Panayiotis Kalorkoti

Untitled-Faces, 1987
50.1x62.2cm (sheet), 34x48.5cm (imp.), Edition of 10
about this collection Click image to enlarge

Panayiotis Kalorkoti: the coolness of configuration


In ordinary life, we tend to judge things by their origins: we like to know where a fruit has been before we bite into it, we check the label on a new garment before trying it on, when we meet people, we tend to be curious about their background, where they come from, where they were born. Those who, like Panayiotis Kalorkoti, have settled in a country and a culture very distant from where they started, may be expected to have a particular sensitivity to origins, to be alert to the mental and emotional trajectory implied in each encounter with the unfamiliar.


To the extent that art is a privileged lens upon life, it typically foregrounds the origin and derivation of things, focusing upon past evidence to elicit insights appropriate to the present and the future. Art, like memory, likes to frame events and scenes, reviewing what cannot be relived. True, pictures are melancholy things if they speak only of the irrecoverable, yet in the late twentieth century it is still a cultural habit to test our sensibilities against art's aura of the nostalgic and the tonal values lent by distance.


Panayiotis Kalorkoti's etchings have a characteristic tonality, a colour reminiscent of old brickwork warmed by a dying sun, something between faded pink and a rusty burgundy, wherein nostalgia mingles with a deeper pathos. Like souvenirs of journeys we scarcely had time to savour in the first place, his images exude an atmosphere of dejection, even of tacit despair, as though their concern were to map an emptiness and a loss, almost a space of mourning.


Any artwork which opens up a prospect upon temporal or spatial remoteness also marks a threshold we cannot cross. In its strongest sense, nostalgia means yearning for a homeland whence we are irrevocably exiled. And nostalgia voiced by someone other than ourselves conveys a double estrangement: as we arrive on the scene, inevitably too late, we have no hope of coinciding with a literal point of origin, and must make do with the wistful privilege of witnessing a stranger's efforts at memorialisation.


Like those mental impressions we strain to reconfigure in the act of recollection, the etchings which Kalorkoti constructs are images of images. They come to us as simulations of something never directly revealed, for their present embodiment in series and editions (however 'limited' and seemingly exclusive) cannot conceal that they are the relics of a distant configuration which, to all intents and purposes, is now eclipsed. The historical antecedent, that past moment when something began - the precise moment when a woman lit a cigarette and looked up, becoming 'remarkable', or when the artist took up pencil, stylus or camera to capture her appearance - no longer lies within our orbit. All we can clutch as a content of present viewing is the after-image of that fertile conjuncture, a species of mirage. Actual contact with an origin is an impossible ideal.


A master of laconicism and lucidity, Kalorkoti shuns rhetorical excess and all hint of the sentimental. Consistently he sustains a deadpan tone, exhibiting what some might call a postmodern coolness. In his hands, it is as though the destiny of the perceived world were to modulate not into an enthusiastic expression of itself but into a species of diagram, appealing to the eye and the mind, yet stirring no emotions aside from that serene aesthetic appreciation. His authoritative outlines and quiet colours tend to delineate but not to describe: whether it be a face, a coincidence of gesture and situation, or a more complex orchestrated event, the artist seems keen to excise the circumstantial, turning his images into emblems shorn of context and affect, as though designed for a dimension of response where the air is thin and all urgency of feeling is evacuated.


The paradox, though, is that even empty forms cannot block all emotional investment. Our yearning for an impossible fullness is still a live passion. In practice, these images, delivered with a dispassionateness one suspects is actually quite hard-earned, can excite both eye and pulse. In "Woman with Cigarette" (1989), Kalorkoti depicts a woman who stares out with an expression half inviting, half wary. Her right hand holds a cigarette (almost a monogrammatic leitmotif), while long fingers unfold nonchalantly above the vertically held wrist. The left arm is drawn back across the body, its hand awkwardly closed, with two fingers oddly crossed. There is perhaps an object (a ball of scrap paper?) hidden in the palm, ready to be tossed aside. The poise of the figure is echoed in the exact rendering of floral patterns upon scarf and curtain. Yet the air of control and of fixity, with its hint of inertia, seems belied by the tension of the closed fist (which now alerts us to the way the woman is also letting her hair slip defensively over her face), and indeed the gestural discrepancy between the two hands. Now it is that the image 'thickens' and becomes mysterious. Now we feel obliged to probe deeper. Who is this person? What was the origin of her posture? What were her feelings? What might she once have been like, and how might we now be expected to respond to her image?


Etching is peculiarly a playing with shadows, in that it is premised upon acts of multiple reproductions informed by trial and error, whereby the accumulation of 'proofs' is the expendable evidence ratifying the eventual work. The successful etching may be one in which aesthetic taste and a craftsman's handling have so refined a constellation of marks as to produce a final 'perfect' print. But this outcome is really only a compromise, being always a later version, never a unique original. The etching, like the photograph, has this curious genealogy, deriving from an absent, ghostlike, irrecoverable source.


Among the visual resources on which Kalorkoti draws for his etchings are ready-made photographs. The plate identified as "Untitled 2" (1993) derives from a snapshot he took in a primary school in Cleveland, part of the documentation he gathered during his 1992 travels as resident artist in that county. But what the image represents now is a set of features whose importance to the artist lies in their capacity to revive a memory of a real person (though this may still be the case), but more in their amenability to recycling, to repeated exposure in etched variations. Turning her face slightly to her left, a young girl with dark hair confronts the lens. She seems a little sullen, resigned even. We guess she is conscious of lending herself to the social ritual of being photographed, and in this sense her pose images that ritual. She is a natural sign of her own physical visibility, and more importantly a cultural sign of her presentability before others. In this sense, the image refers not to the original individual, but to a type, at once a human type and a cliché of representation: the photogenic youngster. We might feel inclined to situate the girl against the intertexts of cultural and social life, imagining her to be an obedient child, a moper, a delinquent, or whatever; or, again, we might compare her to figures in paintings by other artists. Yet the point is that Kalorkoti himself avoids enforcing any such reading. He holds back, contenting himself with classifying the item within a brief, deliberately untitled series.


For all that Kalorkoti cultivates neutrality and aesthetic distance; he nevertheless seems entirely prone to passion. Certainly he has a great appetite for observing and drawing people. During his five-month coverage of the National Garden Festival at Gateshead in 1989-90, he filled five sketchbooks with no less than 225 pencilled faces. This sort of compulsion to collect suggests an urge that outstrips the documentary and mimetic motive. True, Kalorkoti often does capture a telling likeness, yet I sense he is less intent on accurate portrayal (the priority of the street sketcher) than on something beyond.  The paired images of "An Analysis of Beauty" (1984) are evidence that he sees caricature as the necessary complement to the idealized portrait: the succession of faces in these etchings provides glimpses of otherness, of distortion and implicit vulnerability. But what is really striking is the way the concern with physiognomy modulates into a concern with non-personalized seriality. What justifies this 'analysis of beauty' is the belief that an understanding of facial features may be hastened by combining repetition with modification (as it happens, a procedure exactly analogous to etching practice).


It is in Kalorkoti's serial works that the viewer is most likely to sense a certain lostness, an unrootedness echoing the agitations of re-starting and re-focusing. Perhaps the most compelling of his series is the cycle of eight works entitled "Masks" (1990), where a total of 220 mask-like devices are distributed in ordered rows to form a more or less rigid grid. Here we see the artist as inventor, collector, memory tabulator, and inspector of forms, whose control of variables testifies to a dream of ultimate mastery. Perhaps these masks tell of visits to ethnographic museums, or of afternoons spent thumbing books on the art of Melanesia or the Congo. But ethnographic allusion seems too vague to be the true concern. I think that the originary model for these iconic variations is not the three-dimensional mask but the two-dimensional doodle, so that what these configurations record is not information about tribal art, but their maker's dedication to dealing out an uninterrupted sequence of forms, an impromptu game whose rule is that no two are allowed to be quite the same. In their systematic cramming, these variant masks, or rather abstract diagrams of masks, institute an exemplary demonstration which clears the air and sets a standard. They mark an extreme of almost godlike fluency whereby the hand unhesitatingly figures mental impulse, and where mimesis falls away in defence to a generalized, schematic argument about the interplay of similarity and differentness.


A seemingly minor yet pivotal work is "Untitled/Meditation" (1988), a print in which all sorts of pictographic representations meet up with no obvious rhyme or reason. Here are echoes of stick-men from South African rock art, of tribal masks, of graffiti scrawled by schoolchildren. In so far as the perfect doodle - slapdash yet sublime - is another sort of mirage, this 'meditation' could be seen as a ruse or alibi. Kalorkoti may just be feigning to work in an irresponsible, cack-handed style, as a break from his more deliberate and conscious style of quasi-naturalistic representation. His drawing is a little reminiscent of Klee in its caricatural jauntiness, and seems similarly to muse upon the magical powers of improvised and abstracted ciphers. This deceptively capricious work may embody a fundamental yearning, as though the artist were searching for a lost image, a lost face, a lost way of showing.


To juxtapose distinct modes of representation is a practice dating back at least to the era of Pop Art. A typical instance in Kalorkoti is the pair "Berlin" and "Berlin (East and West)" (both of 1985). Each constitutes a patchwork montage, drawing now on photographs of authentic Berlin Wall graffiti, now on graffiti mimicked by the artist, as well as on comic-strip figures such as cowboys, devils and witches, not to mention political and commercial emblems, and press cuttings of famous buildings, anti-war protesters, a soldier in a gas mask, the face of Rosa Luxemburg. These memorial pages from the sad scrapbook of modern history combine the artlessness of the postcards stuck on a teenager's bedroom wall with the pathos of the crime incident room.


The idea of displaying disparate items grouped by association speaks not just to a historical but to a museological impulse, the desire to channel material evidence into purposeful narrative. The quartet of commissioned works entitled "Darlington" (1989) integrates a wide range of fragments within a single field. As if pinned up on four bulletin boards is everything we ought to know about Darlington: these icons, punctiliously aligned, speak of a community's pattern, its sense of the proper, efficient management of things. There are implications both of continuity and reverence in the photographs of past dignitaries and present staff, of city landmarks, layouts and route maps, local crests, logos, and product labels. An aberration occurs in the third plate in this set, which smuggles in several idiosyncrasies, including one of Kalorkoti's earlier etchings, "Untitled/Faces". An image within an image, this specimen inserts a metatextual comment on the artist's general project of patterning and structuring, of fluently managing visual motifs both small and large.


"Untitled/Faces" (1987), at first sight no more than a clutch of little doodles, has, over time, emerged as the fertile matrix out of which many fresh images have been spawned. All of the eight prints entitled "Study" (1992) are blown - up details from this one earlier work. It is as though, anxious not to be seduced by too much sheen and polish, Kalorkoti had forced himself to 'make do' with the least precious things he had to hand, adapting old squiggles to fresh articulation. The original doodles look to have tossed off in a trice by a few loops and lunges of the stylus. Yet they can become so much more, as Kalorkoti so decisively shows. Magnifying each figure to about fifty times its original size, he reaches into the innocuous doodle and summons it to an improbable afterlife. Now we guess at the artist's darker side. We make out a demon with an X over its head and a Klu Klux Klan mask, we see a shrieking face as if by Munch or a dancing prince out of a Russian folktale print, we see a jaded cross like some awful scar (the matrix plate shows this to be a variant on the skull-and-crossbones motif). The etcher also encourages his medium to throw up spots and splotches, so that the microcosm of the doodle yields a macro-texture, a vision of the dusty pointillism of material surfaces. Sometimes the overprinting of a shape in a secondary, paler tint veers slightly out of true, with the effect that the paler imprint asks to be read as the shadow of the first, thereby suggesting absurd shapes like fragments of soft shrapnel or spilt lead.


No doubt an amateur who tried his hand at multi-plate etching would end up overlaying impressions to the point of illegibility. Kalorkoti's experiments with multiple prints and enlargements could seem like a homage to Surrealism, with its messy probings into frottage, or Tachisme, with its cultivation of slops and stains, or again Jean Dubuffet, with his passion for deranged textures. But Kalorkoti's ventures are always monitored by his sense for tactful erasure and qualification. Each excursion into messiness is the prelude to a cool scrutiny of the results, and the conscious marshalling of insights.


One senses indeed, in almost all Kalorkoti's etchings, an underlying fidelity to the clearcut and the communicable. He doesn't just toss out casual flashes of meaning; rather he manipulates defined elements within an intent and self-possessed discourse. True, he may embark upon mystery: but never upon mystification. One feels that, even if something made him stumble and fall into a state of panic, he would still continue to uphold his standard of suave and even articulacy. As I have suggested, the artist's typical tone is one of dispassionateness. And if his doodles are like ideograms, flat and alphabetic, so, when he turns to more realistic portrayals of people, groups and interiors, his pictures take on an airless, flat aspect, as though the space were something hollowed out and frozen, rather than a dimension of improvisation and flux.


As if to symbolize an avoidance of careless expressivity, several of the earlier figurative images, such as "Reading" (1986) and "Chessplayers" (1986), seem to stress the quality of guardedness. A man frowns over a book, but won't show it to his companions; two men at chess hunch up, distancing themselves from the struggle imaged on the board. That the artist hangs a few paintings along the back wall of both interiors suggests he is deliberately 'dressing' the scene with reminders of the unreal, absolving the viewer from any responsibility to construe the picture as a spatial illusion or a narrative. Indeed the hesitant, grainy inking of the chessplayers explicitly draws attention to their status as mere graphic imprints. We are looking not at a world of persons and objects, but only at a set of flat visual emblems.


There can be something disconcerting about a style which so scrupulously discards fullness and filters off vitality: not everyone will react positively to such pithiness, such trimness. Tidiness may suggest complicity with repression. Fortunately, Kalorkoti's cool configurations do secrete what might be called a secondary eloquence. We have as it were to look twice to appreciate how the impression of listlessness, of banality even, is but a preliminary effect of the images. Once we come round for a second look, we notice that the spaces shift slightly, the figures hunch over a real dilemma, the paralyzed traces do tremble. While there is nothing exactly that is hidden, there are latent forces at work. Crane your ears within total silence and you begin to hear things. Look more closely at these works and something will stir. It is as though everything the artist has filtered off, distanced, obliterated, were somehow hovering in the wings, waiting only for a sympathetic viewer to ask the right question and elicit vibrancy.


Faced by an image like "Solitude" (1987), we are at first all too aware of looking at a product of artistic procedures. We pick up traces of the artist's original drawing, and we see the mechanical way in which zones of colour have been demarcated and successively filled; we also note the inconsistencies of the black inking, even in the bolder lines that define the eyebrows and shoulder straps of the imaged woman. The feebler contour of her right hand, and the white patches of fingernail or cigarette, seem to be deliberate indices of a strategy of de-emphasis. Here is just another icon, a mere image; its quality of being flat and heraldic (like a public sign based on well-worn convention) is confirmed by the sill in the foreground, which inhibits our imagining any contact with this fabrication of colour and line. Here is a hollow automation, whose features, somewhat larger than life, have about them the enervated glamour of a publicity picture slapped up over the entrance to a cinema. This is not an evocation of solitude so much as a sign for solitude, and it speaks only within an abstracted, discarnate register.


And yet, thanks to an uncanny fidelity to the 'tang' of an original which the viewer, as it were, nostalgically projects and reconstructs as its antecedent, the image does manage to disclose something which transcends its entropic banality. As I gaze, the face, that of a jolie laide, grazes vaguely against my consciousness: do I know this woman from somewhere? The listlessness of her posture, the fact that the cigarette in her tired fingers has gone out, that she can't be bothered to push back a lank strand of hair - these details do suggest inertia and emptiness. And certainly there is something disembodied about her torso. Yet there is equally something of affirmation about one part of her demeanour, the pointing finger at the edge of the sill; and once I stare at this, I find the picture beginning to quiver into life. All at once a woman is leaning away from the wall behind her and across the edge of a balcony, focusing her gaze on something in the street below, and moving her hand towards that event, as though at any moment her entire being might follow the impulse of pointing. "Solitude": this is no longer an image of absence, but a call to presence, no longer a sign of banality and alienation, but a signal impelling us towards otherness and excitement. Through its very discretion, the etching achieves the feat of transmitting the subtle breath of expectancy: Kalorkoti's coolness is, paradoxically, a source of energy.


Just now and then, the etcher allows himself to inject into his work an element of explicit suspense or menace, as witness "Girl on Stairs" (1987), which uses the old device of narrative interruption. What is the next step in the story? The all but naked girl coming downstairs is obviously exposed to the gaze of anyone lurking by the door: her hand lifted in surprise and anxiety tells us of the expression on the face we cannot see, and invites us to imagine a presence, perhaps that of an aggressive male, occupying the spot we share as viewers or uncomfortable voyeurs. (The foregrounding of the Freudian keyhole and doorknob, not to mention the staircase, underlines the sexual innuendo). Elsewhere, in "Portrait 2" (1988), we confront a staring male face whose authority and fearsomeness belie its status as 'merely' an image in a frame; the inclusion of a subservient witness, turning away at the right, encourages us to feel the full rasping force of that gaze.


But then, it could be that almost any image of a stark face has emotive potential. We are, from birth, programmed to respond to facial expression, even in crude graffiti and doodles. Such elemental signs can dispense with all colour, all aura, yet still affect us. (In certain moods, we may even find that abstract traffic signs communicate feelings!). Perhaps any human mark necessarily points back to an originating presence and warmth. What I find remarkable about Kalorkoti's sparseness and coolness is that, although he may seem to shun sentiment in favour of sterility, his deadpan signals, in fact, direct us on a roundabout route toward an unsuspected, almost subliminal fullness of meaning. Behind the bald montages of the "Darlington" series lies the buzzing Everyday of a whole municipality; likewise, the stylized totems of the "Masks" are a system for conjuring up the plenitude of shared experience - not through the literal invocation of some dramatic tribal ritual, but through a kind of diagram that mimes communication and interaction, a quiet intimation of contact after all.




Roger Cardinal