“Philip Tsiaras’ Elan” by Donald Kuspit

… my propensity for duality, a need to be formal in the
face of sensuality - like wearing a tie, I suppose, without
a pair of pants.

Philip Tsiaras

His perception is not unlike that of Tiresias who, having
been both man and woman, was asked by Hera which sex
has the most pleasure. For his impertinent and ambiguous
answer, Tiresias was blinded. Tsiaras seeks to supply a
multiplicity of answers to the riddle of existence. A Greek
born in America, he is beset by a plague of dualities, the
contradictory terms of which he has experienced directly
and expressed often obliquely in his work.

Dale McConathy

Philip Tsiaras’ images have the special elan of the irrational. They are spontaneous fantasies, seemingly effortlessly produced. Some very typical reality is transformed into something archetypal, into an eloquently irrational being, as though it could exist no other way. A face, a figure, a horse or an eccentric composite of them generates mythological creatures not unlike those in the ancient mythology of which Tsiaras, self-consciously Greek, is so conscious. While Tsiaras’ creatures seem susceptible to protean change-seem so ingeniously informal as to forever avoid conclusive formulation-they also seem comfortably inevitable. Sometimes there is high hilarity to their labile shape, as though Tsiaras was dancing the light fantastic with the formal features of his work, sometimes the shape seems more steady and sober, as though at last finding safe anchor, but there is always the sense that the artist is at home with its irrationality, as though to be irrational was the way to be.
The elan of Tsiaras’ images is comprehensible in terms of the notion of personal elan developed by Eugene Minkowski. Personal elan is rooted in the elan vital, immersed in irrational becoming. All that the self is personally is based on the impersonal elan vital. The sense of self I have is irrationally rooted in the waxing and waning of the life force in my being. The issue of Tsiaras’ art is how much his extraordinary elan is truly his own, how much it is general to life-how much he is master of it, and so of himself, or how much it is master of him. The issue of his art is how he relates to the elan vital which is its core. Is he swamped by it or does he ride its waves like an elegant dolphin-like the mythical boy on the divine dolphin? In a famous metaphor, Sigmund Freud compared the ego to the rider of a horse and the id to the horse, observing that the ego thought it was directing the horse, while in fact the horse was going where it wanted to go, with the rider deluding himself into believing that he was commanding it to do so. In view of the fact that the key to Tsiaras’ art (in my opinion) is his horse imagery-his identification with the horse-it seems appropriate to understand his art through this metaphor.
Tsiaras admits to the extreme-extravagant-sensuality of his art. I would like to call attention to the decorative character of this sensuality-the way Tsiaras brings out the inner sensual meaning of the decorative. Decorative abstraction has been an explicit ideal of art since Gauguin used it to articulate the self. Tsiaras’ images are a sum of decorative details that constitute a sensual world of their own, apart from the scene they present. The decorative is sensuality made into a code, creating the illusion that it is under control, when in fact it is in control. The decorative is sensual hunger stylized; it is the spontaneous mode of sensual expression, shaped into an aesthetic of desire. At the core of all desire is a hunger for sensual experience, revival-revivification- of the senses, the need to overcome their jaded-fatigued, unresponsive-condition. It is this need to feel sensually alive that forms the innermost world of the self. The decorative at its best makes this inner world seem magically immediate, directly manifest, available in non-symbolic terms-formal terms that seem innate to it, seem to epitomize its power of self-stimulation-self-renewal. Decorative form is the natural language of sensuality, and Tsiaras’ art is a manipulation of decorative language to bring out the fundamentality of sensuality. Optimally, the decorative is sensuality at its most spontaneous and irrational but also most deliberately focused-the strong current in a fast-moving, self-contained stream. The decorative is dynamic, but self-reflexive. It is the narcissistic art mode par excellence-as inherently narcissistic as only sensuality can be.
Tsiaras’ images are dream-like narcissistic fantasies. He has an amazing ability to follow the libidinous shape of the fantasy self through its metamorphic permutations. He makes us read every change in mood of his decorative language as a new intimation of narcissistic self. For him, the inherently abstract, vital language of the decorative is the elan vital at its most concrete-most personal. The narcissistic self seems bursting with elan, delirious with sensuality. The question is, how firm a sense of self can emerge out of this narcissistic delirium? How truly personal-the indication of an integral person-is it? Tsiaras’ images are deliciously Dionysian, full of irrepressible, unembarrassed, irresistible, irreducible sensuality. The question is, do they have Apollonian import? In one photographic work of the Stone Series, Tsiaras builds an image of the Parthenon out of biomorphically shaped, libidinously smooth stones, formed by the sensual flow of the sea. The Apollonian image of the rational building seems about to collapse, or at least appears highly unstable. It is a flawed vision constituted by fragments that do not add up to a unified whole. At any moment, the building, emblem of the heroic self, will disintegrate, and we will be left only with the sensual flow of the abstract, decorative stones. We will be stranded in an abstract, decorative sea.
Tsiaras’ fantasy images are, then, eruptions from that “dimension in depth” which Minkowski said “never allows us to know ourselves totally” but which “constitutes the base of our life,” that is, “the unconscious, that inexhaustible source of life, [which] palpitates always.” They are fraught with unconscious import, palpitate with primary process. The illusion that the artist has special access to the unconscious-that art is primary process thinking at its most obvious- and that he can reveal the narcissistic contents of the unconscious in a convincingly unmediated way, is an ambitious idea that has motivated much 20th century art. Tsiaras’ art can be understood under the auspices of this idea, but what is special about his art is that he pursues the idea with such unconscious vigor, which is probably responsible for the fact that his fantasy images seem like such “natural,” unforced emanations of the unconscious. They don’t have the stilted quality of so much Surrealist imagery, but a more casual-uninhibited, impulsive-look. Tsiaras doesn’t seem to have any censor-external or internal-to overcome.
As I have said, Tsiaras’ problematic is the ambiguous connection of his personal, self-conscious sensual elan to the sensuality and irrationality of the unconscious elan vital. This problematic is compounded by as well as reflected in the aesthetically ambiguous character of his images, hovering in a postmodern way on the border between representation and (decorative) abstraction. Indecisively one or the other-showing a linguistic undecidability that is the core of the deconstructive issue- Tsiaras’ depictions spontaneously combust into their decorative abstract elements. With its unresolved contradiction between recognizable public image of an officially great self (Lincoln) and a black gestural mess on a more expressively neutral blu ground, Target Dilemma (1986) succinctly epitomizes this dilemma of indecisiveness-indeterminacy. Tsiaras’ images lose all sense of preformation, predetermination. We are left with gestural flows, often linear, and sometimes informal to the point of formlessness. More often, there are random spottings of paint or ink, forming a mire of textural elements, a quicksand of intimate touches, a matrix for representation but in which none can exist securely. Tsiaras’ representations are necessarily “fantastic,” by reason of the disruptive undertow of this sensual substructure. The “dissolute” ground of the representation-its “musicality”-is not new in modern art, but Tsiaras realizes it with fresh intensity, especially in his sculpture. In such works as Drawing Monument, Improbable Chess Game, and Back To The Drawing Board (all 1986), we see the ironical play that results from the indeterminacy. Collage compounds, self-reflexively utilizing the artist’s drawing instrument, and figural in import or directly utilizing a figural emblem, they make it clear that Tsiaras wants to be everything at once-simultaneously representational and abstract, linear and painterly, monumental and intimate, figural and formal, three-dimensional and two-dimensional, object-like and pictorial. These works are madly self-contradictory, yet uncannily integral. And the ambiguity is another way of making the elan evident: the “collapse” of the work into indecisiveness is in a sense the deepest root of its elan.
In certain works the decorative ground is dominant, taking over the picture: a rhythmic formlessness holds sway. The picture becomes unequivocally abstract. This is especially the case in the Gold works, and to a lesser extent the Writing Works, even when the language is still nominally referential. More typically, an “informal” relation between representation and abstraction determines the picture, as in the Night Drawings, Liquid Portraits, and Horses. Certain works-such as the Alchemist images (1986)-show the decorative ground invading the depiction. In a sense, all Tsiaras’ works can be regarded as “alchemical”. That is, they convey an effect of enigmatic transmutation. This is a kind of epiphenomen created by the use of sensual abstraction to representational purpose.
Let us turn specifically to the issue of selfhood in Tsiaras’ art. While it is true that Tsiaras conveys a sense of personal vitality through his sensual decorative handling, certain works suggest his need to assert himself against the sensual flow, declare himself independent of it: to not let go entirely. Perhaps this is most clear in Portrait of the Artist as a Horse (1985). Here, Tsiaras identifies with the horse fragment that survives the flow (appropriately ambivalent in its light! dark bipolarity). The work is a statement of truncated-shipwrecked?-autonomy. Self-loss to sensuality is resisted, however partial the self that transcends it. It is significant that only the horse’s head remains, a survivor of the body presumably lost at sensual sea. The head is a kind of driftwood-a figurehead. The body is drowned in sensuality, but a figurehead, token, symbolic self-mind-remains. Tsiaras shows unexpected ego strength for a narcissistic sensualist. This figurehead self appears repeatedly in Tsiaras’ images. In the Liquid Portraits, for example, it is ambiguously one with the sensual sea, at once lost to it and its shocked survivor. The figurehead self is vitalized by irrational sensuality, but also threatened by it.
Tsiaras’ allegorical dramatization of the dialectic between self and sensuality epitomizes the general paradox of life. Personal elan is a form of the elan vital of unconscious sensuality, but complete abandonment to sensuality destroys the self. Up to a point the self is vitalized by deep sensuality; beyond that point, it sinks into the unconscious, never to return. It loses humanness-becomes animal. The horse expresses Tsiaras’ ambiguity about sensuality: it is both the vestige of his human self, and the epitome of his animal sensuality. The horse is almost completely consumed by the “cosmic flux” of the unconscious, lost in the oceanic matrix of its irrational sensuality. Yet the horse holds its head-barely-above the sensual liquid. Tsiaras holds his head high, whatever his body is doing. He keeps his head in the midst of sensual pleasure and pain. The figurehead self implies a certain detachment from sensuality in the very act of immersion in it. It implies recognition that the sensuality-so fluid, irrational-cannot be the ground of selfhood. Tsiaras’ symbolic representations of his person strike a balance between the powerful lure of sensual desire, making one the plaything of the depths, and self-assertion. This is perhaps most evident in the Family Album, where the comparatively frail looking, almost naked Tsiaras, shows himself simultaneously engaging and disengaging, identified and disidentified with, his gigantic mother figures, embodying solidified sensuality. These women could successfully cast for the roles of the demonic mothers in Goethe’s Faust II, where they are the most infernal, mysterious figures in the underworld. Indeed, Tsiaras’ Family Album is an ironical season in hell.
The universal unconscious-the elan vital-shows itself most succinctly and clearly in Tsiaras’ decorative ground of dots or spots, as I prefer to call them. Their studied informality suggests a relaxed yet insistent sensuality. For all their apparently impersonal character they are profoundly personal. Their sexual source has been disguised by their abstractness and decorative elaboration. They are an ironically direct sign of elan, both universal and personal, and in fact epitomize the innocent vitality that informs many of Tsiaras’ images. We have a clue to the vital nature of these magical spots in Stiff Horse and Sebastian (1983). The horse ejaculates through its erect penis: the spots are sperm. This is why they suggest sensuality so well. That the horse is the crucified saint’s forbidden penis-are his hands tied behind him to prevent masturbation?-is strongly suggested by the fact that the sperm droppings surround his body in a halo. He is fantasying an orgasm with his alienated penis. Abstinence is possible in theory, but not in emotional practice. In his fantasy of himself, the saint contradicts his asceticism: he is a sensual, masculine horse. And since the horse cannot touch its penis with its hooves, symbolic hands, the unexpected emission is more delirious and fantastic than it might ordinarily be. The halo of sperm spots forms an abstract ground in many works, the vital sensual ground with which the figure merges. The horse, with erection, appears elsewhere in Tsiaras, for example, in Fixation (Mum mist) (1985), where it takes nourishment from a giant nipple. In Bang (1985) the horse also ejaculates spontaneously, spotting the yellow ground with red sperm, as one might expect from a red-bodied horse. Franz Marc’s colorful horses have been given a fresh, extreme sensuality by Tsiaras. The casual, celebratory character of the free, unforced ejaculation-a gift of vitality to the world from the perversely sensual unconscious- typifies all of Tsiaras’ images. If all texture is ejaculative, then Tsiaras’ texture is overtly orgasmic. His spottings make this clear: they are his most climactic gestures. They are certainly a novel way of conceiving “process,” of being decoratively abstract. In certain works the spots acquire “streamers.” In the Writing Works the stream of words regressively becomes more flow than language. In various painterly works gesture “progressively” expands. Everywhere there is the sense that Tsiaras has spilled his surfaces; they are liquid elixir, playfully narcissistic. Ironical narcissism is, indeed, what Tsiaras’ art is about. His photographs make this self-evident. In them, he is the darling of his family, the idolized object of his mother and aunts. At the same time, their obviously staged character suggests Tsiaras’ amused detachment from them. The family is well-known as the most narcissistic little theatre in the world.
The narcissistic character of Tsiaras’ images is confirmed by the fact that the outline of his figures and faces is decoratively significant. It is as liquid-sensual, irrational-as the ground of the work. It is an osmotic sensual membrance, mediating between the personal sensuality of the figure and the sensuality of the field in which it exists, the way some rudimentary creature is kept alive in a culture plate. The contour is as strongly cathected as any of the abstract elements of the decorative ground. It contains the flow of the ground, but is perhaps its most subtly flowing part, a transient summary of its intensity.
Tsiaras’ art can be understood in the context of eighties’ neo-expressionistic/ neo-surrealistic figural art. But his images are neither as overtly violent as nor violative as such work, despite the fact that they are sometimes emotionally both. There is no malevolence to Tsiaras’ intensity, as there is in the many equally narcissistic images of the period. Tsiaras has a kind of sensual wonder, rather than sadomasochistic vehemence. His narcissism is not wounded and violent in compensation. The Liquid Portraits have certain affinities to Dubuffet’s early graffiti portraits, but Tsiaras’ personages look more perplexed than hurt. In a sense, Tsiaras dispenses with formality in a less self-conscious, labored way than Dubuffet. He is not interested in crudeness for its own sake, as liberating in itself. Tsiaras has titled one of his works Dispensing with Formality (1983), but one senses that he was very formal to begin with. Fixed geometrical forms are rendered by him in such a relaxed, even rhapsodic way, that they almost seem like fresh mysteries. His figures are as informal as liquid, even their outlines being as elusive. The bold lips and doubled eyes of many of them also suggest their loose character: they may spontaneously generate more features. Every part of the figure is open to transformation. Even color has a seductive, elusive character in Tsiaras’ images: reds as dense and as forward as lipstick and blue the color of the virginal, transcendent sky, sometimes darkened, yet both fluid, and made more so by the play of complementaries that often accompanies them. Tsiaras works and reworks primary colors-including the yellow of gold-to give them sensual body. They become lurid manifestations of the unconscious, elusive siren songs luring us into the depths.
The horse is perhaps the most fixed, stable body in Tsiaras’ work. In comparison all other bodies seem absurdly in flux. The horse, with whom Tsiaras identifies, as he acknowledges, often appears as a victim, or more precisely as a symbol of vulnerability. Tsiaras has shown me a photograph of a fallen horse, presumably dead. It is belly up, in a completely vulnerable position-its guts exposed. I suspect it is an image that drives him mad. The vulnerable horse reappears, in stylized, hieratic form-as though crucified on an invisible cross-in Chinatown Dilemma (1985). There, all white, it stands out of the lurid unconscious ground, a composite of various gestures and spottings. One recalls Nietzsche’s madness, which first disclosed itself in January 1889 in Turin. Seeing a coachman flog a horse, he rushed to the horse and collapsed with his arms around it. Nietzsche seems to have identified with the horse through his compassion for it.
The horse has always been a symbol of free, wild, sensual power, but also, ambiguously, of nature in the service of civilization. The horse can be domesticated, but there is always the sense that it can throw off its “civilization” without notice. Tsiaras responds not only to the horse’s victimization by civilization, but to its wildness. He also identifies with this, as a photograph of himself, naked and without a saddle on a wild horse, suggests. This photograph is accompanied by photographs of two sculptures of figures on rearing horses, and one of a sculpture of a figure on a bucking horse. Perhaps the story making the explosive phallic power of the horse most clear is D.H. Lawrence’s St. Mawr. Tsiaras identifies with the horse’s phallicness, the masculinity that seems the center of its being. It is important that the horse have a visible erection-assert its masculinity-for Tsiaras. The horse is Tsiaras’ assertion of his masculinity: his general sensuality resolves itself into a particular masculinity. Like the horse, the phallus is an ambiguously civilized animal, powerful yet vulnerable. Even being masculine and phallic, Tsiaras does not escape a sense of vulnerability.
The Horses are the psychologically crucial part of Tsiaras’ oeuvre, for they show him unequivocally masculine. Elsewhere he shows himself (in symbolic form) as indeterminately male/female-intensely erotic, but sexually indeterminate. This is of course typically narcissistic; in narcissism one experiences oneself as indifferently masculine and feminine, and simultaneously both. Even when Tsiaras renders a presumably female figure, as in China Doll (1985)-a Chinese girl with a punk style-it is impossible to tell whether it is truly female. It could be male. None of the customary signs are clear. (Sometimes Tsiaras’ horse also bespeaks his female side, as in Primal Bite (1986-87), suggesting just how labile his sexual identity is-how ready it is to regress to a general sensuality and come out on the other sexual side, as it were). This indeterminacy is not so much a hermaphroditic blending-union-of opposites, as an inability to decide which sex it is preferable to be. This is correlative with the “difficulties” Tsiaras has in differentiating the figure from the primordial flux of the unconscious ground. The ground confirms the figure’s narcissism, its sensual love of itself-its enchantment with its own sensuality. Tsiaras’ identification with the masculine horse is thus a triumph over his narcissism.
Tsiaras’ sexual ambiguity is inseparable from the sense of sensual ambivalence that pervades his works. He accepts a decisive code of sexual identity only through a transient identification with a socialized creature, which also suffers from the possibility of relapse to narcissistic nature. It is worth noting that Tsiaras’ anguish about perhaps having to support himself as a commercial artist, reflected in the Writing pictures, shows a similar ambiguity. There is an ironic sense of social serviceability-even an oblique critical parody of social reality-but also a seemingly free fall into narcissistic sensuality. This reflects the two sections of this catalogue. The Night Drawings through the Gold section, all emanating from a black ground, resonate with Tsiaras’ sensual narcissism. These are followed by works grounded in white-works with a certain ideological, even rational, character.
The works I like most-works which I think carry the elan of universal unconscious sensuality to new decorative heights, giving it a new abstract formulation-are images such as Monday Morning and Women and Their Love of Horses (both 1985). In them fragments of the face-eyes and lips (”mind and matter”)-are brought together in an abstract fantasy which verges on the manneristically emblematic, generating a feeling of uncontrollable uncanniness. These works function as abstract erotic icons. Their sensuality has been purified and acquires a meditational specificity, as much as any mantra. In the former work a tongue is fixed in a halo of lips, sun, and eyes, and surrounded by a blue mermaid breast. There is a large profile to one side and a tiny head centered at the bottom. In the latter work, giant red female lips, a row of eyes, a spotted horse and figural shadow, are firmly fixed in a blue frame. Tsiaras has articulated, with a concentration that seizes the complex unconscious moment, a sense of encompassing and entangling sensuality that is simultaneously primordial in feeling and artistically sophisticated. It is in the structured yet fluid ambivalence of such works that Tsiaras appears at his most esthetically memorable and emotionally vital.