Panayiotis Kalorkoti

Unknown Head 1, 1993
76.2x56.5cm (sheet), 56.8x40.4cm (imp.), Edition of 10
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Panayiotis Kalorkoti: Physiognomic Cartographies


Panayiotis Kalorkoti is an artist of extraordinary virtuosity. For all his versatility as a draughtsman, printmaker and painter, there has always been something in his approach of the jobbing professional, the master of his art and craft, capable of brilliant and original response to the particularity of a commission, the challenge of a specific project. But to look back at his work in all its phases, from the inspired Art/Nature orderings of his Grizedale sequences, their keynote struck in the magisterial portrait of Bill Grant (the Grizedale Director) surrounded by the attributes of his vocation, to the mythicising documentation of his Gateshead National Garden Festival etchings and drawings, the evocative urban histories of the Hartlepool and Darlington collage-etchings and the stark combined inventories and iconographies of the Imperial War Museum Commissions, is to become aware of an informing graphic intelligence at the service of an inclusive humanism.


Kalorkoti is an artist committed to the truthful reflection of the conditions of modern life, aware of its complexities and uncertainties but determined that art is a means to the sharing of knowledge and understanding. The world can be imagined and pictured in art, realities discovered, ordered and represented. But underlying the plurality of modes and techniques of his practice, and unifying Kalorkoti's project as an artist, is his recognition of the ineluctable diversity of things: that there is no simple truth in representations of any kind; that there are as many realities as minds to imagine them; that there is no one history but many histories to any given political, social, cultural or personal situation; that 'communication' is capable of many forms, its contents of many configurations. Working often within the constraints of a public commission, or as an artist in residence, Kalorkoti has consistently carried this artistic project into a conceptual space that is communal, performing the role of historian-memorialist, documenting and celebrating, concatenating events and objects into the simultaneities of the visual plane, and thereby re-configuring complex stories. It is an art that seeks an almost expository clarity; hence his predilection for series, sequences and grids, for repetition and variation of motif.


The configuring of two-dimensional elements of visual language on a flat surface to refer to things that exist, or might exist, in three-dimensional space and real time may be considered a kind of cartography. Lines, colours and tones, textures and (in the case of collage) images borrowed from elsewhere, sometimes from quite other representational modes (as when a photographic image is incorporated into a multi-plate etching) are the components of an abstract mapping of certain aspects of reality: no map, however detailed, gets anywhere near to telling you the whole story of a place; no portrait tells you everything about a face. It's an awkward analogy, but one that I think would appeal to Kalorkoti in its suggestion that the various graphic media in which he chooses to work as an artist can provide truthful information about his subjects, and at the same time leave open the possibility of countless other representations: other maps for other journeys. As I have suggested, his is a democratic art, for time and again his imagery proposes access to a terrain of knowledge (natural, historical, cultural, personal) whose features are symbolically indicated to the willingly imaginative traveller.


The cartographical analogy may be taken further in connection with the works in this exhibition, in which Kalorkoti explores, with a characteristic serial rigour, the problems of portraiture. He has of course made many portraits in the past. The Gateshead commission of 1989-90, for example, included no fewer than 225 portrait drawings in a systematic record of the faces of people involved in the Festival, and a series of multi-plate etchings in which many of those faces appeared as the actors in the unfolding drama of the Festival's planning and realisation. As artist-in-residence at Leeds Playhouse in 1985 Kalorkoti was to observe in a number of paintings and etchings that the most intense emotions can be feigned, that artifice can convincingly create expression, that many characters can inhabit one face: it is not by chance that we speak of actors as 'portraying' their characters. There were ironies implicit in the 'playing of roles' that Kalorkoti was to exploit in numerous fictional 'Portraits' etched towards the end of the 1980's, and then, most movingly, in the 1989 'Soldier' series. These were shown at the Imperial war Museum in 1990, together with the two IWM commissioned prints, No. 1 of which features a frieze of photo-etched images of artists (Nash, Moore, Epstein, Spencer) juxtaposed with scenes of devastation, and No. 2 images of Chamberlain and Churchill in an ironic montage that remembers the contributions made by Spencer and Nash to the First War, and the high hopes that accompanied the institution of the Museum in 1920.


Kalorkoti has, then, thought long and deep about the representation of the human face and the nature of portraiture. In these recent works, made over the period of 1993-97, he has carried his investigations to new levels of intensity, concentrating, in a number of distinct series in various media, on the face alone, or in certain cases on a group of faces. These unprecedented images are devoid of the social and political references with supply a situational or historical context to the portrayal of faces and figures in the earlier work. Imprecise in their figurings of physiognomic feature or shape of head the drama here is that of the representational process itself, the drama of a search for the image, of the emergence or disappearance of the subject. They do not aim at a likeness - whatever that may be! - so much as at an essential mapping of an unknown, and perhaps unknowable territory.


The research begins in earnest with the 'Unknown Head' series of 1993, whose strange and compelling peninsular and lagoon shapes might be those of rising smoke clouds, or of newly discovered coastlines, and whose textures suggest the evanescence of dappled light on water or the glare of hard sunlight on ancient rocks. These evocations of the aquatic and the mineral hint at the elemental, but the images maintain the human poignancy of Beckett's essential figures: in what ways are these heads 'unknown'? as unknown as the multitudes lost in war and holocaust? or as unknown as the nearest beloved. These heads simultaneously shadow into being and fade into nothingness. It is an effect achieved in other ways in the acrylic 'Studies for a Portrait' of 1994, in which several essays are made at what appears to be a single subject, but then again may not be; in the latest two (nos. 7 and 8) the face finally dissolves in the light/dark splash and dribble of the paint. The ambiguity in a project fated to remain forever as a series of 'studies', never to crystallize into the definitive portrayal, enacts the very problem it attempts to resolve and never will. Similar dissolutions of image into light and darkness, or translucency and opacity, as when a dot matrix photographic image is enlarged to the abstraction of black and white, occur in the double portraits of the 'Reflect', 'Situation' and 'Hidden' series of 1995, 1996 and 1997 respectively.


But what is the problem to be resolved? The portrait as genre comes loaded with cultural burdens: who shall be portrayed? why and how? What is the significance of 'likeness'? What does drawing, painting, etching do that photography doesn't or can't do? We are accustomed to the arguments that art can catch at the hidden 'character', that it goes beneath the surface, that it is charged with the 'insight' of the artist. But those are certainties we can no longer be sure of. Kalorkoti is keenly aware of the problematic status of the portrait in our time: by opting on the one hand for a linear graphic simplicity and the modest aims of documentary report, and on the other for a satirical comic-book starkness or direct photographic montage, he has succeeded in the highly effective portrayal of characters in situations that define some kind of meaning in the roles they play. He knows though that the representation of what is sometimes called psychological truth, the 'revelation of character' in a sitter, is no more than a fiction. The knowledge shared in these works is that some things cannot be known. It is not surprising, then, that recent portraits where figuration pretends to an accuracy of 'representation' the series should remain 'Untitled'. Even a likeness is no more than a rough mapping of terra incognita.



Mel Gooding