Panayiotis Kalorkoti

Untitled Study 1, 1994
74.9 x 55.9cm
about this collection Click image to enlarge



We are all fascinated by what fascinates Panayiotis Kalorkoti, from our earliest days to our last, and the evidence suggests he isn't seem likely to come to the end of it either.  As we learn to read the world our first concern is for the kind face and the good breast.   Gradually we refine this attention into a highly sophisticated skill which we take utterly for granted, that of reading faces and body language for the signals they offer.  We learn to read the language of roads and traffic; we could see that as part of the evolutionary process, success in which allows us to survive.  But just as essentially and to a higher level, we learn the public and private languages of facial and bodily expression in order to know when we are safe and when not, and to estimate the intentions and states of others.  We learn to assess groupings, arrays, gangings up.  We learn also the studied language of actors and performers of all sorts, focusing on them with unique intensity in the cinema while they enact for us the rituals of love and hate.  Media images of several sorts supply us.  We shall never know how much we learn from them, how much we imitate them even in our most intense moments when personal reality seems to be guiding our own performances.


The human baby, like the baby chimp, can take comfort from the simplest of masks.  Two spots for eyes are the essential component, preferably enlarged, as in Byzantine art, Disney animation and Japanese erotic comics.  Given the most basic data, miles away from what we would consider 'lifelike', we see faces and whole figures everywhere.  This skill is powered by an impulse to it, an appetite.  Almost anything will do, from the freest childish scribble or stick figure to shadows and lights that hide in furniture or in trees to frighten us in the night.  We see a man in the moon, in clouds, in potatoes and other roots, and if we expect to see people, as in newsprint photos, even the remotest approximation of what we think of as a face or a figure will do.  The camera distorts and abstracts; reproduction technology erodes the original image further, and still we do not doubt that we are looking at people.  Given a finely printed photo of someone we know, we become very choosy.  Yes, we say to this one, or no, that's not auntie, that hasn't caught her at all. 


Kalorkoti's work has been devoted to exploring this area.  The fact that it is an area so central to all our lives matches the intensity, which he brings to it, but also puts his work in danger.  Oh yes, faces, we say, or figures, as we nod our way past his pictures.  There have been a lot of faces in art, divine and human, real (what we are trained to accept as real) and fantastical, benign, enchanting even, or awesome and gruesome.  In Michelangelo's fresco of God charging the limp body of Adam with spiritual and physical power, we see a grandiose head, unquestionably God's, a dramatic super-head capable of replacing the Byzantine artist's hieratic formulas.  Just behind Him, emerging out of the press of other beings, we glimpse the most enchanting of young women, Eve-in-waiting we suppose, and a promise of Mary.  In the Orthodox Church of Greece and Russia the Byzantine types have persisted, surviving western influences.


When Panayiotis Kalorkoti came to England as a boy, he exchanged his small native Cypriot village of Ayios Amvrossios (Saint Ambrose) for London.  There he had known everyone and everywhere.  His mother prayed before icons; going to church was part of normal life.  Here the world was suddenly secular and urban, and full of strangers.  Homelife involved serious difficulties, especially between him and his father; his two brothers, a few years older, seemed distant then and still are, both successful men in areas far from the painter's, family men with a family awareness that Panayiotis cannot share.  I can sympathise with that: the uprootedness that comes with emigration is easily made more absolute by a lack of rootedness at home.  Kalorkoti's world is still full of strangers, in spite of friends etc.  He does not seek intimacy, a settled relationship, and perhaps this lack of the focus a committed pairing or a caring household should bring makes him especially aware of everyone, the groupings and the spaces, the self-displaying and the hiding, the public, stereotypical image and the reality experienced every day.


Study, his mother and brothers agreed, would be the way out of poverty and rolelessness.  He considered science, then tried the humanities, including politics, but somehow went into art at Newcastle University.  He emerged from there with a first class degree and a bursary to the Royal College of Art.  There and through exhibitions in London and abroad he encountered a host of artistic models, some stirring but remote from his own developing priorities  -  he vividly remembers a day with Patrick Heron  -  some more directly influential, such as Eduardo Paolozzi and Ken Kiff whom he knew personally, and R. B. Kitaj whose work he encountered in the late 1970s.  His own early work, exhibited in 1988, referred to many other artists, great figures in modern and Old Master art, in homage and partial mockery.  Even then, all humanity seemed to cross the stage of his prints and paintings, with Ensor and Lowry as comperes and all sorts of human situations, from solitary sex to world politics, presented as familiar extremities.  Kitaj's work suggested there could be passion in art attending to impersonal themes.  Kalorkoti made paintings and prints about the fragmented world of post-war Berlin, but also about love and marriage viewed satirically, and of The Father slumped asleep in front of a large Wesselman seductive nude.  One is not surprised to find this young artist, in taking so broad and unidealising a view of the human race, turning to Hogarth who could not make an image to accompany his high-minded theories, An Analysis of Beauty, without mocking beauty and art.


Even among these earliest exhibited works there are ideas and concerns that live on in what followed and are pressed, year by year, into greater prominence.  Kalorkoti's art is passionately dispassionate.  Great art, as I said, is acknowledged but also mocked.  There are many portraits, some of them handsome images and agreeable-seeming people, but they are all anonymous, not friends or lovers, and done in a detached manner as though the painter was making a pictorial essay on portraiture rather than portraying anyone in particular, anyone that mattered.  And if Hogarth could arrange a marginal sequence of heads around a main pictorial scene, and if Paolozzi could divide up an image into compartments and insert a variety of impersonal visual matters in the spirit of collage, if Kitaj could juxtapose drawn and photographed figures in one composition and insert texts, so could Kalorkoti.  The 1980s was the time when notable critics announced that abstract and conceptual art had gone away and figurative art was back again at last.  Kalorkoti's work was utterly figurative, couldn't (it long seemed) consider anything other than faces and figures.  It lacked entirely the self-advertising of the various kinds of expressionism that rode high then, but was cool and analytical as though he were a scientist after all, displaying his images like specimens brought home from the jungle of art and media representations, like the flower heads and butterflies he has ordered neatly in a few recent paintings (not in this exhibition).


Like Hogarth's his compositions remind us that we say 'head' or 'figure' to a whole variety of signs, from a Raphael head to a scratched graffito and from an African or Alaskan mask to a skull or a newsprint image in crude halftone.  These matters are already under close investigation in the early work, as though Kalorkoti saw the painter's first duty as that of rendering an account of all image-making in human history from the idealisation we call classicism to the other sorts we call primitive, from cave painting to signals bounced through space.  The variety is so great that one doesn't know whether to marvel at our ability to read so many languages, our eagerness to accept such extremes of unlikeness as heads and figures, or to see the whole process as arbitrary and profitless.  The philosophers have long told us that what we see and what we therefore think of as the real world is merely the play of shadows.  That being so, says Kalorkoti's art, let us examine these shadows for what they are, and thus get closer to the higher reality they screen.


His retrospective show of prints made during 1978-1989, shown at the Imperial War Museum in London and including new work commissioned by the Museum, focused understandably on images of war: the technology of war and its necessary personnel (we almost forget these days that it takes people to wage war), and the disasters of war  -  the, so to speak, incidental ones and the large-scale ones.  It was striking then to see that the earliest images shown dated back to Kalorkoti's art-school years in Newcastle when he made a screenprint series as variations on a scene from Goya's reports from the Peninsular War.  Many of the other images were of soldiers and hardware, and in subtle ways they conveyed both mortality and the disciplines by which, theoretically, death and defeat may be kept at bay.  But there were also satirical prints  -  a series called Untitled but accorded subtitles such as Memory and Reflections  -  that still feel a bit like music-hall intrusions into all that ambiguous earnestness.  As a child he had experienced ethnic war.  Growing up he found himself in a new world that echoed his own growing isolation from his family.  We all live in a world drenched with blood and impoverished in the name of self-defence.  Art has been his self-defence, in some respects his aggression: he is not fond of the world at large and his prints and paintings tell us so.  In this exhibition too there was a compartmented print in which he explored all sorts of faces, and more such faces in a band along another one, and some of the soldiers were shown as heads  -  drawn ones, very direct, naive almost but also ones derived from half-tone photographs, enlarged to the point where the grain dominates over the image, just as, in one of these, the head has become a skull.


Obviously, Kalorkoti is not dispassionate.  Though he never adopts the rhetoric of expressionism and though he could often appear to be pursuing an objective study, a personal message is always there and it is a grave one.  He almost always works in series, etchings, watercolours and acrylics on paper or on canvas.  Not large works but images that bore into our consciousness through his insistent returning to them, two or three times often, more sometimes.  Chronologically the present exhibition opens with a suite of eight etchings of 1993, each of them showing a woman moving, dancing, three-quarter figure and close-up.  As a theme this seems friendly enough, though there can be pain as well as delight in watching.  Yet the series, especially if we follow the sequence the way it is numbered, hints at deterioration, dissolution even, as the legible and lovable silhouettes melt away.  The brownish watery reds in which they are printed do not signal vigour but form images of transience, and we may ask ourselves whether it is love and joy or life itself that is the underlying reference.  A sequence of eight paintings in acrylic on paper dates from 1994 and is all of heads.  Four heads per picture, thirty-two altogether, in many different idioms ranging from the photographic to the most summary or abstracted.  I have referred to our adaptability, bred of need, in the matter of recognizing people as people and of reading expression and, we hope, character.  Here Kalorkoti's staccato manner, head after head after head, suggests also that whichever way we see each other, by whatever process and in whatever style, what we see is mere surface, transience again, not a reliable, permanent image let alone a reliable, permanent being.  But does that not mean that art itself is mere transparency, a veil which may divert us briefly, Plato's shadows?


Kalorkoti collects images from all sources but also makes his own, drawing what he sees or recalls, photographing and drawing from photographs, always reworking more than quoting. He is interested in order.  In the 1997 series of four acrylics called Impression he shows as rows of heads or, rather, he starts with a file of three in profile, soldiers perhaps, then portrays five in a looser group, then six in something close to a line but their features eroded, and finally ten or so, higgledy-piggledy and almost illegible.  The criss-cross, almost tartan ground against which he sets them becomes gruffer and more dominant as we go, as though the loss of image in the heads is to the benefit of the ground, so much so that what we receive at first as a background becomes a kind of weft and warp into which the heads disappear.  In the two acrylics on canvas, Set Order, done in 1999, three and then four soldiers are shown in front of and behind each other.  Their faces are minimal, expressionless.  Kalorkoti's idiom here is that of prints, something between linocuts and silkscreen, so that everything reads as flat and on the surface though the soldiers require space and in fact undergo marked perspectival shrinkage.  The vertical and horizontal marks have much the same presence as the more descriptive brushstrokes that deliver the men's uniforms in terms of light and dark; their faces hover in a sort of no-man's-land of tone, colour and surface.  Again, what at first glance seems a straightforward if unheroic image becomes contradictory or at least puzzling.  What has priority here?  What are we meant to attend to?


Questions seem to dominate his recent work, as represented here.  They were always there, even when his graphic style was more descriptive and when he was referring to famous source materials such as Goya or familiar and specific objects such as warships and aeroplanes.  He was never satisfied with reporting.  But now the questions arise as much out of his exploration of processes as out of the collected images.  He has always been a purposeful stage manager of his pictures, controlling space, preparing settings, assembling or isolating his images and objects.  His recent work suggests he wants colour, tone and touch to play greater roles.  His prints and paintings are more pictorial, more painterly.  His 1993 prints had pointed in this direction, and perhaps that is why the present selection starts here, but it is the work of last year or so that shows his new mastery.  The four acrylics he calls Search, taken in sequence, show six people, head and shoulders, apparently a group standing in space but revealing itself to be an assemblage of separate heads; then a less legible assembly of fifteen heads, as though cut out of a large group photo but again synthetic, with a line of light both separating them and stringing them together; then twenty-eight heads, barely legible as such, in four rows and little space; finally five rows of ten signs that we read as heads mainly because the sequence has prepared us to do so.  From a few specific, knowable heads to this array of shorthand scrawls: as T.S.Eliot wrote: 'I had not thought death had undone so many'.  We know of many more deaths in our time; we prefer not think of them but here we watch the images of living people eroded by time and their setting into lifeless effigies.  The spotty background, lighter at the top, then darker, eats them up as the dark area imperceptibly grows.  I pointed out to Kalorkoti that one might see the series the other way around, from the scarcely formed humanoid to the kind of image we accept as being of living individuals.  That would have little meaning, he rightly said, admitting to a realistic-pessimistic view of existence.  There are moments when I see his backgrounds, here and   in earlier works, as representations of hell.


I am not saying that this is what he intends: his subject is the world around him, not some future place and condition.  He emphasised to me, showing me these works, that the heads he uses are not those of relatives or friends, nor of people around him, but are what he calls 'universals', collected through and from photographs, all of them strangers.  This applies also to the young women he has been picturing recently in series of watercolours.  Three series of four are on show here: Motion, Moving Picture and Study Picture.  Each series follows, perhaps I should say observes, one woman as she dances; each painting holds one moment.  None shows the whole figure; one of them goes so close that it becomes difficult to read the forms: Study Picture 4.  This process is an alternative one to that of eroding images in repeating them.  Going close suggests some sort of human engagement.  But no, these too are anonymous people and must remain so.  None the less, there is charm and, in the watcher's heart, attraction.  She turns, her hair swinging, her arms raised often; we almost hear the music.  The red-head in Study Picture 1 exults, an archetypical image of the woman revelling in her youth and beauty.  Most of the pictures confirm this sense of pleasurable self-regard, leaving us our role as that of voyeur, ignored by her.  But Moving Picture 4 presents what may be a dejected image, a female Pierrot losing out yet again to the Harlequin who always wrecks our dreams.  In reading these almost filmic sequences we may miss the subtlety of the painter's work in building up these watercolours.  A few firm details, much more suggested, with light underlining forms here, melting them away there, and with colour itself acting both as information and as emotive orchestration.


It is rare for art to be so directly about life.  Not about lifestyles, about shocks or seductions, but about the life we experience as involuntary participants.  What links all Kalorkoti's art is solitude, his and ours.  We find ways of escaping from it.  Art can serve as a potent means of taking us into company, but here we are reminded of our underlying solitude.  This makes his images uncomfortable, especially when merely glanced at in quantity.  Observed with greater care  -  that is, engaging with them as we might engage with living people  -  they reveal strengths or depths that come from the artist's constructive care.  These may reassure us: communication is a primary and bonding human activity, and though Kalorkoti's individual images do not speak to us he himself does, energetically as well as subtly.  We are not alone after all.



Norbert Lynton