Interview “Private Myths” by Michael Komanecky, 1992

Michael Komanecky

There are a number of things that connect in your work that have always intrigued me and one of them is family. Obviously the Family Album is a substantial part of your earlier work. I’m just curious to know how that evolved.

Philip Tsiaras

The Family Album... I lived in Greece in 1977 on a fellowship, a grant I received to translate Greek poetry into English. At that time I was also doing photography seriously. Much of the work was very formal in nature, blurred cars moving through static landscapes—small prints, very precious. When I came back to the States I relocated to New York City. I was looking for something very personal to put in my work. Something meaty. I began to notice the environment of my parents all over again. But rather than be put off by it, you know, as I had in the past—I was now strangely intrigued by the whole kitsch dimension of it. It’s amazing how a little twist in the brain can change things— when you are a bloodhound looking for a subject.

MK

Your family pictures seem real and unreal at the same time.

PT

I think its the authenticity of the family that people respond to in the photos more than the odd configurations and manipulations.

MK

So you admit to some manipulation?

PT

What is life without a little handling!

MK

I think the question that first comes to mind when looking at the photographs is simply—how did you get them to do those things?

PT

I told them (my mother and aunts) that if they didn’t help me I would be a failure and they’d be destroying my career. Basically, I worked on their guilt. I mean, they trusted me but they were also apprehensive —they didn’t want to be made to look ridiculous. And as I had published some rather outrageous photographs in the past, they were naturally concerned.

The women were great though, really. They seemed to understand what the camera wanted. The men were more wooden. They rejected the idea initially and only reluctantly posed. The women though seemed revived by my second right of passage into their lives. They seemed sexed up by both the artificial and natural closeness. The man/child was in his underwear in their arms, a kind of erotic continuum. Don’t ask me what that means.

MK

Which means?

PT

Which means look out Freud cause mamma’s got her lipstick on!

MK

Did they think you were making fun of them?

PT

Maybe. Maybe I was making fun of myself or they of me. At the time I didn’t realize it, but the power in the pictures was in our mutual embarrassment.

MK

I consider the Family Album more of a conceptual art project than a photographic essay. Were you able to make them aware of what you were doing?

PT

Well, all I can say is that we had an intimate little photographic consciousness going—a world, you know, of our own picture making fantasy. I would show them works in progress and from left field they would often come out with a shocking observation. They did not understand the psychological implications of what they were doing. But they had a sense, I’m sure, that they were touching territory.

MK

You mean in the sense of being pioneers?

PT

I mean—in the private senses of the explorer—both violator and violated.

MK

People have written about the Family Album\ Kuspit I think, described it as an “ironical season in hell.”

PT

No, I think it’s more like “shootout in Valhalla!”

MK

Do you still continue to take photographs?

PT

I do. I take pictures still, but I haven’t been going back to photographs of the family with as much regularity. I did a ten year chunk from 1979 to 1990, the main body of which was in the mid 80s. I’m doing other kinds of photography now.

MK

Your photography seems ritualistic. What about religion? Does religion play any role in the formation of your imagery?

PT

Well, I wasn’t very religious growing up, but my mother was, so as a result I was dragged to church, and thank God, got to see a lot of pretty pictures. What I did like, though, was the decorativeness of the Greek church, the processions, the rituals, the gold, a lot of gold —some very nice icons too. I guess even more than the imagery of the church, it’s the power of the dogma in organized religion—that’s the lesson for the artist. The human need for direction and the tremendous power of persuasion operating at practically an occult level. The artist must find a way of converting this energy into art. I think Matthew Arnold said, “poetry would replace the chapel.”

MK

You mentioned rituals.

PT

Oh yes. rituals. Rituals are tribal

rights—simplified, they are routines. And routines are important.

In Christianity they require golden tools.

MK

Are you being facetious?

PT

No, what I mean is that guilded, shiny things augment arousal, as the be jeweled bracelet dazzles the barbarian.

MK

You mean you believe in the need for ornament?

PT

No, I mean I believe in the need for the unbelievable. That’s why we make pictures, icons or any creative act. It’s an attempt at touching wonder. We are all pushing the icon of the unknown.

MK

That seems to make itself visible in all sorts of work that you’ve done. You mention icons and there’s certainly a kind of rich, icon-like character in the Liquid Portraits.

PT

The Liquid Portraits have to do with my interest in photography and iconography—in the sense of the iconoclast. They are liquid personalities—portraits that emerge in the solution of painting —a cast of irregulars. They try to be their own terrible religion—as all artists try, however desperately, to make their scrawl a sect — of perhaps a slightly lesser worship.

MK

And the gold?

PT

Gold is the ultimate hagiographic background. The Byzantines used it to deify the saintly subject. Rivers of blood have been given for gold. The ancients, the conqista- dor, the commodities speculator have been blinded by it. The idea of gold is power—its a drug. My use of gold is particular—but I never stop being seduced by it.

MK

Well then, are these works portraits?

PT

Yeah, they’re animated psychological “others”, an extended psychic family. I collect masks, mostly Mexican. I like the idea of being able to tear away an identity only to find another probable mask. I think in the Liquid Portraits I do this. They are a mirror of faces from the occult to the cartoon.

MK

That would be out of your own psyche?

PT

Well, they come from some psychedelic somewhere! The history of painting is not a bad place to look, though. Just off-hand I think of Coptic heads, Bosch, Redon, the Fauves, Munch, Picasso, Dubuffet and...

MK

Jawlenski?

PT

Sure, Jawlenski. I like his work.

MK

Is there a certain painting tradition that intrigues you?

PT

Well, let me just say that for me, it’s the soul in the hand of the painter... that’s what interests me. So what I like least is painting that is highly stylized, mannered, an artifice created with an emphasis on technique. I like less Botticelli or Vermeer for instance, or Canaletto, Ingres or David than Caravaggio or Rembrandt or Goya. Not that they are not technically good, but what’s important to me is their raw soulful content—a depth that transcends skill. So their imperfections, their personalizations, that extra quotient, now become the norm for a new originality.

MK

So then Fragonard?

PT

Forget it!

MK

Pontormo?

PT

Non-importo!

MK

Picasso?

PT

Definitely In... And while you’re in the “p’s” also Pollock!

MK

We talked before about another “p” word, prudishness. Certainly your work is anything but that. Others have written about the extreme sensuality of the work both on a physical and a psychological level.

PT

I suppose I’ve always been, you know, a kind of contrarian, which means, automatically, I like to get the prudes.

MK

Well the Night Drawings start to probe into some territory which is...

PT

Obscene?

MK

Not obscene, but they are a little difficult for some. They also seem stylistically very tight, yet the subject matter is eerie and free.

PT

Yes eerie and very figurative. The Night Drawings are really obsessivt ly drawn dreams. They are the pi? cursors to the Liquid Portraits. I think what I like about being an artist and especially in these work is the freedom to investigate anything I feel, at any time, in any way. I’m not formally trained, so I don’t have any preconceptions as to how I should or shouldn’t go abom doing something. My educational background is very eclectic.

MK

Looking retrospectively at your work, there’s a real connectedness, it appears, between the very first photographs that become the Family Album and some of the subject matter in the topologies and morphologies and the ceramics. There’s something that ties them together. Yet they are quite different. Even your ceramic sculptures have a strong relationship to the objects in your Family Album.

PT

I think that’s true. I like variety.

I tend to be extremely varied in mj personal life too. I have a wide variety of friends. I can be talking on the telephone, painting several pictures, cooking soup for six and watching CNN. If you know how to focus, variety is a gift. I think my work exhibits a love of interests...

MK

But are they seriously related or are they distant cousins?

PT

Well, I think they are blood. Anyway, people have to get involved in the total information of what an artist says. I don’t offer a single solution in one work or an automatic signature—why should I? After all, I am enjoying the pleasure of discovering myself through image-making. And in the process a trail of information is left. The connections are there—sometimes they are gossamer other times as obvious as transatlantic cable. All you need to be is an entomologist or a deep-sea diver and you’re in business. Anyway, I’ve taken so many rejections and lumps, that it doesn’t seem to matter.

MK

I notice you come back to things. They appear in early works, and then a few years later, and then again.

PT

That’s a natural tendency. I didn’t realize how natural it was for an artist to do this, but as I see more artists’ work over a long period of time, I notice that they return to themes, original themes of making, doing and saying things. Writers, I’ve noticed, also return to things incumbent in their early work.

So it’s a natural kind of digression, you know. And it isn’t really a digression because you return to these subjects differently and with more control and with, I think, more to say.

MK

You mentioned something earlier that was interesting to me. There is

obviously a recognizable subject matter or content in your imagery. You talked earlier about dealing with formal issues of representation and abstraction. I’m not sure that that part of your work has been looked at.

PT

Well, if you look at my earlier work, it was about color, psychology and sex. Healthy nihilism. Natural things for a youngster—pressures —the kettle boiling—the cup runneth over, etc... As one develops, immediacy is less important. Playing with abstraction is understanding tonalities, moods—fog as opposed to lightning—foreplay.

The abstraction in my work is about layered meaning, it’s about hiding behind an older mask with an exotic patina. My subjects in the Topologies are still immediate. I think they are still very much about psychology, but they are perhaps whispering where earlier they might have been yodeling!

MK

One of your critics talked about your work as being kinds of private myths. I had not read that review before deciding to call your show Philip Tsiaras: Private Myths.

PT

Actually, that was the late Dale McConathy—he was a brilliant critic and historian. I was very moved by your choice of that title.

I felt it captured the essence of what I was trying to do. That is trying to imbue private things with a mystery that will live forever.

MK

There’s some transcendent quality.

PT

Yes, what the artist is doing is trying to transcend simply existing. For this he seeks a multiplicity of methods to get there, anything that can take him out of the measured and into the immeasurable. You see, he is trying to give life to. something, and this irreal birth creates myths, which then become part of a greater cosmic library of...

MK

Consciousness?

PT

Yes. Something like this.

MK

Joseph Campbell talked about the artist, whether poets or visual artists, as the mythmakers in that they are the true avant-garde of their time.

PT

I believe that’s true, but I think that there are other mythmakers. Einstein is an enormous figure of myth and a truly avant-garde mind. I still can’t understand relativity. But about my personal myths there is nothing I can give you but vague impressions. All I can say is there is excitement in an idea, there is pain and pleasure in the incubation of this thing inside you, and there is something dizzying in seeing it come through your hand onto a surface. This dark experience leaves all artists, no matter the importance of their myths, in amazement. I always feel when looking back at my work that I can’t believe...

MK

That it came out of you?

PT

Yes, it’s always bewildering.

MK

The idea of an artist as a mythmaker, and I again am borrowing from Joseph Campbells writings and lectures, the mythmaker/shaman is someone who can guide others to discover themselves by reaching inside to their innate abilities.

PT

I don’t think artists understand transcendence really. Only good essayists like Emerson do, but artists know it and are addicted to it nonetheless. The best artists are shamans, and the shamans create the darkest myths. They are witch doctors who can cure the whole tribe with a pork rind—I guess that would have to be Beuys. Anyway, myths and the idea of transcendence are different for different people. I’m reading Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia, who is a very intense feminist writer who says that man’s whole life experience is about projecting. Because he cannot conceive life, he projects outside himself—so he builds skyscrapers, makes wars, kills this and that. Anyway, she says this act of projection, which distinguishes men from women, is exhibited in the ability to urinate with accuracy. She calls this “the arc of transcendence.” (Laughter)

MK

While we are on the subject of writing, do you still write poetry?

PT

Yes I do. But it is more private an experience for me now. I suppose because I’m getting attention from painting I can be more guarded about my poetry. I would like to publish something now, but there is no rush.

MK

What first turned you on to poetry?

PT

I think I got an interest in poetry from my childhood. My father used to make me memorize poems and recite them to the guests.

MK

Classical poetry?

PT

No, Greek poems of the turn of the century. They were mostly patriotic poems, sort of anti-Turkish occupation poems. Through those poems, you know, I developed my ear for poetry and memorization. And actually that memorization served me well in music. I was much better at playing what I heard than reading what I saw. I was much better at mimicking a sound— somehow that must be in my painting—but where?

MK

Well in the White Paintings you introduce interactions between words and images. Maybe this is a way your memorization and love of language become integrated with painting?

PT

Maybe. I always hated what they did in the 70s in magazines, where a painting and a poem were juxtaposed on the same page. It was just amateurish. So, I was always looking for a way to combine my writing interest with painting. But I never could figure it out. Then I started doing a series of drawings called “writing heads” where I would make drawings out of handwriting without line, just handwriting. And little by little, as the

series got more involved, the wrii ing became more calligraphic, m open, larger, more graphic and\)i the end more unreadable, with tb exception of certain words. It wasn’t necessary to read anything because reading things meant h writing poems again, and after al I was now painting poems. I also discovered in making the Whitt Paintings fascinating relationship; between text, I mean, printed typ and script, my handwriting.

MK

Why white? What is the significance of white?

PT

Because white is a color of purification for me. It is also a color of intrigue or ambiguity—as in “whitewash”. White is pristineir meaning and intentionality. It is cool and eliminating. At a certain point I wanted to reduce the deci bel level of my painting. I wantec to rethink things, to clean house, so ergo...

MK

So the White Paintings are a kind self-editing process?

PT

Precisely. Kill your darlings, as Faulkner said, and Lord knows w all have to do it.

MK

I think the titles of your series ant especially of individual works are very interesting. They seem to combine your passion for languag with an acute sense of humor. What about titles?

PT

Well, more specifically, I think a question one might ask is— why title the works? You work very hard to produce a body of images. This is a non-verbal reality. Once you’ve baptized the beast, you’ve brought this thing into visual existence—you look at it for a long time. I think having done all that, you owe this work one more noble effort to call it something. I mean, if you have a child you don’t call it “untitled!”

MK

Well then, the Topologies, this is a tough title, and it is also work that departs from the stark white to rich layered color. I understand something about mathematics but never got as far as topology. It’s advanced math, something about measuring surfaces in space, very theoretical.

PT

Yes, and it’s exactly that aspect that interests me. Advanced mathematics, once you are beyond applied math, is very abstract. In a strange sense, figuration to abstraction requires this poetic leap. Advanced sciences become equally more abstract and mystical as they progress out of the answerable into the unanswerable, and here is where the occult, mysticism and science hear themselves passing in the night. There is wonderful information for the artist here and beautiful ideas, like Chaos Theory—or even simple entropy. The idea of calculating the random practically gives me an arousal! (Laughter)

But no, seriously, the word topology I use loosely as a point of departure. I mean, I arrived at the idea in various ways. I remember once while flying, the look of the landscape at 30,000 feet. Particularly in the Midwest where farm land is cut up into beautiful geometry, and

these round beigey-brown disks bump up against hard-edge green plots of probably corn for who knows how many hundreds of acres —it’s just marvelous. Getting glimpses of this through the clouds made me want to try to achieve that look on canvas. Abstractions that were both landscapes and dreamscapes seen through cloud cover. It was a challenge for me to try to float my subject, whether vase, head or plane and to achieve both the immediacy and depth simultaneously. I had to create an elaborate underpainting and a fluid technique through which I could puncture the picture-plane. The right surface, or topos, required layering.

MK

Are the War Puzzles also topologies?

PT

Yes, but rather than landscape they are airscape. Oddly enough, I wanted to investigate the airplane as a strictly formal object. You know, it’s basically a cross on tilt. Then the Gulf War broke out and I got very caught up in the coverage of it on television. The paintings of the planes changed in content.

They became more activated, they filled the air space, they became more militaristic. It was almost as though I was keeping a running diary of war in paint. The painting of the plane held some prophetic significance because I decided to make these plane paintings two weeks before any mention of the war. Then all of a sudden all hell broke loose.

MK

The scale of the War Puzzles, eleven feet square or so, gives a feeling of an attempt at epic. One feels at once dwarfed and empowered.

I know around the same time you started the ceramics. I’m curious to know how you made the jump from the colossus to the delicate casting.

PT

You know Michael, you’re beginning to sound like me. Scale, I guess, has never been a problem for me. In fact, I like very much to mix the sizes of works. Big helps me understand small. One thing I did feel though while making these large paintings was the feeling of an object missing in my hand. I was making these large vessel paintings, but was feeling deprived of their fleshiness. Then one day a friend took me out to Long Island to one of those local ceramic stores. It was one of those experiences where you’ve seen the buried treasure but don’t want to let on that you have—you kind of cover the map with your foot while no one’s watching. Here was a store with something like 40,000 molds of unbelievable variety—and their dense stacking on shelves gave me the idea for sculptures.

MK

They are a unique use of common material. I guess that’s why I feel they relate so directly to objects photographed in your Family Album.

PT

They do and don’t. The ceramics for me by-pass kitsch and go directly to jail without collecting $200! What I mean is, for me, they have more to do with Duchamp than they have to do with the idea of kitsch—or commentary on craft —or make an honest-dollar sculpture.

MK

Do you see the painting of the Vase Morphologies in the same way? 1 know that they are an out-cropping —a kind of study from the ceramic.

PT

One thing that working with ceramic did for me was give me a sense of the archaeological, as in a found ancient pot, and a respect for the infinite variety of the vase form. While making the ceramics I started a series, the Vase Morphologies, which were studies of the permutation of these forms. These studies gave me ideas for the structural changes and improvements of thel sculpture. What I couldn’t do in I clay became simple to achieve in the fantasy morphology. The group became independent of the sculpture and I’ve been making them I ever since, enjoying the idea and I the complexity of the vessel form.

MK

We’ve spoken about technique, although you say that it’s not important to you, your variety and skill with materials seems to belie this. Is there something more you'd like to say about it?

PT

Yes, I think technique is important but it’s not everything. Modern art has different parameters for judging quality. There is an emphasis on the personal, idiosyncratic way of rendering or designing a subject. For instance, with Matisse, there is a billowy colorful way of pumping out the subject, or with Picasso it's the genius of the confident line, with Dubuffet, the obsessive child's hand, with Van Gogh, an insane brush stroke, and so on. I think technique is important because one should be able to make something either beautiful or ugly in a compelling or dramatic sense, and this requires control. But beyond technique, what makes the artist for me is the personal. It’s that very peculiar, particular brush stroke or drawing line, or surface impasto, or color infusion, treatment of the nose or the eye, punctuation of space or that special something that makes their use of red, or their treatment of a fish or a fruit like other’s. The world is filled with a million, super-competent, academic draftsmen.

I believe what ultimately defines artists as great is an ability to internalize in a personal way the complexity of their time, and to mirror it in two dimensions. That personality is finally what you get when you go to the museum. It’s the personality that you’re left with. How big is the personality, how rare is the personality, how bizarre, complex, how deep is it? That’s what you’re left with. That’s what people don’t realize when they go to museums. They’re looking at the persona of the artist.

The artwork is just a footnote.

MK

Does it matter that you make art? PT

It matters to me. I think it matters to the people who believe in me, to my collectors, museums, to my mother. Yeah, it matters that I make art. I feel very at home as a painter. I feel natural in the world of my studio. I don’t think I really would want to do anything else. I have always known that I was going to do something creative. I feel it’s a privilege to be able to wake up, walk into my studio, and the only thing of importance after a cup of coffee is — what artwork am 1 going to make today ?