prises of every­day life. This is how I acquire the neces­sary skills for future creations.

G: You don’t con­sider your­self a rep­res­ent­at­ive of any form, often though your work is described as “magic real­ism”. Recently a new-york­er art his­tor­i­an has used the term “sot­toreal­ism” (which is the oppos­ite of “sur­real­ism”) to describe your work. In greek lan­guage because of the pro­nun­ci­ation (σουρρεαλισμός) ‑which is the same in both cases- the mean­ing of the two words often coin­cide, most of the times, there is a con­fu­sion. Firstly: Do you accept the term “sot­toreal­ism” for your work? Secondly: Can you explain the dif­fer­ence between the two words (sur­real­ism and sotter­eal­ism) from your own point of view?

K: It is not my duty to dis­cov­er new cat­egor­ies in my work field. If someone, though, sug­gests a new term for my work, I accept it. That new term «sot­toreal­ism» cer­tainly explains bet­ter what the term "real­ism" rep­res­ents-an exact depic­tion of reality. 
I think that neither "real­ism" nor "sur­real­ism" adequately describe what I do. Sur­real­ism approaches real­ity through dreams, some­thing which is "bey­ond real­ity" –this is not what I do. I often feel uncom­fort­able when people call me a real­ist or a sur­real­ist. «Sot­toreal­ism», on the oth­er hand, intro­duces a new cat­egory, where space is "below" or "behind" real­ity, a place at the back or at the bot­tom of real­ism, far bey­ond that very concept of space, as Peter Ass­mann would point out. Import­ant, exquis­ite things do not hap­pen neces­sar­ily at high alti­tude; like mush­rooms, for example, they grow down in the ground, many of them, per­haps the best of them, they grow under the soil.

G: Most of your paint­ings resemble at film stills or stage set­tings. The­at­ric­al, arti­fi­cial spaces are often cre­ated in your works. Can you share with us the mak­ing pro­cess of a painting?

…Sot­toreal­ism: like mush­rooms, for example, they grow down in the ground, many of them, per­haps the best of them, they grow under the soil

K: As a paint­er I rely on obser­va­tion, I enjoy study­ing things very care­fully in order to show what I feel in an descpript­ive way, and con­vince the view­er. For this reas­on I observe objects per­sist­ently. This pro­cess is very import­ant: after hav­ing built a mod­el, I can then study it more thor­oughly and get close to it eas­ily, then with my own pace I design pos­sible alter­a­tions. If, though, the ori­gin­al idea that I had in mind was not good enough in the first place, then even the most accur­ate rep­res­ent­a­tion won’t help.

G: There are motifs which are repet­it­ive in your paint­ings: angels for example, from my point of view, they could relate to the demons of ancient times (the word, δαίμων much likely came from the greek verb daiesthai which means: to divide, to dis­trib­ute). “Angel” was con­sidered to be a medi­at­or and the word had then no con­nota­tion of evil or malevol­ence, (ευ/​δαιμονία, for instance, was a syn­onym to hap­pi­ness or joy). In the works of Pla­to demon describes the divine inspir­a­tion of Socrates. What does the “angel” rep­res­ent in your works?

Detail (Angel) by Jusepe de Ribera
Detail (Angel) by Jusepe de Ribera

K: I believe that angels have always been sym­bols of human desires. At the era of Raphael and oth­er paint­ers angels were con­sidered to be a kind of anthro­po­morph­ic cour­ri­ers who traveled between heav­en and earth. «Kind­ness» and «beauty» are not single-dimen­sion­al con­cepts and I have nev­er been inter­ested in them as such, this is why angels in my art­works are usu­ally depic­ted as a more dark and earthly creatures, so as to resemble humans. From the time I was a teen­ager I have read and adop­ted some life con­cepts as these where described and under­stood in antiquity. I am refer­ing to the the­ory of oppos­ites, one has to accept the fact that with­in each of us con­tro­ver­sial ele­ments coex­ist and there is no use try­ing to deny and over­look these neg­at­ive pat­terns, as if they did not belong to humans, as if they where not part of the human nature. Love and hate, hope and dis­ap­point­ment, love of free­dom and the desire to share, all these are human qual­it­ies, the one being a pre­requis­ite to the oth­er. It is our own duty to trans­form them cre­at­ively, both in art and every­day life.

G: Most of the times the char­ac­ters in your paint­ings seem unaware of what is going on around them. Is this because they are ignor­ant, inno­cent, because they are day­dream­ing or simply because they don’t care, (or prob­ably for some oth­er reas­on)? Can you tell us more about the char­ac­ters in your paint­ings? Does their pres­ence state awk­ward­ness, or amazement? Are they feel­ing alone?

…it is our own duty to trans­form them cre­at­ively, both in art and every­day life

K: Indeed in my paint­ings some fig­ures mani­fest a feel­ing of loneli­ness and ali­en­a­tion. I accept that. It is not some­thing I do inten­tionaly. In 1998, for example, I have painted a dip­tych which depicts my wife Annett and my daugh­ter Niki. They seat in the bathtub and laugh. On first view one can see a couple in a joy­ful, cheer­ful and relaxed mood. Watch­ing care­fully though, one can sense the pres­ence of death behind the laughter of the moth­er –a single change of an expres­sion details’ and the whole pic­ture changes. I enjoy these twists: from mel­an­choly to humor and the oth­er way round.

G: You seem famili­al with the pres­ence of the “wunder/​wonder” in your work (you also use this word as a title to one of your paint­ings, the “Wun­derbar”). I under­stand that there are no reli­gious con­nota­tions to it. In Eng­lish the word “won­der” has three dif­fer­ent mean­ings: a) “feel­ing sur­prised, mingled with admir­a­tion caused by some­thing unex­pec­ted, unfa­mil­i­ar or inex­plic­able”, b) the desire to ques­tion, and also c) the mar­vel, the mir­acle. What does the “won­der” mean for you and how it mani­fests itself in your own reality?

K: I do not agree that the work "Wun­derbar" has no reli­gious ref­er­ence. People relate mir­acle solely to reli­gion and this is a big mis­un­der­stand­ing. Per­haps the desire for mir­acle is a kind of "cos­mic mys­ti­cism". Ι can’t say exactly what it is. Seek­ing for mir­acle is though a char­ac­ter­ist­ic of human nature – as also Gnostics believed.

G: Ima­gin­a­tion was giv­en to man to com­pensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to con­sole him for what he is”, accord­ing to Fran­cis Bacon. Could the prax­is of mak­ing art be a thera­peut­ic pro­cess for the artist? What about the art lov­er and the behold­er of a painting?

K: The need for treat­ment sug­gests the exist­ence of a mal­func­tion. For some people, yes, the act of paint­ing could have a thera­peut­ic func­tion in some way. It is not my case. I think that thera­peut­ic paint­ing should be done, rather, in anoth­er, dif­fer­ent way – I do not know which way exactly… Hard work and prac­tice are the most import­ant things to cre­ate a pro­ject. The con­tinu­ous pur­suit of pro­gress may be a tedi­ous task, it helps though to live con­sciously ‑per­son­ally, I have not made much pro­gress towards that matter.

G: What are your plans for the future?

K: I believe I'm still at the begin­ning. The best is ahead to come.

©2014 Eleni Galani | Aris Kalaizis

Eleni Galani is a museo­lo­gist and writer born in Athens/​Greece in 1976. She has stud­ied Archae­ology and His­tory of Art at the Nation­al and Kapod­istri­an Uni­ver­sity of Athens, at the Uni­versité de la Sorbonne/​Par­is I (DEA) and Museo­logy at the Ecole du Louvre and the Uni­ver­sid­ad Autonoma in Bar­celona. She has worked in vari­ous museums and gal­ler­ies in Athens and abroad. Since 2013 she lives and works as a freel­ance edit­or for art and lit­er­ary magazines (, Art22, etc.) in Frank­furt am Main.

© Aris Kalaizis 2024