Panayiotis Kalorkoti

Isolated, 1998
70.5 x 57.1cm
about this collection Click image to enlarge



Panayiotis  Kalorkoti  is essentially a people artist.  Not necessarily an artist for the people or an artist of the people,  though both may to a certain  extent  apply.  But he is certainly an artist about  people.  Few of his works do not incorporate a human face or figure. Even the Grizedale  pictures,  which are all connected  with the Grizedale Forest Sculpture Project and therefore feature a lot of forest creatures,  especially insects,  humanity is still obsessively present in the ranges of masks which mark its (possibly malign) presence.


This latter suggestion does indicate something significant.  For the most part, artists who obsess on the human figure invite the categorisation "humanist". With Kalorkoti one cannot be so sure. He is fascinated by humans, but does he necessarily always like, or even approve of, them? There is often something remote, if not positively hostile, about the people in his pictures. This latest series making up the "Events" exhibition is a case in point. The images are mostly of groups or crowds. They might be celebrating togetherness. Instead, we find ourselves considering the madness of crowds, their ability to get out of control, their own or anyone else's.


The young women (at least, I think they are women) might be at a revivalist meeting, or maybe a rock concert. Whichever it is, they clearly have that kind of fervour bordering on the bacchantic, in which state they might equally smother the object of their attention with embraces or tear him to pieces. Similarly, the more abstracted single faces in close-up all seem to be in anguish or agony, recalling to at least one viewer the close-ups in the Odessa Steps sequence of Eisenstein's great silent film Battleship Potemkin. I am reminded, indeed, of once seeing, in Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, a teacher asking a group of six-year-olds at a show of Gunter Brus's giant, hideously scribbled-on faces "Now children, is this a happy face?"


The answer in Kalorkoti's case must surely be the same as in Brus's: a resounding "No". In this exhibition at least, for it has not always been thus. It must be remembered, also, that Kalorkoti tends to work in series, and towards a specific showing. The theme selected for this show is "Events", and the implication of the word, in one application at least, is a gathering of people for some specific purpose, while an event in the more general sense might as well be some natural disaster, like the Asian tsunami or the New Orleans hurricane, as some hopefully joyous occasion like a pop concert. All of them, anyway, are likely to involve people in some heightened state of awareness, good or bad.


Looking backward, within this perspective, one can see a necessary human involvement in most of Kalorkoti's previous shows. For "In Motion" (2005), for example, a glance is sufficient to see that the motion is of bodies in motion - and very decidedly female bodies at that. I am inclined to see the women in motion as performers. This is partly because of the brilliance of the colours, which immediately gives the impression of people on stage, caught in the spotlight as though aureoled in light. This impression is strengthened by the dramatic quality of these women's gestures, which always appear larger than life. One series looks rather like Edith Piaf in action, a number like Judy Garland on stage, yet others like the drag-queen's delight Shirley Bassey.


At least, they do to me. Kalorkoti carefully avoids being too specific about his subjects, on the principle that he is doubtful whether he, as the work's creator, necessarily knows any better than anyone else exactly what his fundamental subject is. Harold Pinter once told me that he had just received a letter from one of his public, who claimed to have penetrated the code of The Caretaker and consequently recognised that the three characters were God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, the shed Aston is building in the garden Christ's Church on Earth and so on. And what, as an erstwhile East End Jewish boy, did he think of that, I asked him. "I would have to say that is not what I had consciously in mind. But then, who knows...?"


In much the same way, Kalorkoti denies any special knowledge of the work he is producing. He seems faintly surprised that one thinks the pictures of young women loosely grouped, hands raised before them, eyes turned upwards, might be the ecstatic audience at a pop concert. Well, then, is it a revivalist meeting? He seems equally nonplussed. Evasive, playing his cards close to his chest? I don't think so. Rather, I think Kalorkoti, like all real artists, is a clear case of skill directing instinct. The beginning is the instinct, that something from below or outside the conscious mind which tells the conscious artist to paint in reds or blues, images of dogs or buildings or young women, orders that he cannot but obey.


Obviously these impulses must come from somewhere, and that somewhere may be susceptible to outside analysis, even if that analysis may not be subject to proof, since, as Hitchcock loved to point out, the existence of the subconscious itself is really no more than a hypothesis. Some years ago I chaired an "Evening with Vincente Minnelli" at the Chicago International Film Festival. He, a nervous and hesitant man at the best of times, was worried that the Chicago audience would be full of hotshot film students bursting with unanswerable questions. "If they want to know what that red scarf in Home From the Hill signifies, what would I tell them?" "Well, Vincente, what would be your honest answer?" "I suppose it would be that I put it there because it looked good." "Then say just that: either they'll believe you and think 'The incredible instinct of the man', or they won't, and credit you with being subtle as the serpent, not giving anything away."


I believe the first reaction is correct, for Kalorkoti as much as for Minnelli. Even if he knows where the initial impulse comes from, he does not know exactly how it translates itself into physical form. Sometimes the first impulse may come from a commission proposed and accepted, and obviously commissions from the Grizedale Forest Sculpture Project, the National Garden Festival or the Imperial War Museum have set his mind off thinking in specific directions and so triggered inspiration for whole series of works, beyond the margins of the original commission which set the whole sequence off.


Many artists dislike, or at least distrust, the very idea of a commission as infringing the complete freedom in choice of subject and treatment which they regard as their birthright. But others, Kalorkoti among them, relish a commission as a spur to new thought. It may well be a matter of confidence: certainly Kalorkoti seems to be confident that his own personal style and approach are deeply encoded in his psyche, and will emerge in anything he does. And it is not to be doubted that all his major commissions have broadened without diluting his artistic personality. He may not, for the moment, be literally depicting masks, as he was in the Grizedale pictures, but looking at human faces as though they are masks has added something to his expressive range. His human faces these days may not be so close to the literal truth as the 225 individual portrait drawings in the National Garden Festival exhibition, but equally we may well feel that he would not be painting faces the way that he does today if it were not for the experience embodied in this 1990 collection.


The question inevitably arises: is he a political artist. It is not merely equivocation to say that it all depends on what you mean by "political". Practically anything that revolves so importantly around people as Kalorkoti's art does must have about it some of the necessary concomitants of politics, though granting that politics, like beauty, is frequently in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps the nearest Kalorkoti has come to some direct statement of political position was in the works commissioned by the Imperial War Museum and, even more, the satellite works made at the same time and somehow connected with them.


Here as elsewhere it is important to know where the artist started from. In this collection and in the National Gardens works the figures and the details of location were more or less built in to the original commission. Anything connected, however loosely, with war - or perhaps in these ecology-obsessed days even gardening on a national scale -  is bound to have political reverberations. And this will continue into the artist's contemporary and subsequent work. So, we can understand without too much argument that Kalorkoti is generally against war and for gardens. But beyond that there is little specific and no perceptible desire to preach or convert.


This has been called ambiguity. Edward Lucie-Smith has argued with this view. Images without words, even more than words themselves, can be read in myriad different ways, depending what the spectator brings to them. But even bearing this in mind, it is very difficult to pin Kalorkoti down to any particular views that can be divined unequivocally from his art. True, it is therefore ambiguous, but not in the way that Kalorkoti's critics complain of. Rather, it is the sort of ambiguity that William Empson wrote about in his seminal critical study of poetry Seven Types of Ambiguity - the creative sort which arises from the mystery of creation itself, and from the ability of the creator to manage two or more meanings at once, without necessarily understanding any one of them completely on a conscious level.


In fact, it is precisely this to which Kalorkoti's work owes its peculiar richness and luminescence. Even his simplest portraits give the impression that something lies beyond the scene. In this latest phase of his art some things, in some images, are beyond doubt. We can see that they embody anguish or agony: in the muzzy close-ups it is very clear, as the immediate association with Battleship Potemkin makes evident. But in others it is difficult to distinguish what is "really" there and what is in our minds as spectators.


There is, for example, a diptych which is actually called Despair 1 and 2. Pretty decisive on the artist's intentions, one would think. And indeed, in Despair 1 no one would be likely to question the label. But seeing Despair 2 without knowing the title Kalorkoti has given it, one could well think that the protagonist was merely singing, possessed by a gamut of emotions. Similarly with the crowd scenes, especially those with titles including the noncommittal words "Gathering" and "Event". The happenings which give rise to these images might be concerts, they might be religious meetings; considering that many of the participants are looking upwards, one has to consider whether their expressions are of wonder or terror, whether they are looking at angelic hosts or invaders from another planet.


The active ingredient, of course, is precisely that area of doubt, the provocative ambiguity which enlivens rather than confusing our responses. The pictures are unsettling, just because you cannot quite decide how you are responding to them, or indeed, how you are meant to respond, The artist seems to have withdrawn himself from the discussion, and yet he remains intensely involved with it, since after all he made the material upon which the discussion is based. We are used to asking the artist, often plaintively, what he means, what we are supposed to think.  To such demands Kalorkoti remains irritatingly, fascinatingly impervious. He is not there to provide aught for our comfort: he is there rather to inspire us to a sort of participation. He is there to create the ground on which two minds, two sensibilities, can meet and converse as equals.




John Russell Taylor