Panayiotis Kalorkoti

Figure 1, 1994
72.7 x 53.3cm
about this collection Click image to enlarge



Every new exhibition, every new catalogue of his work, seems to be the outward expression of Panayotis Kalorkoti's compulsion to give account of himself.  Both have become an integral part of his creative output: ordered, arranged in series often with a thematic basis, and complete with lists and an introductory overview commissioned from an outside authority.  Indeed, it must be remembered that like company reports, the catalogues are not only for the benefit of consumers who come to view the exhibitions and need to know about the product, they are also available to everyone in the business who needs to be informed and kept up-to-date with the artist's current performance.  Kalorkoti's thorough and methodical approach both to his art and to its dissemination may in part - and I am writing from a London perspective - be the necessary result of living a relatively solitary existence away from the metropolis, apparently immune to current artistic fashions and opinions.  Whatever the motivation, the result in his case is never less than compelling.  It is the job of the introduction to try and pinpoint something of why the work demands to be looked at and what has happened to it since the last exhibition.


The catalogues are a not only a substantial record of achievement, they are also, I suspect, in Kalorkoti's case something of an aide-mémoire.  It is immediately evident from even a slight acquaintance with his output that rather than aiming for a single finished set piece, his work is produced in series around a restricted range of concepts or ideas, a process which, despite his total indifference to the fashionable elements of shock, surprise and novelty, is thoroughly in tune with mainstream modernism.  While he has to an extent always been a collagist combining constructed and remembered elements into constantly changing scenarios, what only becomes clear on viewing the work as a whole through the series of catalogues is the extraordinary consistency, particularly of his imagery.  His subject is 'people', that is to say, humanity in its widest sense, and the little family groups, the eternally unidentifiable portrait heads, the parading soldiers, the blankly expectant schoolchildren and the masks re-emerge time after time again.  This basic vocabulary of images is the structure on which Kalorkoti's work is built, and around which new forms of presentation and interpretation are woven.


The progression, as we follow his use of this vocabulary over the years, has in general been away from a specific line of attack towards a more universal and sometimes rather gloomy existentialism. New forms of presentation are currently manifested in an exploration of the possibilities of painting in acrylic and the apparent phasing out of the prints with which Kalorkoti made his name.  Both developments have been underway for a number of years and, significantly coincided with the end of a period of several residencies and commissioned projects in 1994.  The resulting freedom has allowed him to pick up new challenges from his own resources and to explore the possibilities of ideas which had remained latent during the discipline of working with other people.  Some of the results on view in this exhibition are recognisably developments of ideas which have been central to Kalorkoti's art for a number of years.  Others like the large series Figure 1-24 (1994) are a new departure, even if the germ of the idea was always implicit in certain strands of his output.


The earliest group of works here, the multi-plate etchings Unknown Portrait 1-8 (1993) take up the fragmented and distorted portrait imagery of the Head series of 1991.  Kalorkoti has always insisted on the portrait element in his work, sometimes to the mystification and even exasperation of this portrait historian.  A portrait is by definition a more or less exact description of one or more particular individuals, whether a head of state or even a dog.  It can, of course, and frequently has been manipulated to prove any number of falsehoods, whether to do with age, appearance, or status.  The primary interest of the viewer, however, apart from aesthetic considerations and especially if we do not know the subject of a portrait, will ultimately always be the degree of 'humanity' with which the artist has managed to imbue his sitter and with which we can associate.  It is this potential for manipulation and the portrait's function as a primary vehicle for considerations of mankind in general which has characterised its use by many twentieth century artists from the expressionists onwards.  It is no coincidence that there is some Giacometti-like imagery among Kalorkoti's more recent work.


Often when Kalorkoti has produced for my inspection some particularly anonymous or fragmented 'Man smoking' or 'Unknown portrait', I have been obliged to remind myself that this is the artist who could produce the two hundred and twenty-five portrait drawings of all the staff and employees at the National Garden Festival, Gateshead in 1990.  Characterised as they are by a certain iconic quality, a distant echo perhaps of Kalorkoti's Cypriot/Byzantine heritage, this vast undertaking may well at the time have seemed somewhat quixotic.  In years to come, the project will be better appreciated for the extraordinary social and cultural achievement which it represents.  I do not know whether the names of all these people have been preserved (and for socio-historical reasons, I hope they have), but their very anonymity allows us to put aside the usual human considerations of likeness, ethnic origin and status and concentrate unreservedly on the multitude of variations and frailties which constitute mankind.


A project like the two hundred and twenty-five portrait drawings is all part of Kalorkoti's close observation, both in particular and in general, of his fellow man, and might be understood as a sort of necessary apprenticeship for a series of works like the Unknown Portraits.  These are some of the last etchings produced by Kalorkoti and several of them relate very closely to the Study for a Portrait series of acrylic paintings produced the following year.  They represent fragments of likenesses of different people, or more accurately of different faces and figures.  Indeed, I would interpret Kalorkoti's use of the term portrait here as (unusually) carrying a touch of irony, for some of the subjects like the 'top-hatted gentleman', no.2, are glimpsed in passing, while others like no.8 are so obscured in shadow as to suggest no more (or, perhaps the artist would have us think, no less) than a state of mind.  These are ghosts of portraits, glimpses caught of people in the street, in dark corners of rooms, or standing in bus queues on winter mornings.


While the subject of these prints is people, their raison d'être is Kalorkoti's superb graphic manipulation of these snapshot impressions.  The Unknown Portrait is an a sense the logical conclusion of the ideas begun in the Untitled Portrait in 1991 where half the portraits in the series were formal (and identifiable), but translated and differentiated in terms of various graphic styles and effects.  Here, each print is treated both in terms of colour and graphic handling to guide the viewer's interpretation of the particular image.  In the portrait of the top-hatted gentleman (no.2), the primary reds, the white face and the grossly magnified diagonal half-tone screen pattern in the background give an immediate impression of brisk movement and purposeful self-absorption.  In the same way, the dissolving browns and mauve of the tragic no.5 could be seen as suggesting a spiritual deterioration from the stolid resilience of the very similar portrait in no.3, with its firm outlines and strong reds.


Part of the function of the Figure series from the following year was for the artist to re-accustom himself to painting again in acrylic.  They seem so far to be unique in Kalorkoti's output, in that, apart from the sketch-book portrait drawings, the twenty-four acrylics are a more or less spontaneous response to a given situation.  Based on photographs and drawings made during sessions with a life-model, the paintings have an immediacy and emotional undertow which is in strong contrast to much of Kalorkoti's systematically calculated oeuvre.  In quite a concrete fashion, they follow on logically from the previous series and are also 'Unknown portraits' (at least two are in traditional portrait poses), though the actual appearance of the model is scarcely admitted.  Her purpose is to suggest the variety of forms and indeed emotions evoked by a figure in movement.  Gesticulating figures make regular appearances in Kalorkoti's work, and his amusing prints of 1985-6, Moving Pictures, in which he had early on explored the paradox of a stationary figure, a man with a camera, watching models in movement, might be construed as setting the foundations for this new series.  The artist is now the stationary voyeur, camera in hand, though the series has none of the dead-pan, wry suggestiveness of the early work.  Instead we are presented with a piece of intimate theatre, like some cabaret performance in a dimly lit Berlin night-club.  Indeed there is a Munch-like, fin-de-siècle quality to some of the swirling brush-work.  Exhibited all together as a sort of installation, it will be instructive to see whether the group retains the power of some of the drawings seen individually.


Kalorkoti's sense of the human theatre has always found its expression in his use of the mask.  Whether in the guise of the green men and hamadryads of Grizedale Forest or the Ensor-like Fastnacht symbols in early prints like Reflections (1985) and Faces (1987) the mask is the ultimate token of deception and of the unknown.  Arranged in series, the masks take on the significance of a vocabulary of hieroglyphics to be read together in messages like anonymous threats.  Picked out in glowing colours and contrasted in type and expression as they are in two recent series, they become an altogether jollier intellectual jeu d'esprit.  In the diptych-like Mask/Face series (1996), the contrast is between the expressions and emotions conveyed by a tribal mask and an altogether more primitive graffiti-like face.  Each painting is resonant with the basic repertoire of opposites - happy/sad, black/white, intelligent/stupid, open/closed.  In Faces/Masks (1996), the first in the series begins with a multitude of graffiti-like circles with dots, circles and lines for features, reminding us incidentally of Gombrich's opening reflections in The Story of Art about the power of primitive drawings of the human face.  Covering the repertoire of basic emotions, Kalorkoti then refines these images down into smaller arrangements of skull- or face-shaped masks.


The second two paintings in the Faces/Masks series have recognisably become shorthand symbols for little groups of people, in effect the subject of all the remaining works in the exhibition.  Kalorkoti has always been fascinated by the psychology of the group.  Many of his earliest works are devastating comments on committees, families, art schools and human failure in general to communicate.  The military in particular comes in for a hard time, -  from the early The Ordered Condition (1985) to the current Parade 1 and 2 and Assemble 1 and 2 (1998).  Some of the most decorative works Kalorkoti has ever painted, these soldiers not only hide behind their uniforms and drilling, but now also behind the fake festivity of colourful parades.  The elaborate divisionist techniques used for this series not only suggest the falsity of the situation but also that it is somehow out of time, a bit like deteriorating film stock.  In Shadows 1-4 (1997) Kalorkoti applies the principal of the masks arranged in four different numerical groupings to a series of shorthand portrait faces derived from photographs and made with little touches of colour.  Without the confrontational element implicit in the masks, these little groups of faces do indeed become no more than shadowy ciphers, 'faces in the crowd'.  As with many crowds, the number of faces through paintings 1-4 multiplies promiscuously and unthinkingly until the individual becomes swamped by the majority and the likeness is almost totally illegible. 


Social groupings of a more conventional kind are implicit in the Profile series (1997) in which colour and, I believe, humour are the primary elements.  Each of the eight paintings in the series shows three large-scale silhouettes of people interacting.  There is something decorous about their deportment which implies that they are engaged in middle-class activities such as a cocktail party or queuing in an orderly fashion.  We will never know what they are doing, nor what those who are talking are talking about.  The irony implicit in Kalorkoti's for once brash approach is that it would in any case be of distinctly underwhelming significance if we did know.  As it is, each situation is immediately recognisable to us: the three friends obediently forming a queue who all happen to look like each other (no.1), the two women gossiping in the background while the one in the foreground talks across them (no.5).  These are everyday situations of no consequence whatsoever, transformed here into a brightly coloured abstraction, and there into an arrangement of three portrait busts on a shelf, the artist's succinct comments on conventional social interaction.


If humour is an occasional ingredient of Kalorkoti's work, so also is pathos.  Despite the humble origins of the Waiting series (1998) in snapshots of a school outing, the images are loaded with association.  For almost all of us, such scenes are part of our personal history and emotional baggage, the little scars left by cold hands, wet feet and enforced socialising, with only the slight bonus of a day off school to alleviate the overall gloom of the occasion.  The title implies more than the waiting for the bus to take the children home.  They are of an age when they are old enough to begin to understand but too young to do anything about it.  The faces, cheerful or otherwise, have a passive expectancy like blank pages waiting to be written on by the trials of growing up.  As the camera pans progressively out from the nucleus of the little group, Kalorkoti makes us understand: we were all there.  Now we are the unknown portraits glimpsed in the street, soldiers playing at charades or idle conformists wasting our lives in social niceties.



Robin Gibson