“A World of Objects” by Marco Meneguzzo
Art is never destructive. You can cancel a myriad of signs which you have painted on canvas with white paint, but they won’t disappear. They live on under the surface … Or you can reduce an object to a shapeless mass in a hydraulic press, and it will acquire a new life, revealing what its state as a functional object once hid from your eyes, its secret life … But let’s not talk about bicycle wheels.
All this tells us that Art, like the knowledge of God, knows and recognizes not only the number of hairs we have on our heads, but that every sign, every gesture which is deliberately used in the creation of a work or art, is never lost, everything is written down. In this sense Philip Tsiaras is not afraid to gather together signs in his works, to superimpose objects in his sculptures and to show the body in his photographs: nothing is lost, everything is written down. This absolute conviction leads him to “fill” the space, to distance that horror vacui that can come from the minimalist habit of contemplation (even in his White Paintings which, as he confirms in the interview later, are a kind of white purification, you can see - emerging from the white - furious and obsessive touches of representation) and to stratify heaps of information without worrying, which is so typical of those involved with mass information, as excessive, overpowering background noise.
Art can also be the opposite of information. Thus, it can wait before giving of itself, before revealing through its metaphoric arabesque form and not through that informative arrow, that vector which goes inescapably from one point to another in the shortest possible space and time. Babel’s Library, a Borgesian image of literature and art, is so boundless that it cancels the concept of time. Therefore, the language of art is not in a hurry. This aspect, however, is substituted by the anxiety to speak, to speak without neglecting anything, without forgetting anything, not even the decline of art as information. Tsiaras is this kind of artist.
In his New York studio - the Vulcan/Hephaestus in the Seaport of Manhattan - he talked to me about “compression” with regard to his work. It is the keyword which comes to mind constantly for its physical, almost mechanical implications. The expression “compression” has be come part of “informatic” use only recently, like a kind of elimination of spaces reducing information. Still its mechanical evocation holds court with the idea of a potentially explosive tension. These tensions result precisely from the unnatural compression between two elements that interact each other. Tsiaras’ artistic work is not far from the physical action which compresses the canvas -but even in his 3-dimensional works, we will see countless “quantities” of signs, images, relationships, none of which is lost, but all of which help increase visual and conceptual complexity of the work. In this respect one could also quite rightly talk about stratification, a concept for this artist which seems less dynamic and a little too archaeological. One could also think of Tsiaras’ Greek-Macedonian origins, risking too great an importance on the idea of cultural roots, which are certainly present but now filtered by the omnivorous, American imaginary.
So, as if overrun by an avalanche of signs - is this not today’s meaning of the civilization of the image? - we seek in Tsiaras’ work some reference points, interpretive nuclei which lead the magma back to a reason, whatever it may be. However, art is also a dangerous practice which denies the pretext you think you have seen, and hurls you back to the beginning, making fun of you and the mirages you mistook for reality. I believe that one of the mirages is precisely the claim of classicism which in general is attributed to whoever comes from the Mediterranean area (and if they are Greek, as well, the effect is doubled, and the Greek/tradition/classicism syllogism is taken for granted). On the contrary, Tsiaras is an American artist who knows how to look at his roots from a distance, and, above all, who lives in the flow of images and objects which earlier might have been called “Pop”, but which now need no identification, as they have almost superimposed themselves on the general idea of reality. Only at the very beginning of Tsiaras’ work did there seem to be a formal choice directed towards reduction. In his first photographs (1975-78) he plays with contrasting polarities, like the movement of a car reduced to shear aerodynamics moving through an almost stationary landscape. Other photographic works are studies between the maximum definition of the human body and its partial dissolution through movement. This idea of the “body” of things, seen with a touch of youthful narcissism, an ideal and personal residual of the classicism earlier mentioned, if only it did not disappear rapidly into the context of an environment which breaks up uniqueness and, therefore, beauty unadulterated by the landscape. Another group of photographs, taken for over a decade, reveal an initiated psychological journey in which the relationship between the self and the world . is clearly more evident than in the pictures painted in this period, or in the sculptures created immediately afterwards. It’s almost like a diary. This, not only because of its intriguing title Family Album (which, itself already reveals a separation, a distance venerated by tenderness and irony), but also because it is a direct testimony of a meeting between the subject and the objects, the latter having won out in the end. The athletic body is reduced to a form in underwear inside a room overflowing with souvenirs, ornaments, gadgets which reaffirm the concept of a historical memory, distorted irremediably by mass media: the family, the artist, the carpet, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, 3-D visions of the Parthenon, Michelangelo’s David in marble powder and plastic, a meter high. In this memory you find a good dose of happiness, once the change, once you have embraced the slide towards mass culture. Only in certain photographs taken in the Mexican desert, can the concept of the body in its primary relationship with nature be found. Here, it is due precisely to the forced absence of civilization, of consumer objects, the missing consumer (it is well-known that the desert is not a very crowded place). Nevertheless, what was behind this short digression in Tsiaras’ photographs- which have also made him famous as a photographer - is the awareness of how the “private” side of the artist, his character, are always present to a greater extent, as if the language of photography was even closer to the immediacy of being. It wasn’t by chance that we spoke about a kind of diary- and if photography is a diary, Tsiaras’ paintings are intended, on the contrary, to draw an epic dimension.
Painting is therefore an expressive dimension which camouflages the person and favors the language which hides the self and reveals the world. It is in this sense that Tsiaras’ series of paintings should be considered: they respond in such a way that it is intended to be epic in its solicitation of the world. In addition, the concept of “compression” applies to his painting as it finds in this expressive medium, and also in the ceramic works, the clearest and most detached means (the detachment from doing is close to lightness, that typical post-modern virtue, and so apparently distant from subsequent stratification of painting which Tsiaras brings into play. In fact, lightness and detachment can live perfectly happily with an idea of stratified painting, especially, if it comes from a continual flow of inspiration).
It is certainly the case in the Topologies, a series of paintings the artist began in 1990. For Tsiaras, topology should not be interpreted in a strictly mathematical sense- it-seems to be more the title of an abstract painting than a symbolic figurative! - but also as the “site” of potential visual and conceptual events. If topology is the study of the property of forms which do not change even if they undergo extreme deformation (and therefore establish relationships between figures which are themselves very different), a kind of pictorial “topology” is the place where images establish relationships not only of their differences but also of their invisible similarities. So an airplane - Tsiaras’ first topological shape- is nothing more than a cross on a diagonal (”on tilt” as the interview says) and inconceivable conceptual links lacking visual evidence of the similitude’s of the two figures superimpose themselves on the spatial links between the two shapes. If then, we are confronted from 1990 to 1991 with mass media image ·saturation of the Gulf War, and endless landings and departures of airplanes- within this airplane shape -when given formal, symbolic and historical meaning, and passing through a succession of painterly levels of interpretation that bring you back to the original bold form: this is the topology of art.
In any case, the artist can easily add the antique form of the vase- another “topos” which is often present in his work- or that of a head, or even a horse whose presence is particularly felt in many photographs to the modern one of the airplane. These are the symbolic “places” and “figures” which one comes across in almost all of Tsiaras’s pictorial imagery. In this sense the artist uses a repertory of forms, rightly defined as archetypes, to express a variety of relationships, and to investigate the world emotionally. They are formally simple and numerically few in number, as collective archetypes usually are, but it is the formal variations and manipulations, the unusual juxtapositions of sign and meaning, that create their visual complexity. We find ourselves in a scenario of multiplicity where we are living and speaking. Then, of course, the imagination is justifiably excited by the discovery of archetypal meanings in the archetype forms. The head and the vase, could be female, the airplane and the horse could be male, in the darkness of feeling and living. All this is true and necessary, but it is not enough to describe a work of art. The language of painting, like all languages, is more a “way” to tell than “what” to say. Therefore, the male and the female and the archetypal shapes have to respect the language of painting as well. Every painter tries to elaborate this respect within the bounds of personal and universal time. Tsiaras has chosen “compression.” He has chosen to fill the space and the forms with infinite layered information, with linguistic deviations which do not deflect the original object, but charge and modify the perception, as though with an infinite, recurrent decoration. This is the meaning and the characteristic of his successive drafts within the Topologies. They are often liquid drafts in which a kind of invisible writing, a highly learned variation of certain city graffiti, or amused quotations of surreal-informal scriptural automatism. They are also, and I think this is the perhaps the first impulse behind this “writing”- the personal confidence of the gesture, the pleasure of repetition, a pure pictorial freedom used to show the joy and sensual pleasure of painting. To make a comparison with another discipline, every “topology” by Tsiaras appears like a musical composition of “variations on a theme” where, however, given the synchronical and not the diachronical nature of the language of art, the theme and the variations are presented in the same moment and offered to the eye simultaneously.
In another series, the Sandwiches - a group of object-paintings - Tsiaras seems to be making a poetic declaration, of both a theoretical and objectual demonstration. A distorted cube with paint dripped edges, made up of many painted panels placed one on top of the other, creating a stacked form. With only one canvas fully visible, the rest becomes part of the object-sandwich. The Sandwich is the objectification of a pictorial process - the picture is the result of an infinite number of paintings - the image is the result of an infinite number of images, and what Tsiaras seems to be telling us, in his hyper-American pragmatism, is that all this is not only thought, concept, idea, but also object, matter, action. This is why the tangibleness of the Sandwiches, of these “pictures of pictures”, constitutes the best example of Tsiaras’ conceptualization: to make, to produce, to compress, to exalt, to pump, to fill, to amaze, to superimpose. In these works the artist’s skill and desire can only be expressed through the tactile visualness of matter. The Sandwiches show this to such a degree that the subject is transferred to the background. In fact, there are figurative and abstract Sandwiches, but it is of little importance because, in our case, this is not the real problem. The question lies wholly in the artist’s relationship to the object, which is transformed into a positive obsession. After all, Balzac’s “unknown masterpiece” is a canvas painted and painted over so much that it leaves only glimpses of a little foot in the midst of a magma of complicated colors.
The sense of horror vacui linked to the conscious, overflowing of civilization’s objects, is always present in Tsiaras’ work, even in his latest ceramic and fusion expressions. Besides - as he mentioned in his interview with Michael Komanecky - at what surprise he felt discovering a warehouse full of thousands of forms made for everyday use, forms used in the production of cheap ornaments, which helped create the stimulus for yet another productive series. Objects and their collection in quantity, which create strange and unusual combinations, seduce Tsiaras to an ever greater degree. If you consider the history of art, as Donald Kuspit has done in his latest book on Tsiaras - Private Myths published in 1993 - this is the characteristic of surrealism which tends to provoke surprise from the short circuit of juxtaposed, disparate objects. Nevertheless, if the descriptive world of these objects were to find their place in a surreal environment, I believe that the problem of the object would no longer follow the canon of “exceptionalness”, nor the bounds of “everydayness”. Pop Art has canceled out Surrealism, and perhaps has also belittled Duchamp. In any case, Tsiaras’ attitude towards the object, like almost all “objectual” artists of his generation, especially the American ones, is more like an infantile desire than the dreamy intellectualism of historical memory. Furthermore, even in his sculpture/object one can see those existential archetypes emerging, and it is the innate fascination for the object/fetish which is always present, always growing, because it must be shown. In this context, one can identify the male and the female- for example, a revolver stuck inside a bulging vase full of holes - but even more so there is the crazy pleasure of possessing all the forms and all the possible objects: this is Babel’s Library of art.
Tsiaras’ ceramic sculptures are baroque, but also from suburban markets: a Chevrolet Corvette in glazed ceramic as a Mexican saddle caked in paint with cross obstruct the opening of the vase, or a vase containing another vase containing a smaller vase, or high-heeled women’s shoes forming the curve for another larger vase, and so on. These ceramics recall George Simmel’s important philosophical work, The Handle of the Vase published in 1911, in which he tried to prove the borderline between the function of an object and its aesthetic value, discovering this limit precisely in the curve of the vase, which is at the same time its functional and decorative element. Tsiaras’ vases/sculptures are all non-functional, impossible, yet strongly symbolic - the fish, the shoe, the car, the revolver, the same vase - they speak to us of the fetishism of the object, in its shining, brazen uselessness. They are sculptures but they are also vases, that is, if they hadn’t kept the memory of their functional use, their value, then they wouldn’t communicate so evidently their accumulation or “compression” of objects. The fetish is a metaphor, but also a memory.
Today Tsiaras is testing himself with fusions in bronze, aluminum and other metals. This eclectic experience does not surprise us - besides, one of his friends and teachers is Lucas Samaras, another Greek, a theorist of extremely eclectic and diverse work, even though quite different from the younger Tsiaras -, because of actual art, freed from the rigid canons of the avant-garde, and also by his personal use of things, tools, and artistic languages. For Tsiaras, a huge spring is dominated by an extremely fragile vase, a revolver with an exceedingly long barrel is supported by an axle, a base worthy of Archipenko supports another vase, but also an industrial piece of machinery cast in a multiplicity of metals balances as an intimate bronze object. These are some of the new metal sculptures, and, we can be certain, they represent only another stage in the artist’s frantic journey of appropriation of the world. For the world is full of objects, and Tsiaras wants them all.