“A Family Poses” by Andreas Bee
Philip Tsiaras was born in New Hampshire in 1952 and has lived in New York City since 1978. His family emigrated to the United States from Greece shortly after the Second World War. Tsiaras’ drawings, paintings, ceramics and glass have been shown in numerous exhibitions in both the United States and Europe. His photographs, on the other hand, have been much less exhibited.
The “Family Album”, the greater part of which was made in the mid 1980s is among his most personal groups of work. What draws the viewer spontaneously to the photographs is the authentic atmosphere of this family’s world. The photographs are obviously staged, and yet one has the feeling that the diverging moments in the pictures are connected together by a strong emotional bond. Questions arise: How was Tsiaras - for the most part, focal point and star of the photographs - able to get his mother and aunts, an uncle and his father to play according to his rules? How did he manage to implant his modern, American-influenced conceptions of an individual life style in the middle of a traditionally conservative, Greek emigrant family, whose world is determined by antiquated conventions?
“I told them (my mother and my aunts) that. if they wouldn’t help me,it would hurt my career. So essentially I worked on their sense of guilt. They trusted me, of course, but, at the same time, they were also concerned, because they didn’t want to appear ridiculous. The women were great. They seemed to understand just what the camera wanted. The men were more stiff. They disapproved of the basic idea and posed only with reluctance. The women appeared reborn, excited. They held the child\ husband in their arms -and I, was just in my underwear. A kind of erotic continuum “.
In the end, everyone who participated in the shooting is jointly responsible for the realization of the pictures. Everyone is more or less conscious of their role in the staging of the photographs; everyone is a personal witness to themselves and their fantasies. Rarely does one have the impression that the participants are not expressing their emotions, but rather that they are being presented by them. Ambivalence is the actual theme of this series. The view bounces back and forth, like between the complementary color fields in concrete painting: mother - son, son - mother /father/ uncle, youth - old age. The intensity of the photographs is, to a great extent, the result of the reciprocal insecurity and mutual motivation of the actors. In most of the pictures, there is no photographer who operates behind the camera. Everyone together forms a group of players who parade in front of the camera with an automatic shutter release, obeying previously agreed upon rules and trusting their own intuition.
The undefinableness, the openness, with which Tsiaras confronts us is carefully calculated and decidedly perfidious in its effect. Everyone who looks at the pictures must confront themselves at some point. At the very least, when you begin to interpret and associate. You may assume, for example, that the son, who in the real world is forced to repress his secret Oedipal desires, nevertheless fulfills these in a sublimated form acceptable within our culture. On the other hand, however, it is also the mother and the aunts who are permitted here, within the framework of art, to abandon the territory assigned to them by society and to take the child and the (erotic) husband in their arms. To be able to temporarily suspend the practiced and accustomed rules followed by family relationships, you obviously need an appeal to something higher, such as art. Only then is the reconciliation of desires and motives which actually exclude each other possible. Yet a good portion of irony and humor, which resonates in most of the photographs. immediately puts a stop to such one-sided psychological attempts at interpretation.
When all is said and done, there is nothing more banal than one’s own family album. Such collections of photographs are usually the attempt by a family to secure its own identity, or even to create one. And as private as these albums may appear, they completely exclude the true privacy and authenticity of the individual. There is something inherently special in every family album, and yet it remains part of a community within which conventions determine the relationship of dialogue and self-reference. Philip Tsiaras’ “Family Album is directed toward the collective biography of the viewers.
“I had made up my mind,” Tsiaras says, “to do something which would open and subvert the system of conventional photo albums. I decided, therefore, to always photograph myself in underwear. Not naked; naked would have been too strong, it would have been an affront. To appear in nothing except my underwear was as far as I could go and still be acceptable, but also shocking at the same time. The interesting thing was that my highly conservative family was shocked at first; but at the same time, I was surprised at how much and how quickly they had grown accustomed and learned to contribute in a conceptual sense. It took quite some time for me to win their trust. At first. the whole thing was strange and uncomfortable to them, yet, without knowing what they were doing was something which would help me to create an interesting and important work.”
Tsiaras subjects himself to his family and, at the same time, tries to dominate them. On the one hand, he portrays the antiquated, comfortable climate of his family life and, on the other hand, he controls the frail scenery as a young hero. Animosity and familiarity simultaneously characterize these pictures. They have an anonymous and distanced effect since the viewer is acquainted with neither the artist nor his relatives and, in most cases, not even the traditional background. The furnishing of the house, the still lives composed of bits and pieces of memorabilia and, last but not least. the faces of the people give witness to a lost, but not completely forgotten world. Familiarity always arises where we confront our own memories and fantasies and recognize ourselves in this or that situation.
Even the clearly and legibly composed pictures from this album, those which can be read quickly, can also be decidedly profound: In front of a white brick wall, mother and son play their roles. Tsiaras stands elevated on an invisible “pedestal”. He shows a part of his naked torso from the side, his hips wrapped in a towel, and a section of his legs. Head, shoulder area and his raised left arm cannot be seen in the photograph, leaving the chest as the focal point. The hand of the right arm hanging loosely at his side holds a small copy of the famous statue of David by Michelangelo in Florence. The mother who is standing somewhat lower wraps both her arms around her son’s hips from behind. She is wearing a blouse printed with forms and colors a Ia Joan Mir6 and appears to be concentrating solely on the luxurious smell of his skin. The scene is ironically broken by the replica of Michelangelo’s statue and the pattern of the shirt inspired by abstract painting. Just as David nonchalantly holds the stone to be thrown at Goliath in his right hand, the miniature of Michelangelo’s statue is also held casually. If the David from 1504 was originally a symbol of self-confident. masculine corporeality and, at the same time, a representation of a free and independent worldview, then the miniature copy is an expression of the process whereby all these values are transformed into kitsch. The pure, sensual corporeality of Tsiaras/David stands in contrast to the veiled sweetness of the woman and mother’s body. A very special emotional relationship between mother and son, between woman and man is evoked here. But this relationship cannot be precisely pinned down. As always, it remains a “this-as-well-as-that”.