Panayiotis Kalorkoti

Grizedale 1, 1989
56.5x76.2cm (sheet), 38.5x53.7cm (imp.), Edition of 10
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PANAYIOTIS KALORKOTI'S work is a combination of opposites: the obvious and the not-at-all-obvious, subtlety and the apparent lack of subtlety. It is perhaps for this reason that his prints and drawings have evoked, over the years, a number of unusually good catalogue essays. Eva Krabbe, Frank Whitford, Timothy Hyman and Roger Cardinal have all offered interesting analyses of what he does. It cannot be accidental when an artist is so consistently fortunate in his interpreters, especially at a moment when the whole business of art criticism seems to be in steep decline - its language corrupted, its intellectual frameworks hopelessly askew.


One of the themes which Kalorkoti's commentators tend to have in common is their emphasis on what they term the 'ambiguity' of his work. I am not sure, much as I admire many of their formulations, that I am completely in agreement with them. This particular set of works - multi-plate etchings from the Grizedale series, and paintings in acrylic on paper which are also connected with the Grizedale Forest Sculpture Project - tend, I think, to support my feelings on this point rather than contradicting them.  With one exception - that of the first etching in the series - all the images are multiple. Each composition contains a number of objects, usually more or less evenly spaced, which have been grouped by category. Some contain items from more than one group. The etching Grizedale 9 consists of nothing but simplified faces or marks. In Grizedale 10, however, there are insects, birds and animals interspersed with humanoid stick figures. The glyph-like nature of these representations, combined with the actual nature of the medium - printing on paper - immediately suggests that the spectator is dealing not just with an attempt at representation, but with an actual language. Visual representations of a traditional sort are indeed notoriously ambiguous. This, indeed, was one reason why first pictographic and later completely non-pictographic forms of writing were first invented. By conventionalising and standardising the signs they used, men rendered them both accessible and manageable.


Confronted with a single major subject, this seems to be what Kalorkoti has set out to do. The results are radical because of the very disparate nature of his materials. They become more radical still because of his refusal to create a hierarchy. Let me try to explain these two remarks, as I realize that their significance may not be immediately apparent. Grizedale is, in itself, a kind of cultural paradox. On the one hand it is a working forest, where trees are grown and cropped on commercial principles. It also, like a number of such commercial forests, serves as a nature reserve: it offers a sheltering habitat to a number of common and not so common species - animals, insects and birds as well as plants. And it is a place to which people come in order to regain contact with nature and natural things. Its chief claim to celebrity, however, is that it also serves as an outdoor gallery of contemporary art. Scattered through the forest are numerous sculptures, site-specific and made from materials found on the spot. These sculptures offer a wide gamut of different styles. Some are figurative. Others are entirely abstract. The abstract ones, often quite ambitious in scale, tend to blend with their surroundings rather than completely separating themselves from what is around them. This is the case, for instance, with one of the earliest sculptural creations on the site, Andy Goldsworthy's zig-zag walls, which have no formal beginning or ending.


Despite this, nevertheless, the established intellectual tendency is to treat these artworks as things of a different order from what surrounds them. The forming process which has been responsible for creating them supposedly forces us, as spectators, to look at them in a different way from everything else in Grizedale; to subject them to a quite different set of intellectual processes when attempting to assimilate them to ourselves. It is this process which Kalorkoti's images call into question. For him, the sculptures to be found in the forest are phenomena of the same kind as all the other 'events' which the forest provides - the brief chirring of a cricket, a caterpillar humping its length along the leaf which it is busily devouring. He therefore tries to make them 'legible' in the same way. The whole forest becomes a vast text, which the spectator is invited to peruse in the company of the artist.


The idea of nature as a book is of course not new. It is deeply rooted in the whole Romantic sensibility. It is worth recalling here that Grizedale, situated as it is in the English Lake District, lies very close to the epicentre of the whole English Romantic Movement. This is the landscape which formed the poetry of William Wordsworth, and to a lesser extent that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The nature/book metaphor is not, however, the only governing image of its type in the great poems of the Romantic epoch. Another such image is founded on the notion that nature is profoundly anthropomorphic: that it is possessed of a soul and of feelings, and looks for a way in which to express these in its dealings with humankind - a transaction complicated by the fact that humans are simultaneously part of nature and yet tragically divided from it, always seeking to restore a unity which can never be completely achieved.


In this respect, some of the most interesting images in this body of work are those featuring faces or masks. These visages have a bold simplification of line, often combined with apparent crudity. Other works by Kalorkoti, in a style represented here only by the first etching in the Grizedale series, show that he is a skilful and penetrating portrait draughtsman in a style related to that of the German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) of the 1920s. So the simplifications which the spectator finds here are definitely a matter of choice. What is the artist trying to do with these faces? It is not merely, I think, that he is trying to personify the spirit of nature in an appropriately Romantic way - the sense that the forest surrounds the visitor with invisible presences. Nor (in the heads where a more portrait-like element is retained) is he simply content to combine these with allusions to the numerous visitors which Grizedale now attracts. He is playing a much more elaborate game. If one looks, for example, at Grizedale 27, one of the most recent of the acrylic-on-paper works, one sees that the masks have here been reduced to a series of absolutely circular forms. Each of these circles is endowed with features, and an individual expression of its own, using the simplest possible graphic means. The third mask from the left, in the top row, for instance, has a recognisable personality, but neither nose nor mouth. There is a pair of circular eyes, and the forms of the head have been sculpted out of the circular disk using three triangular indents of a different hue.


Grizedale 27 is in fact a striking example of processes which are visible throughout the work. Kalorkoti believes that simple forms can be made eloquent through simple, but systematic, adjustments of shape, and also of hue and texture. This is one reason why his etchings are extremely labour intensive. Getting the colour right, adjusting it so that it becomes completely eloquent, is a matter of repeated trial and error.


The casual spectator may feel that there is an element of over-refinement here: that all this may matter greatly to the artist, but surely has only a minimal impact on the final result. There are, however, powerful arguments to the contrary, and they spring as much from the nature of the overall subject as they do from the temperament of the artist. The justification for the existence of Grizedale in its present unique guise is not just the enormous pleasure it brings to thousands of visitors, nor the opportunities it offers to artists to create something in tune with this wonderful setting. It is the fact that it teaches visitors and artists alike to look at their surroundings in a different way, to penetrate to meanings which are otherwise suppressed by the realities of industrial civilization. That is, there is still a direct connection with the messages contained in the work of the Lake Poets, who belonged to the first generation to feel the full impact of the Industrial Revolution. One can go further than this, and say that the Industrial Revolution was in fact a kind of pre-condition of Wordsworth's greatest work, as much the progenitor of The Prelude as the poet himself.


This in turn brings one back to the question of legibility. The message which is not understood, because its language is impenetrable, is in the last analysis not a message at all. It falls short of its aim - what is transmitted never connects with a suitably equipped receiver. I think one of the main themes in this work is didactic. That is, the artist feels there is a message in the material he is using; he is concerned to reduce that material into legible form - that is to devise a visual language and assemble the elements of that language into a text, then finally he wants to make the text 'self-expanding' (I am here borrowing a term from the new terminology of computers). By coming into contact with the text, and noting its characteristics, the spectator is gently led forward and shown how to read it. Rather than being ambiguous, this is a kind of art which is concerned to avoid ambiguity, keenly interested in making itself understood.


All of this may, perhaps, make Kalorkoti seem rather grim and humourless. This impression, if it exists, will be entirely the fault of my text - no-one could draw that conclusion from the works themselves. One of the most striking aspects of the work, taken as a whole, is that it is suffused with a gentle and wholly delightful sense of fun. Contemporary artists are notoriously touchy people, but I cannot see any of the sculptors whose ambitious constructions have here been reduced to glyphs taking offence at what Kalorkoti has done to them. In each case he seems to catch the essence of the work, while reducing it to its simplest elements. While the great Romantics were not celebrated for their power to amuse (one recalls the deflationary couplet: ''Sometimes, oh Wordsworth, thou art like the deep,/ And sometimes like an old, half-witted sheep.'') one of the striking characteristics of Kalorkoti's work is its power to make jokes which don't in any way demean or diminish the subject-matter.


Entering the world of these prints and paintings is not simply a matter of reading a text, it is also a way into an enchanted realm. The most celebrated enchanted kingdom in the English language, that created by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass, puts a lot of stress on one particular effect, or set of effects - disparity of sizes. Things are, or become, much larger or smaller than they are in real life. By reducing things to signs, Kalorkoti produces an equivalent sensation in the viewer. Larger things and smaller ones co-exist, in much the same fashion as they do in the two Alice books. Kalorkoti is thus able to point to equivalences - visual puns if you like - which rearrange ordinary hierarchies of importance. Rearrangements of this sort are one of the great traditional tools of the humorist - one reason why they appear so often in political and social caricature. The butterfly, here, looms larger than the monument.


And so, of course, sub specie aeternitas, it does. These are questioning as well as humorous images, and they direct our attention beyond ourselves, to meanings which can only be fully apprehended by going from viewing this work into the greater world of Grizedale itself, which represents such a complex, and constantly changing, interaction between nature and man.



Edward Lucie-Smith