Panayiotis Kalorkoti

Form 1, 1997
57.5 x 76.5cm
about this collection Click image to enlarge

Panayiotis Kalorkoti: The Artist as Collector


Panayiotis Kalorkoti's early reputation is largely based on his inventive and particular use of colour etching. Employing a collage approach (which he calls 'a play of the mind') to the layout and structuring of serial images, these impressive prints combine elements of photomontage with grids like a comic strip. Although he began as a painter, Kalorkoti was dissatisfied with his work in that medium, judging it to be literally too unwieldy and heavy for what he had to say. So he developed his layered multi-plate approach to print-making, which in sheer density (of content as well as technique) can be said to rival oil painting when operating as satiric commentary in the tradition of Goya, Hogarth, Daumier, Dix and Grosz. Only in 1994 did Kalorkoti once again return to painting, with a series of woodblock-like acrylics done during a residency in Grizedale Forest. He now works mostly on paper, in acrylic and watercolour, but hasn't used oil for 16 years. The body of work under discussion here, which depicts semi-anonymous assemblies of schematized natural forms, takes watercolour to new heights of decorative and emblematic meaning.


Art for Kalorkoti is a kind of questioning, of essences and of appearances, to which there are no easy or definitive answers. ('There is no one truth', he says.) In other words, art acts as a species of philosophical enquiry, engaging with the mundanity of life, through an investigation of visual languages. Refreshingly in this ego-dominated age, Kalorkoti is more interested in raising issues than in projecting himself, though there remains a didactic impulse behind his work. He cannot resist drawing our attention to specific topics which have an underlying political content (in the widest sense). He deplores romanticism, but neither is he a 'doom merchant'; thankfully, a sense of humour preserves his sense of proportion.


Kalorkoti is a compulsive collector - not only of information but of faces, drawn or photographed, sometimes reduced to masks or pictograms, and now of schematized forms from nature. We collect to make sense of the world around us, possibly to convince ourselves we have tamed it. Kalorkoti's line portraits have a laconic power: drawing at its most economically descriptive. Is it in the service of identifying types or individuals? There's a dispassionate purity to his gaze, not unlike the portrait drawings of John Craxton. Craxton, who has made his home in Greece for many years, is much influenced by Byzantine art. Kalorkoti, born and brought up in Cyprus (he didn't come to England until he was nearly nine), is the natural heir of Cypriot Greek and Byzantine icon painting.


It has long been Kalorkoti's practise to make quick sketches - often in their hundreds - for a new project, an activity which for him is rather like doodling. These sketches do not relate directly to the paintings which follow, but are a form of limbering up, of discovering and testing the boundaries of a subject. Kalorkoti also takes a great many photographs by way of research, though it is revealing that he doesn't tend to use newspaper photos - though the appearance of his printed work might suggest it.


Kalorkoti has very specific ideas about the portrayal of human beings. The people he draws so obsessively - and a series of his portrait drawings might extend to 225, as the Gateshead Garden Festival group does - are the ordinary people he encounters in the course of his daily round. For, he asks, why should we only be interested in portraits of famous people? According to Kalorkoti, the modern period is intimately involved with anonymity. Anyone will make a good subject, though not necessarily an interesting one to others. At the base of all portraiture is the difficulty of really knowing another person, and of making a useful statement about them with any degree of accuracy. Kalorkoti dismisses the fashionable jargon about the psychological penetration of modern portraiture - he's content if a good image results. To this end, in his watercolours, he might dissolve the features, into and out of representation, from negative to positive, within a whole variety of painterly endings and beginnings.


Kalorkoti has made watercolour portraits in the past (there are groups of them dated 1994 and 1997, for instance), but they are not among his most successful or convincing representations of people. There is a graphic coarseness or unsubtlety to them which seems at odds with the delicacy of the medium. A 1995 group of watercolours entitled Reflect consist of broken-down blobby images of faces in close-up, which mimic the distortions of newspaper reproductions of photographs. As do the series of Group and Situation heads from 1996.


In 1994 he made a series of 24 rather more abstract watercolour figures, in order to re-acquaint himself with the strengths and weaknesses of the medium. They are  elemental in their treatment of light and colour, full of dissolving figures - the body as fire and spirit, shimmering and re-configuring on the page. Again in 1999 he painted several large watercolours of a figure in movement, a dancing torso on a predominantly yellow or red ground, which had the effect of eroding the figure. The issue of individual identity, alluded to here, is re-presented under another guise in his most recent body of work - 48 luminous watercolours of flowers and insects.


At first sight, these new images look like the colour plates from The Observer's Book of Insects or Wild Flowers. They resemble scientific specimens (Kalorkoti considered following a career in science before he opted to study art at Newcastle University and the Royal College), arranged in family groupings. The insects don't touch, and are laid out as if on cork slabs, separately, transfixed by the collector's pins. (Equally, none of the flowers overlap, as they would in real life, in a garden or vase.) Alternatively, these images resemble the brightly-coloured learning-aid illustrations to children's alphabet books - except that these collections of similar flowers and insects would prove more confusing than elucidating.


Interestingly, Kalorkoti's current explorations of watercolour again use the medium against the grain of the technique, except as found in such sub-genres as botanical illustration. There is little veiling or transparency to Kalorkoti's handling. The colour is opaque and flatly applied, almost deadpan. Typically, Kalorkoti subverts the genre as well as the technique. This is botanical illustration with a difference.


Some of the issues suggested by this body of work include strategies of survival: The concepts of camouflage - how to be safe in an increasingly dangerous world - and display: how to attract or repel, also for reasons of survival. Yet because his work is not based on scrupulous observation and recorded fact, but is often invented, the images are drained of the specific meaning of the naturalist. Art supervenes. The intense non-naturalistic colour of these new works seems to point to Kalorkoti's Mediterranean inheritance. Also perhaps to the example of teachers. He vividly remembers a day spent as a student with Patrick Heron. The purity and strength of his colour now recalls Heron and his idol Matisse, as it does Ken Kiff, another master colourist, whom Kalorkoti knew at the Royal College.


These new works are not strictly portraits of flowers or insects, for Kalorkoti doesn't want to emphasize specifics. In fact, the least successful are the most descriptive or recognizable. Narrative in these pictures is almost totally absent, to be replaced by rhythm and colour. The spatial setting is indefinite, but suggestive. A tapestry-like background layer provides movement to offset the single forms repeated in wave patterns (like synchronized swimming), with variations of explosive colour. Colour and shape create movement, and aim at universality. Kalorkoti favours autumnal tints - reds and yellows. Although the body shapes of the wasps and bees and butterflies do originate in reference books, they are adapted to the artist's aesthetic requirements. Kalorkoti doesn't work from live specimens; as he says, he is not really a nature person, but a city dweller. Like Mondrian, he dislikes green, but has introduced it into these new paintings (almost under duress) as being aesthetically necessary. Blue is an acceptable variant, but it is really red and yellow, one taking a foreground the other a background role, that Kalorkoti prefers, with the colours used as purely as possible.


Remark the precision of the drawing of these elements, it is deliberately characterless. The hard edges against the mottled grounds could be cogs as much as flowers. These flowers are geometricized, simplified, with none of the fragility of real flowers - Kalorkoti is not interested in that. Much more ordered and orderly than nature, these blossoms and insects float above their dappled backgrounds, creating the illusion of collage. Kalorkoti doesn't want to unify the surface event with the ground - he intends these different visual elements to bounce off one another. He likes the interplay of jagged fronds with smooth areas of flat colour.


Kalorkoti aims at disguising the individual insect or flower and enveloping it in a larger pattern - as we as individual units should be merely a part of the larger pattern of the universe. The more disguised the individual traits, the more successful Kalorkoti deems the picture. When the flowers look like butterflies, the eye is deceived and the pattern emerges more strongly. At times these objects could easily be other things - star loaves or rolls, Viennese whirls, fairy cakes or butterfly pasta. Here Kalorkoti engages with the Pop Art repeat imagery of Wayne Thiebaud or Warhol, and echoes its mass market presentation.


The underlying grid structure holds the elements centred in suspension - neither aligned to left or right, top or bottom. The big single blooms are all-enveloping and extend right to the edges of the paper. Paradoxically, Kalorkoti relishes petal or wing divisions. For him, these discontinuities are important, for the images should not appear too symmetrical and perfect. Likewise, the textures should be varied, but only as much as is absolutely necessary. These images are very much variations on a theme, though beguiling in their repetitions. Means are deliberately restricted, but made to speak as eloquently as chamber music. This is richness through simplicity. As Kalorkoti himself says 'I do believe that clarity of thought in the work is important'. The idea is crucial, but here is a conceptual artist who actually likes traditionally-made imagery.


What do the flowers signify? The schematized petal face assumes abstract shapes: one orange flower-head has all the dynamic tension of a kite. Elsewhere a corrugated edge against a billowy one sets up a purely abstract visual frisson. The earlier works tends to be less lyrical. A 1994 quartet of images is like a ribbon bow of articulated form - five petals which become like insect wings and then geometric and rounded. These images may look as if made with a stencil or template, but they are all individually hand-drawn. In fact, they are really hand-painted, for only part of the pattern is drawn out in pencil beforehand: Kalorkoti doesn't want too much pre-mapping.


The latest work, though not obviously continuing his complex dialogue with mechanical reproduction, is in fact involved just as deeply with what the reproduction of images means to us as communication. As always with Kalorkoti, burning questions are at once raised - what kind of information is provided? What degree of commentary? Surely we are dealing here with issues of repetition and individuation, of anonymity versus particularization? But why does Kalorkoti want us to spend time with these pictures? Do they contain an autobiographical sub-text?


Other commentators have read ambiguity, desolation and despair into Kalorkoti's images. There is perhaps a degree of unease and anxiety to his figure compositions, but these negative values should not be over-stressed. It is in the nature of satire to ridicule vices and follies, not to espouse them. Kalorkoti is too wary and knowing a commentator to indulge in cosmic despair; cosmic laughter is perhaps more in his line. The vivid monumentality of these flower and insect ballets is nothing less than life-enhancing. It is as if with his methodic arrangements and inventories, his careful division of the picture surface, and his quasi-taxonomical questing, Kalorkoti casts a shaft of light into our muddled consciousness. Once again we are assured of the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.


In the end, it's all a matter of presentation. The artist must develop an awareness of history ('for me history is not clear', comments Kalorkoti, 'where's the truth?'), for only through constant reinterpretations have we any chance of a fresh understanding. Kalorkoti tirelessly returns to an idea to probe it further, and has developed the good Modernist habit of taking things to a logical conclusion, by way of thorough serial exploration. Panayiotis Kalorkoti aims to question and challenge our assumptions, to keep us on the qui vive, and heighten our awareness of our relationship to the world. In this striking and provocative series of watercolours, he triumphantly achieves just that.



Andrew Lambirth